Since the beginning of human history, water has been an essential element for the growth and sustenance of civilizations. The Nile River, a testament to the life-giving properties of water, beats numerous records, including traversing eight countries, flowing through all African climate zones, and ranking as one of the world’s two largest watercourses. Moreover, the Nile Basin encompasses 10% of the African continent and is home to approximately 300 million people. Originating in Rwanda, Uganda, and Kenya, the Pharaohs’ River flows 6,650 kilometers before reaching the Mediterranean Sea via the world’s largest delta.
As Herodotus, the ancient historian, once wrote, “Egypt is the gift of the Nile.” It was along this vital river’s banks that one of the most extraordinary civilizations, Ancient Egypt, emerged. Drawing from the Nile’s waters, the civilization laid the groundwork for human development and produced some of the most remarkable engineering achievements in history, such as the pyramids, the Faiyum irrigation systems, and the Library of Alexandria.
Today, the river is the center of yet another remarkable engineering project. However, instead of uniting the neighboring peoples, the undertaking has become a source of conflict. In 2011, the Ethiopian government unveiled a $4.8 billion plan to construct the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a project aimed at helping Ethiopia address its 21st-century challenges. The modern-day Abyssinia is home to 108 million people and has one of the world’s highest natural growth rates at 2.34% per year. Despite relative internal stability within the region, the country still lags significantly behind the rest of the world.
The dam is intended to solve the issues related to energy production and the increasing water scarcity. The Grand Renaissance Dam is set to be the largest of its kind in Africa and the seventh-largest in the world. Upon completion, the reservoir is planned to have a capacity of 74 billion cubic meters and stretch for 243 kilometers. The power station will house two turbines, with a combined output of 6,000 MW. The facility is projected to generate 16,153 GWh annually, which would account for 28.6% of the country’s energy consumption. The proximity of countries such as Sudan, South Sudan, and Kenya means that in the future, this energy could be used as a political leverage over less affluent neighbors. It is worth noting that Addis Ababa has secured the support of Sudan, South Sudan, and Kenya, as these countries hope to benefit economically from access to affordable renewable energy.
Egypt, the country most reliant on the Nile’s waters, views the dam’s construction with increasing apprehension. Annual precipitation in the land of the Pharaohs scarcely exceeds a few dozen millimeters, making the water flowing from the upper reaches of the Nile virtually the only source of Egypt’s water resources, apart from its dwindling groundwater reserves. Nearly the entire population of 98 million resides along the Nile and its delta, which account for less than 3% of Egypt’s total land area.
Only the land adjacent to the Nile can yield crops, which, in a country where 24% of the population relies on agriculture and fishing for their livelihood, often leads to crises. Moreover, future projections for Egypt are not optimistic. By 2050, the population is expected to increase to 160 million, and with the country’s diminishing resources, this trend could prove catastrophic. Signs of unsustainable development are already evident.
The growing anger and chaos within society became evident in 2011 when a drought and subsequent rise in food prices sparked anti-government protests. These events, within a broader context, were part of the Arab Spring. It is no coincidence that in March 2011, as Egypt was engulfed in a popular revolution, Ethiopia decided to announce its Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project to the world. Despite the tense situation within Egypt, the dam’s construction ignited immense controversy.
The Ethiopian dam poses a colossal threat to Egypt, which faces a water deficit of approximately 10 billion kiloliters. Cairo fears that the dam could become Ethiopia’s instrument for exerting political influence over countries downstream of the river. The Blue Nile, the longest and most water-rich tributary, contributes up to 70% (some sources suggest 85%) of the Nile’s freshwater. Any interruption in the Blue Nile’s flow could result in a massive catastrophe in Sudan and, particularly, Egypt. It is estimated that if Egypt loses 1 billion kiloliters of freshwater, 2,000 acres of land could dry up, and 2.5 million people could lose their means of survival.
During the rule of Mohamed Morsi, a plan was even conceived for Egypt to invade Ethiopia. Morsi himself originated from the Muslim Brotherhood and was an advocate of decisive action. In June 2013, he declared that “Egypt will defend every drop of the Nile with its blood.” This declaration reverberated throughout the region. It was met with strong opposition from Sudan, which, like Poland, is caught between two opposing forces. Following this statement, Sudan sided with Ethiopia, and the threat of a regional cold war loomed.
In 2014, a military coup took place, resulting in Abdel Fattah el-Sisi becoming president. At that point, negotiations began between Cairo, Khartoum, and Addis Ababa to resolve the crisis. The main subject of debate was the timeframe in which the reservoir should be filled. At Egypt’s request, a report was published that emphasized that if the dam were filled within a three-year period, Egypt would lose 30 billion kiloliters of water. This scenario would practically reduce the Nile to a narrow stream, so shallow that one could cross it on foot. To minimize losses, Egypt insisted that the filling process of the reservoir should last fifteen years. This demand, however, was unacceptable to Ethiopia, which wanted to open the dam as soon as possible to reap its benefits. The negotiations were broken off by Egypt in December 2017. The breakdown of negotiations meant that Ethiopia no longer had to adhere to any constraints related to filling the reservoir. Since then, there has been a significant risk of conflict in the region.
In this instance, history has come full circle, highlighting the significance of effective Nile water resource management for the region. Egypt has previously faced conflict due to dam construction. In 1952, the Aswan High Dam served as a symbol of the emerging Egyptian nationalism. In need of funds to construct the dam, Gamal Abdel Nasser chose to nationalize the Suez Canal. This decision ignited the Suez Crisis, which ultimately led to military intervention by France, the United Kingdom, and Israel in 1956. Fortunately for Egypt, international mediation by the United States and the Soviet Union resolved the crisis in the country’s favor.
Regrettably, Egypt is focusing on maximizing its gains from the crisis caused by the construction of an even larger dam, rather than drawing upon the lessons of its own history. It is vital for the land of the Pharaohs to overcome their dependence on the life-sustaining Nile River. Even if the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam issue can be peacefully resolved, there is still the potential for other countries to seek harnessing the tremendous power concealed within the Nile’s currents. Consequently, this conflict should foster deeper regional collaboration instead of division, as the challenges confronting the Nile nations extend well beyond individual national interests.
Szymon Polewka is a student of international relations at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, specializing in the history of international relations, the Eurasian region, DACHL countries, intercultural relations, and the energy sector. He is currently on a scholarship at the University of Bremen. He has gained experience organizing the 2020 Economic Forum in Karpacz and numerous youth and student associations, such as AIESEC or Koło Naukowe Wyzwań Zielonego Ładu.
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