A water war on the Nile?

The probability of the next world war being over water is increasingly becoming a reality as climate change and the population explosion continues to impact on available water sources.

Tensions around water are no greater than in Africa, and particularly around the world’s longest river, the Nile.

Unless Ethiopia can agree on a deal with Egypt and Sudan, a new dam on the Nile could generate a war over water.

Talk of building a huge dam on the Blue Nile has been discussed for many years, but when Ethiopia started to build the gigantic Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), other issues had the region’s focus – such as the Arab Spring.

GERDThe contentious Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is set to improve Ethiopia’s power generation, but Egypt is concerned about the flow of water in the Nile being regulated by Ethiopia.
Image credit: HydroWorld

Ethiopia seeks to transform itself into a middle-income country, and so its electricity demands have increased in the wake of multiple industrial parks being constructed.

Touted as Africa's largest hydroelectric power station and one of the world's largest dams, GERD will provide the much-needed power, with 85% of the river originating from the Ethiopian highlands.

Further downstream Egypt however, is concerned its neighbour has the capability to control the flow of the river.

“It's one of the most important flagship projects for Ethiopia,” says Seleshi Bekele, Ethiopia’s Minister for Water, Irrigation and Electricity.

"It's not about control of the flow but providing an opportunity for us to develop ourselves through energy development. It has a lot of benefit for the downstream countries."

Sudan, on the other hand welcomes GERD’s development, just a few kilometres from its border, with pylons already in place, waiting for the power generation to begin.

Another thing about dams though, is that they also regulate the flow of the river.

Presently, the difference between high water and low water level in Sudan is 8m, and that makes its vast irrigation projects difficult to manage. With the dam built however, the difference will be 2m and the flow of the river will come year-round.

The UN predicts that Egypt will start suffering water shortages by 2025 and Egypt's minister of water resources and irrigation, Mohamed Abdel Aty, is not happy.

He points out that with a population of about 100 million, if the water is reduced by 2% Egypt is set to lose about 200 000 acres of land, impacting on domestic economies and incurring job losses.

While the concern is not around consumption – hydroelectric power stations do not consume water – it is the speed with which Ethiopia fills up the dam that will affect the flow of water downstream.

They would like the water to be generating power as soon as possible, but it should take time to fill up a reservoir which is going to be bigger than Greater London and will flood the Nile for 250km upstream.

If it is filled over six or seven years it won't have a major impact on the water level. However, if it is filled within three years the level of the river will be affected.

MAP© BBC A map showing Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia and their capitals.

Talks between Egypt and Ethiopia are strained, and Sudan and Egypt are also in discussions over how much water Sudan uses - and how that amount may increase when the dam is finished.

Ethiopia is taking its lead form Egypt which, ironically, built the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s, then deemed a proud national achievement, for a revolutionary post-colonial country.

While GERD funding is coming directly from Ethiopia – who wants to pay for this project itself without international help – annually, government workers are grudgingly giving a month's salary to the project.

There is also a lottery to fund the dam and bonds are being put up for sale.

Presently, after five years GERD is two-thirds finished, already crossing the river.

Diplomacy and collaboration are the only means of resolving this issue, other than Egypt taking military action, which would be extreme.

Maybe a resolution between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt would serve as an example of how to resolve complex disagreements over water and avert a water war?


 

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