Gwynne Dyer: Egypt's impending Nile water shortage

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      All students of geopolitics are familiar with the legend that Egypt has privately warned all the governments upstream on the Nile that it will start bombing if they build dams on the river without its permission. The truth of that story is about to be tested.

      Last month Ethiopia started diverting the waters of the Blue Nile in order to build the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a $4.7 billion, 6,000-megawatt hydroelectric project that is the centrepiece of the country’s plan to become Africa’s largest exporter of power. Egypt instantly objected. “We have a strong legal case to insist that our share of the Nile water is preserved,” said an anonymous government sourcebut he didn’t mention bombers. 

      Egypt depends utterly on irrigation water from the Nile to grow its food. Even now there is not enough (it already imports almost 40 percent of its food), and Egypt’s population is still growing fast. If the amount of water coming down the Nile diminishes appreciably, Egyptians will go hungry.

      A treaty signed in 1929 gave 90 percent of the Nile’s water to the downstream countries, Egypt and Sudan, even though all the water in the river starts as rain in the upstream countries: Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania. It seemed fair at the time: the 20 million people in the downstream countries depended heavily on irrigation, while the 27 million in the upstream countries had plenty of rain-fed land and hardly irrigated at all.

      Things have changed since then. According to the International Data Base of the U.S. Census Bureau, there are now six times as many people in the Arabic-speaking countries downstream, and eight times as many people in the African countries upstream. Egypt is using all of its share of the waterand the upstream countries are starting to use the water for irrigation too.

      The Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is the first real test of Egypt’s tolerance for upstream dam-building. The reservoir will take 63 million cubic metres of water to fill; Egypt’s annual share of the Nile’s water is 55.5 million cubic metres. So even if Ethiopia takes five years to fill the reservoir, that will mean 20 percent cuts in the water Egypt receives from the Nile for five years. And even after that there will be a large annual loss to evaporation.

      This dam is just the start. Ethiopia plans to spend a total of $12 billion on dams on the Blue Nile for electricity and irrigation, and Uganda is negotiating with China for financing for a 600-megawatt dam on the White Nile. More dams and irrigation projects will followand the upstream states are in no mood to let Egypt exercise its veto under the 1929 treaty.

      That treaty was imposed when all the countries involved except Ethiopia were under British rule, and it reflected Britain’s big investment in Egypt. In 2010 six upstream countries (including Burundi and Rwanda) signed a Cooperative Framework Agreement to seek more water from the Nile, effectively rejecting the colonial-era treaty and demanding that Egypt relinquish its veto and accept a lower water quota. 

      That’s not going to happen. Mohammed Allam, Egypt’s minister of water resources under President Hosni Mubarak when the upstream states signed their agreement three years ago, warned that “Egypt reserves the right to take whatever course it sees suitable to safeguard its share.”

      His country sees the matter as a national security issue, Mohammed Allam said: “Egypt’s share of the Nile’s water is a historic right that Egypt has defended throughout its history.” The post-revolutionary Egyptian government under President Mohammed Morsi cannot afford to be less firm in defending Egypt’s interests.

      The issue will probably be kicked down the road for a couple of years, because the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam will not be completed until 2015 at the earliest. But there is big trouble for Egypt (and Sudan) further down the road.

      By 2025, a dozen years from now, Egypt will be trying to feed 96 million people, which would be very hard even with its existing giant’s share of the Nile’s water and all its current food imports. The countries that signed the Cooperative Framework Agreement will have 300 million people, so by then they will also be extracting very large amounts of water from the Nile Basin for irrigation.

      Without that water, Egypt’s only options are beggaring itself with massive food imports (until the foreign exchange runs out altogether) or famine. Unless, of course, it decides on warbut its options are not very good on that front either.

      Not only are the upstream countries a very long way from Egypt (the Nile is the world’s longest river), but they will have strong support from China, which is financing most of the dams they are now building or planning.

      Egypt, by contrast, has repudiated its former American ally, and may find that the U.S. is reluctant to re-engage even if the government in Cairo can overcome its own distaste for Washington. Why would the United States want a confrontation with China over Egypt?

      So there probably won’t be a war. And Egypt will probably face an apocalyptic food shortage in 10 or 15 years.




      Jun 3, 2013 at 12:18pm

      And when Egypt collapses due to famine, it will become a vassal state of Israel.

      gilbert marks

      Jun 3, 2013 at 1:18pm

      China will be happy to sell them nuclear power plants at a fraction the cost of hydro, and with none of the massive GHG spewing worse than coal from rotting vegetation that originates with tropical Hydro.


      Jun 3, 2013 at 1:45pm

      Two things that most arab states have in abundance is sun shine and access to sea water, instead of relying on unpedictable fresh water sources, why not invest in desalination technology that can can be powered by solar to supplement their fresh water. Im not jus talking about egypt but also the rich arab states.


      Jun 3, 2013 at 4:40pm

      Gilbert Marks: if nuclear is cheaper than Hydro would you mind explaining to me why power is so much more expensive in Ontario (50% of its electricity is from nuclear power) than in Quebec (95% of its electricity comes from hydro)? As for the GHG, I am afraid that you are comparing apples and oranges: the total quantity of GHG produced by a dam, *in relation to the total amount of power produced*, is trivial compared to what any fossil fuel power plant produces.

