Ethiopia’s prime minister caused a stir in late August when he told reporters that the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam—a linchpin in the country’s economic development plans—may never be completed. Abiy Ahmed blamed a military-run company contracted to build the dam’s electromechanical and hydraulic steel structure, terminating its contract days later. Downstream, officials in Egypt hope that the filling period for the dam will be delayed and extended as long as possible. Yet delaying the GERD filling will not by itself solve Egypt’s challenges with water usage and availability, as shown by its recent efforts at water reforms and a recently announced four-point plan to mitigate water scarcity. The dam and the security challenges it presents underline the need for improved water management and continued support from international actors such as the United States with considerations of environmental impacts on security. The situation is also a harbinger of trends of increasing water scarcity due to climate change worldwide, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa.
In the post-colonial era, many countries in the Middle East and North Africa sought to attain food security and development through domestic agriculture and greater self-sufficiency in food production. Yet this has led to the unsustainable consumption of a vast majority of water resources in these countries by agriculture. Even though Egypt historically has the lion’s share of Nile water, according to the 1959 Nile Waters Agreement and prior colonial-era arrangements with the British, the country has a freshwater withdrawal rate of 126.6 percent of total renewable water resources, meaning that the country is consuming water faster than it can be replenished naturally. Much of Egypt’s territory is considered to have extremely high water stress, which is characterized by a water withdrawal ratio of 80 percent or more; moreover, significant portions of those areas are projected to become extremely or exceptionally more stressed by 2025, meaning that they are expected to experience the same level of water stress as those experiencing extreme drought. Moreover, Egypt is still not food-sufficient and until this year was the world’s top importer of wheat.
This means that, even if Ethiopia fills and begins operations at the GERD and reduces Egypt’s share, the country’s current usage of water is unsustainable, as Egyptian officials acknowledge. Moreover, the scope of the problem extends beyond water availability. Water pollution from industrial, municipal, and agricultural sources exacerbates scarcity, urbanization deteriorates the quality of agricultural land, and climate change leads to sea-level rise and saltwater intrusion. The Nile Delta—Egypt’s agricultural heartland—has been found to be among the regions in the river basin that are most sensitive to the effects of climate change. As the sea level rises, some Egyptians in Alexandria have already been compelled to leave their homes.
Egypt’s government has taken steps in the past year due to the necessity of water reforms. It cut the land allocated for rice production by over a third. Agricultural officials have suggested cultivation of quinoa and other alternatives to rice because they are less water-intensive and more resilient to saltwater intrusion, which is increasingly being observed in the Nile Delta. Egypt has also approved an agreement with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) for up to $50.85 million in funding for water and sanitation activities aimed at boosting water security. In October, the Ministry of Irrigation and Water Resources hosted the first Cairo Water Week in order to discuss water scarcity from environmental threats and the GERD. Meanwhile, as part of the larger economic reform program, the government has introduced new water tariffs scaled according to consumption. Yet, as with larger market reforms, serious concerns remain over disproportionate effects of such measures on poor Egyptians—those often most vulnerable to climate change in the first place.
The GERD has been a dramatic reversal of geopolitical power dynamics in the Nile Basin, granting leverage to upstream countries that, as a matter of policy, had long been denied. The 6,000-megawatt dam could provide a source of inexpensive electricity. Sudan, for example, expects to benefit from the electricity and flood regulation that the dam would provide. Even Egypt could potentially reap rewards, in the context of net water savings from the dam harnessed from greater capture of rainfall, reduced evaporation, and reduced sediment, as well as from water storage in cases of drought. However, in the Egyptian view, the risks outweigh the potential benefits, leading to Egyptian efforts to delay the operation of the dam. Egypt worries that a significant share of the Nile could be used not for hydropower, but for irrigation. Ethiopia is believed, like other countries in Africa, to have unlocked agricultural potential due to unused fertile and rain-fed land, and has attracted trade ties and agribusiness investment from countries looking to boost their own food security, such as the Persian Gulf states.
Yet while Egypt stands to lose the most from an operating GERD, it is not alone in its water concerns regarding the Nile. Despite being considered the world’s longest river, the Nile is threatened by growing urban populations, environmental pollution, and climate change. More than 80 percent of Nile water is fed by Ethiopia’s rains, but the rainy season is changing—becoming increasingly volatile and unpredictable, and affecting rural populations in the entire basin. Sudan is facing increased temperatures, unusual rainfall, and more frequent droughts, dust storms, and flooding, resulting in land degradation and desertification. The dam is seen by Sudan and Ethiopia to be a solution to some of those chronic problems.
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El Sisi previously described Egypt’s share of the Nile as “a matter of life or death,” and earlier this year asked Ethiopia’s prime minister to promise to preserve Egypt’s share. Despite the tense rhetoric, which has since cooled considerably, it seems unlikely that tensions over the Nile will ultimately boil over in the world’s first “water war.” Historically, water disputes have resulted in international cooperation far more often than conflict. Moreover, the U.S., Chinese, and Gulf military and economic presence in the Horn of Africa indicates that there are international interests in that region. Competing agendas of these actors may exacerbate tensions, but these countries may also play roles in diffusing them, as shown with the recent rapprochement between Ethiopia and Eritrea, in which the United Arab Emirates was heavily involved.
Yet the GERD and water concerns in Egypt and the Nile Basin do not have to culminate in an interstate “water war” to represent security concerns for these countries and, by extension, the international community. The steps taken by Egypt and international support that help Egypt more efficiently irrigate water and exploit treated wastewater (like through initiatives such as the World Bank’s Farm-level Irrigation Modernization project) are crucial for its environmental and economic security; so is cooperation, rather than conflict, with upstream Nile neighbors. As the recent drinking water shortages throughout Egypt have shown, water scarcity poses a serious challenge—but so do solutions such as liberalized water prices and limitations set on crops on which the livelihoods of farmers and their families depend. As the U.S. has taken a transactional approach to foreign aid, it is increasingly important to alleviate stresses on resources that sustain livelihoods of people in developing countries such as Egypt. These stresses, when compounded with others—such as human rights abuses, income inequality, and corruption—can be potential drivers of conflict in Egypt, the region, and the world.