Controlling the flow: how Ethiopia quietly took charge of the Nile

Water dam with boat in front

Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is a game-changer for the region's water supplies

For many governments, ensuring the quality and supply of drinking supplies for their expanding human populations is an increasing cause for concern. Could the first conflict over water arise between nations along the River Nile?

The largest and most demanding of these is Egypt, which the ancient Greek writer Herodotus famously described as “the gift of the Nile.” Every year, for thousands of years, the river flooded the land, bringing rich silt in which crops could thrive. Images of the early kings of Egypt show them inaugurating irrigation systems to distribute the life-giving flood water before it receded. Most years, there was an agricultural surplus and the population prospered.

It was the River Nile, then, that enabled Egypt to grow into the wealthiest and most envied nation in the ancient world. Today, 5,000 years after the first depictions of pharaohs exerting their control over the nutrition-rich flood, another regional power is claiming control of the Nile; and Egypt watches its actions with concern.

Back in 2011, when the youth of Egypt were occupying Tahrir Square and demanding an end to the regime of President Hosni Mubarak, it’s unlikely that the simultaneous launch of a major Ethiopian dam project on the Blue Nile was a priority for the Egyptian government.

Nearly ten years on, however, with the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam well on its way to completion despite obstructions and delays, it looks as though the timing was no coincidence. Egyptians are finally facing up to the realities of what this new dam will mean for their own country. There’s little cause for optimism, either.
Sailingboat on the nile

Firstly, there’s the sheer scale of Ethiopia’s dam, scheduled for completion in 2022. It will rank seventh in size globally, as well as being the largest provider of hydroelectric power on the continent of Africa. Egypt’s own High Dam at Aswan was built to do the same thing, of course, to control the Nile and provide an electricity supply for the nation. Its construction was perhaps even more controversial at the time, provoking an international effort to save some of the iconic monuments of Nubia before the rising waters drowned them forever.

As Egypt is the last country through which the majestic Nile flows, however, there was no other nation downstream of the Aswan Dam to be affected. Ethiopia’s GERD dam, on the other hand, will inevitably impact Egypt, as well as Sudan, which is situated between the two nations and is the place where the White and Blue Niles meet and merge.

Surely treaties exist between the three countries relating to the use of water? Indeed, they do. Under long-standing agreements dating back to 1929 and 1959, Egypt lays claim to 55.5 billion cubic meters of Nile water each year. Sudan’s claim is for 18.5 billion cubic meters annually.

In fact, the two main issues from an Egyptian perspective are, firstly, that Ethiopia went ahead despite the fact that the existing agreements state that Egypt has a right of veto over any proposals relating to the river. Secondly, and possibly of greater concern, is the lengthy period of time that will be required to fill the giant dam once it is finally finished.

Egypt fears that, during the three years Ethiopia says it will take to fill the dam, it will suffer water shortages. With most of Egypt’s water coming from the Nile, and 80 percent of that from the Blue Nile, the prospect is causing genuine alarm. Sudan, in the middle of a potential dispute, is currently supporting Ethiopia.

The problem is that Egypt is already on the verge of water poverty by UN standards, with a provision of 660 cubic meters per capita each year – and a growing population. It’s already an issue, despite the efforts of President El-Sissi to reduce water use even further while still increasing agricultural yields.

While the consequences of any possible water shortages to Egypt are indeed dire, it's also the fact that Egypt no longer controls the Nile. Ethiopia’s looming 510 foot high, 5,840 foot long dam could bring that supremacy to an end.

Although Ethiopia seeks to reassure its downstream neighbors about the benefits of the dam, Egypt greets each new hold-up with relief and fresh calls to rethink the project. One thing seems certain. If conflict does arrive, it will be within years, not decades.



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