      Zmc: desalination technology has one major problem: it is VERY energy-intensive. And Egypt is also a net energy importer.

      Frankly, I hate to say this, but Gwynne Dyer is right. I see no way out of it: Egypt will collapse within the next two decades. The equation is stark: Growing population + food importer + energy importer + lack of exports which would allow it to pay for the imported food and energy + diminishing capacity to produce food = collapse.

      As the saying goes, if a trend cannot continue indefinitely it won't. Egypt is on a trajectory which cannot continue for much longer.

      ontario vs quebec

      Jun 3, 2013 at 11:14pm

      One word etienne - privatize.

      Yup Mike Harris did it so now a good part of Ontario's energy production is private. Bruce Power is a good example.

      Public power finances at 3% per annum, private at 15%. Since most of the cost of power is capital, it makes IPP's like Bruce very expensive producers.

      Hydro worse than coal per kwh Yup


      Jun 4, 2013 at 7:38pm

      The rapid increase in desalination and solar technologies may put your prediction to the test. Dubai, which is in a similar if not exact circumstance as Egypt is investing heavily in Desalination Plants and Solar Power. There is a point (And we are close to reaching it) where it IS cost effective to desalinate using solar arrays and other low cost power technologies to obtain fresh drinking water/irrigation.

      They still have a population problem tho..


      Jun 4, 2013 at 11:46pm

      The dam brings up a lot of issues and opportunities which requires a more mature dialogue looking to science and human dignity on both sides to resolve fully. Based on Morsi's cabinet meeting leak, the conversation is lacking maturity and depth.

      Another Ethiopian

      Jun 5, 2013 at 4:00am

      This article is a bit biased and only talks about Egypt's concerns. What about Ethiopia?
      -Ethiopian population(84.7) is larger than that of Egypt(82.5)
      -Egypt has other options such a getting water from Congo [the great Congo river] and desalination using solar technologies, But Ethiopia is land locked famine stricken with small rainfall and Abay(NILE) is our only way out.
      -There is no such a thing as 'our water right' repeatedly claimed by the Egyptian side. The so called Historic right, that allocated 90% of the water to Egypt and Sudan and leave the other 10% for evaporation, doesn't include Ethiopia because we were never British Colony (We were never colonized for that matter).
      - We are asking to use the Nile resources Equitably. Even-though its ours (85% comes from Ethiopia) we are willing to share. Besides the Dam will ONLY BE USED FOR HYDROPOWER, It won't be used for irrigation purpose (its is built at the border of Sudan to assure our downstream countries of the intention.
      -Egypt waste 10 billion cubic meters water lost due to evaporation (Aswan dam location which will not be sustainable). Egypt 6 year waste can full Ethiopian dam.
      The fact remains that Egypt needs to search for other options because even if the current flow is kept they will find themselves in water shortage in a couple of decades time.Win win situation: Ethiopia can build the dam and sell power to others, Egypt can continue farming in Nile. AND EGYPTIANS HAVE TO RECOGNISE THAT WE HAVE THE RIGHT TO USE THE DAM FOR IRRIGATION AS WELL!!


      Jun 5, 2013 at 7:33pm

      One wonders how long it will take for these dams to silt up and become non productive, and the effect it will have on fisheries. It's a little insane in a part of the world with unlimited bright sunlight, and desert not to set up arrays of solar cookers and convert that energy into hydrogen using electrolysis. Hydrogen can replace firewood - number one cause of deforestation - and can power cars no differently, but much cleaner, than natural gas. Completely non-polluting.

      Furnald Hall

      Jun 5, 2013 at 11:56pm

      It is probably not going to happen in time, but one ray of hope is the possible dropping of price of desalinized water from about 50 cents a cubic meter currently, to 10 cents per cubic meter, which might allow its use in sophisticated agriculture in low lying areas along the coast or near other salt water sources. I am not expert, but have the sense that a further drop to 5 cents a cubic meter would allow agricultural use in the simpler agriculture currently practiced in Egypt. I think it can be done, but it will take time.

      Fortunately for Egypt, the leading country in desalinization and one of the leaders in sophisticated arid and semi-arid commercial farming is next door, Israel. But politically it is awkward, even if cooler heads in the MB see the possibilities as a solution to some of Egypt's agricultural problems. As of now, so far as I know, at about 50 cents a cubic meter, Israel has the lowest cost desalinized water in the world, but still far from cheap enough for agricultural use, even with their leadership in drip irrigation, good post harvest technology to prevent spoilage, excellent pest management, and a very efficient and honest air transport system to move out of season produce to high income markets. But they have the potential to get the desalinization cost lower if they focus on it.

      South Korea, notably Doosan Heavy Equipment Co,, is another leading desalinization equipment producer, and also has potential to lower the cost, but they lack the agricultural sophistication that must go along with it at prices in the range foreseeable in the next decade or two.

      I think Israelis would probably LIKE to do the admirable thing, and not deny their technology to others in desperate need of it, but the hostile standoff of the last eighty or ninety years will have to end before it is likely to invest in the kind of research and development to radically bring the cost of desalinization down low enough for agricultural use, especially if here the Arab countries are the only market. But even without the necessary price drop, the other half of the "system", Israeli drip irrigation and other modern dry land farming methods, could be of great use in making Egypt's water go much further agriculturally than it now does, freeing up more Nile water for the upstream countries to use in their own irrigation projects, which are desperately needed.