On the River Nile, a Move to Avert a Conflict Over Water

Ethiopia’s plans to build Africa’s largest hydroelectric dam on the Nile have sparked tensions with Egypt, which depends on the river to irrigate its arid land. But after years of tensions, an international agreement to share the Nile’s waters may be in sight.

For thousands of years, Egyptians have depended on the waters of the Nile flowing out of the Ethiopian highlands and central Africa. It is the world’s longest river, passing through 11 countries, but without its waters the most downstream of those nations, Egypt, is a barren desert. So when, in 2011, Ethiopia began to build a giant hydroelectric dam across the river’s largest tributary, the Blue Nile, it looked like Egypt might carry out its long-standing threat to go to war to protect its lifeline.

But last weekend, all appeared to change. Ministers from Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan agreed on the basis for a deal for managing the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which would be the largest hydroelectric dam in Africa. So is peace about to break out on the River Nile? Longtime Nile observers are warning that a dispute that has lasted for a century may not end so easily.

Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam construction
A short section of the Blue Nile was diverted in 2013 as part of the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. WILLIAM LLOYD-GEORGE/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Some 8,000 Ethiopian construction workers are currently at work building the Ethiopian dam at a site close to where the Blue Nile crosses into Sudan, before joining the White Nile and heading on to Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea. The scheme currently is about a third completed. Ethiopia says the dam is essential to its own economic development, while Egypt has called for construction to halt.

It looked like a stalemate until Sudanese foreign minister Ali Karti emerged from a week of talks with his counterparts from Ethiopia and Egypt in Khartoum to declare that “a full agreement has been reached … on the principles of the use of the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.” The agreement would be submitted to their respective heads of state for approval, he said, calling it “the beginning of a new page in relations between our three countries.”

So far, so good. A water war seemed to have been averted. But Karti gave no further details of what the agreement contained. And analysts involved in the negotiations point out that secretive land deals for irrigation projects in Sudan could scupper the new accord.

It is hard to overstate the importance of the Nile to Egypt. The river is the only source of water for 40 million farmers irrigating their fields in a desert nation. Turbines in Egypt’s own barrier, the High Aswan dam, also generate electricity for portions of the country.

At a cost of almost $5 billion, the Renaissance Dam is a huge endeavor for a poor country.

But Egypt is at the bottom of the river. There are ten other nations further upstream, of which the largest is Ethiopia. A colonial-era treaty gives Egypt most of the river’s flow. But since it gives no upstream nations other than Sudan any share at all, those nations don’t recognize it.

A rival power with an even bigger dam upstream could be disastrous for Egypt, which, in the past, has threatened to go to war if Ethiopia ever barricaded the Nile. The threat worked until 2011. Then, at the height of the chaos of the Arab Spring, when the Egyptian government was preoccupied with its own survival, Ethiopia without warning began building what is set to be the world’s eighth largest hydroelectric dam. The question then became: How would Egypt respond?

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) will flood 1,700 square kilometers of forest and bush close to Ethiopia’s border with Sudan. The dam would more than double the country’s electricity generating capacity, leaving spare power to be exported to neighbors on a planned east Africa power grid. At a cost of almost $5 billion, it is a huge national endeavor for a poor country. To make the dream come true, civil servants in Ethiopia are being encouraged to devote at least a month of their wages every year to buying bonds to help fund the project.

“GERD is part of a larger social movement against poverty,” says Mulugeta Gebrehiwot, a former military and political leader in Addis Ababa, who is now a fellow at the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University. “It has a symbolic impact in demystifying the fight against poverty — even a shoeshine boy can take part in building it by contributing coins and buying bonds that start at five U.S. dollars.”

Some of the hopes may be far-fetched. The dam will have turbines capable of generating 6,000 megawatts of power, making it Africa’s largest hydroelectric project. But outside experts believe it will rarely be able to generate so much, because there will not be enough water flowing in the river. One said: “They will only be able to get 6,000 MW for 1 percent of the time; 3,000 MW would have been better.”

Grand Renaissance Dam map
Ethiopia’s Renaissance dam is being built near its border with Sudan. WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/YALE E360

The Ethiopian government says the dam is no threat to Egypt. It is a hydroelectric dam, designed to catch water and pass it on downstream through turbines. The country has no plans to divert water for irrigation, the government says. But one American expert on the Nile — who spoke last week on condition of anonymity, since he was advising all sides in the talks — warned that Egypt has two reasons for concern.

The first concern is short-term: What happens while the reservoir behind the dam is being filled? The dam will be able to hold back more than a year’s flow of the Blue Nile as it leaves Ethiopia. In theory, while filling the reservoir for the first time, Ethiopia could cut off the entire flow for that year. Even filling over five years would significantly impact Egypt, especially if they are dry years.

Yale Environment 360 has learned that the preliminary agreement reached in Khartoum last week sets rules for how quickly Ethiopia can fill the dam. It also appoints independent consultants to arbitrate on key technical issues. A previous international panel of experts, appointed with the approval of Ethiopia, had reported in 2013 that there were numerous gaps in the hydrological analysis of the impact of the dam downstream.

