Who Owns The Nile? Egypt, Ethiopia And The Struggle To Share Resources

Written by Dana Sanchez

Everyone learns at school that the Nile is the longest river on Earth. Fewer people know that 90 percent of the Nile’s volume comes from the Ethiopian highlands, and that the river passes through 11 countries.

It’s only recently that humans had the technology to measure the flow of rivers. For uncounted eons, the Nile flowed to Egypt in uncounted quantities, Daniel Pipes said in a guest column in the WashingtonTimes.

Pipes is president of the Middle East Forum, a U.S. conservative think tank he founded in 1990.

The Ethiopians recently woke up to the fact that vast quantities of water leave their territories without any benefit to themselves, according to Pipes. They initiated a network of dams culminating with the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

The successful completion of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam should be a momentous event — not only for Ethiopia, but all of Africa. It will be the largest hydroelectric project in Africa, StanfordDaily reported.

The dam is expected to produce 6,000 megawatts of electricity, more than doubling Ethiopia’s present capacity for generating power. This should improve the standard of living in Ethiopia, but Egyptians see it differently. The Nile has played a central role in their history for thousands of years.

A brief recent history of Egypt and Ethiopia sharing the Nile

In 1929, the British government, representing Egypt, signed an agreement with the independent government of Ethiopia guaranteeing an annual flow of 55.5 billion cubic meters of water to Egypt, according to Pipes. It amounted to a minimum of 1,000 cubic meters per capita per year (the average worldwide is 7,230 cubic meters). At the time it was more than enough for then-15-million Egyptians.

Fast forward 87 years, and Egypt’s population increased sixfold to 90 million. In addition to the Nile’s 55.5 billion cubic meters, Egypt gets about 5 billion cubic meters from non-renewable underground sources and 1.3 billion cubic meters from rain, for a total of 62 billion cubic meters a year — a third less than its minimal needs. Egyptians recycle about 10 billion cubic meters of agricultural runoff water, but it’s polluted with fertilizer and insecticides. The country’s high temperatures lead to higher rates of evaporation, requiring more water for agriculture than cooler places.

The result? Egypt has to import food. With the population forecast to grow to 135 million by 2050, it will need 135 billion cubic meters annually. The water deficit will more than double to 75 billion cubic meters.

The plan is for the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam to hold 74.5 billion cubic meters. About 5 billion cubic meters will be lost to evaporation and another 5 billion to seepage, according to Pipes. Four auxiliary upstream dams will hold another 200 billion cubic meters. If 86 percent of Egypt’s water originates in Ethiopia, Egyptian specialists who did the math concluded that the allotted 55.5 billion cubic meters won’t arrive.

The dams are risking the lives of 90 million Egyptians, said Nader Noureddin, professor of soil and water sciences at Cairo University.

Ethiopia says everything’s going to be OK. The promised allotment will reach Egypt and then some. Egypt protests. Ethiopia agrees to one study after another, even as it furiously rushes to complete the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, scheduled to begin operating in 2017 with an initial 14 billion cubic meters of water stored.

At the root of the Nile River confrontation are interpretations of water possession, Pipes said. Upstream countries like Ethiopia say the water belongs to them the same way that oil belongs to the Arabs. Downstream countries like Egypt point to the immemorial nature of rivers flowing across borders.

There is no right or wrong, Pipes said. Resolution will require creative compromise that allows Ethiopians to benefit from their water without destroying Egyptians. An example, according to Pipes, might be lowering the height of Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam saddle dams.

Since its inception in 2011, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam has been the subject of much controversy, especially among Egyptian politicians, StanfordDaily reported. In 2013, Egyptian officials famously discussed plans to sabotage the dam, thinking that their conversation was private.

Short term, Pipes said statesmen are needed to prevent disaster. Long term, Egyptians need to learn how to better manage water.