Egypt, Ethiopia, and the Nile


A news report from Al Jazeera caught my attention last week.

Ethiopia intends to construct a massive dam on it’s part of the Nile. This “Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam“, also known as the Millenium Dam, would 6,000 megawatts of hydropower, easily making Ethiopia the largest exporter of power in the whole of Africa.

This is where things get complicated.

Egypt, which is downstream, is highly reliant on the Nile for it’s food production. If the amount of water coming down the Nile were to dimish significantly  it would bode badly for the country (even more so given the current situation, where it must import 40% of it’s food). In fact, it would be downright disastrous.

Could the dam be managed in such a way that Egypt still meets it’s needs? Unfortunately, no. The reservoir needed for the dam will take 63 million cubic meters of water to fill. Egypt’s annual share of the Nile is 55.5 million cubic meters. So as the Al Jazeera report points out: even if Ethiopia were to take a good five years to fill the reservoir, that would still mean a 20 percent cut in the water Egypt receives from the Nile for five years (not including what is lost to evaporation).

So how have Egyptian leaders taken all this? Obviously not well, since they were caught talking on how they should blow the damn thing up:

Apparently unaware their discussion was being televised live, some of them proposed hostile acts including aiding rebels inside Ethiopia and destroying the dam itself. Ethiopian officials long have accused Egypt of backing anti-government rebels in Ethiopia. More than a dozen rebel groups exist in the East African nation, some wanting more autonomy, others a separate state.

Obviously, the Ethiopians were outraged by this. The domestic Egyptian population (and independent media) were similarly agitated at the prospect that their government was planning such things (especially their post-revolutionary government, which is supposed to be cleaning things up and not looking like authoritarians).

Water Wars

This incident, distant as it may seem to many people, reflects a disturbing theme highlighted in the Global Risks Assessment 2013 by the World Economic Forum.  The issue of water supply crises has worked it’s way up to be the number one societal problem in both present and possible future.

In Egypt, this will be a huge issue down the road. According to the UN, Egypt will be trying to feed 96 million people in about a dozen years form now (2025). How can this conceivably be done? It’s hard enough with the current share of the Nile’s water and all its current food imports.

There would only be three options:

  1. Massive food imports.
  2. Famine.
  3. War.

Food imports are, sadly, merely a stopgag measure as they can only be maintained until it’s foreign exchange runs out.

As  for war, that option is also unlikely. Ethiopia is quite a distance from Egypt. The Egyptian military would have to cross the entire breath of their country AND Uganda in order to reach the dam. They would also have to deal with China, since it is providing some of the financing for the dam.

What about the US? Would it not get involved? The answer: probably not. The post-revolutionary government has rejected it’s former American ally (which had supported the previous Mubarak regime). And even if the new government were to make amends with Washington, the US would be very reluctant to get involved; the domestic American population is quite tired of foreign meddling. Why the hell would the American people and government want to get involved with an ugly dispute with China over Egypt of all places?

So there probably won’t be a war.

That leaves only option #2: Egypt will face a Biblical famine within the next 10 to 15 years.

2 responses to “Egypt, Ethiopia, and the Nile

  1. I had heard about this, but not with the dispiriting options spelled out. Informative, if somewhat depressing

    • I do not like sugar coating a crappy situation and then call it candy.

      If constructive solutions are to ever arise, then everyone must know the exact situation at hand, the risks involved, and the effects should nothing be done.

      Otherwise, we get the usual “Everything is fine. Nothing to worry about. Move along” until things start falling apart.

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