The second concern for Egypt is that the dam will allow Sudan to massively increase the amount of water that it can take out of the river for irrigation. This is because most of the Blue Nile’s flow comes in a few weeks of the year, after monsoon rains in the Ethiopian highlands. Sudan’s own dam on the Blue Nile, the Roseires dam, is small and only provides water for a few months, says Alex de Waal of the World Peace Foundation, who is an expert on Sudanese hydro-politics. But the Ethiopian dam will deliver a year-long flow downstream through its turbines and across the border. With that, Sudanese farmers will be able to abstract water for year-round irrigation of crops. “The Sudanese government is already selling land leases for new farmland that will be irrigated when the Grand Renaissance Dam is completed,” says de Waal.

If that happened, less water would end up flowing through Sudan and on into Egypt. That would mean less irrigation water for Egyptian farmers and less hydroelectricity for its cities. It is unclear whether the new agreement made last week addresses this issue.

There are 11 nations along the Nile’s banks, but no agreement on sharing its waters.

The disputes between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia over the waters of the Blue Nile are only part of the problem on the Nile. There are 11 nations along the river’s banks, but no agreement on sharing its waters. The only treaty was created by the British when they still held sway in the area. The 1959 Nile Waters Agreement allocated 55.5 cubic kilometers to Egypt, 18.5 cubic kilometers to Sudan — and none to anyone else. Unsurprisingly, those upstream nations excluded from the share-out do not accept the validity of the treaty.

In 2010, five of them — Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, and Tanzania — signed the Entebbe agreement, calling for a redistribution of the waters to include them. Burundi later also joined. But Egypt and Sudan rejected the call. (Apart from Ethiopia, all these nations are along the river’s second major tributary, the White Nile. This smaller, though longer, tributary rises in the highlands of central Africa, before collecting in Lake Victoria and flowing north through South Sudan to Sudan, where it joins the Blue Nile at Khartoum.)

These upstream countries see Egypt taking the great majority of the Nile’s flow. In fact, Egypt currently takes even more water than it is entitled to under the 1959 agreement. This is because Sudan, having never built enough dams to capture its allocated flow, takes only 12.5 cubic kilometers, or two-thirds of its entitlement. Every year, Egypt tops up its official entitlement by taking the other third, which amounts to 6 cubic kilometers. But, thanks to the Renaissance dam, Sudan could soon be abstracting its full entitlement and potentially much more. So Egypt’s days of relying on most of the Nile’s water reaching its territory could be numbered.

But as the most populous nation in North Africa, Egypt won’t give up easily. And here a new actor joins the story: the new state of South Sudan.

When the 1959 treaty was signed, Sudan was a single country. But in 2011 it divided in two. The new state of South Sudan occupies a long stretch of the White Nile. Yet bizarrely, when the two countries divided, no mention was made of whether or not South Sudan should get a share of the 1959 treaty rights to the Nile’s flow. “The cooperation agreements between Sudan and South Sudan covered just about everything, but not the Nile waters,” says de Waal.

Climate modelers are uncertain how climate change might affect the Nile’s flow in the future.

So Egypt has spotted a chance. Last November, it signed an agreement with South Sudan “to develop water resources in the South Sudan state and a joint cooperation strategy that would preserve the historic right of Egypt.” This is being interpreted as encouraging South Sudan to assert its entitlement to a share of the Nile, which Egypt would then buy from the new nation.

Central to the plan, according to de Waal, is reviving an old engineering project to increase the flow of the White Nile by diverting it away from the Sudd swamp in South Sudan. The Sudd is one of Africa’s largest wetlands and a conservation jewel, rich in crocodiles and hippos. But from its shimmering surface, covering 30 times the area of the Florida Everglades, an estimated four cubic kilometers of water evaporates each year.

Back in the 1970s, engineers started digging a 260-kilometer canal to bypass the swamp and “save” the water. Digging of the Jonglei Canal was abandoned in 1984 after rebels from South Sudan attacked the contractors’ camp. The local Dinka people said the canal cut them off from dry-season pasture in the Sudd. The canal became a central issue in the long civil war that eventually ended in South Sudan’s independence in 2011. But now Egypt wants to join with the South Sudan government to complete the canal.

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While nations argue about who should have what proportion of the Nile’s flow, it is unclear how much flow there will be in the future. Climate change could drastically change its flow. But climate modelers cannot figure out how. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has reported that different model projections for the Nile for later this century range from 30 percent more water to 78 percent less.

But for the moment, that remains a sideshow. For the good news is that after years of saber-rattling by his predecessors, Egypt’s new president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, suddenly seems intent on reaching an accommodation with Ethiopia over the Nile. If he is serious, it could open up the prospect of a new, comprehensive agreement on sharing the waters of the Nile among all 11 nations along its banks. But if he is not, then the filling of the reservoir behind Grand Renaissance Dam, which is likely to begin sometime before the end of the decade, could be the most dangerous flashpoint yet on a lawless river.