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As the Risk of a ‘Water War’ Fades, Is It Too Late to Save the Nile?

Peter Schwartzstein | Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020


  At first glance, the Nile valley at Wad Ramli, an hour’s drive north of Khartoum, looks as lush and fertile as ever. Date palms sag, heavy with fruit along the banks. Neat rows of barley await harvesting in the heat. With thousands of miles of unbroken desert to the west and many hundreds to the east, this narrow, green strip—at points only 200-meter wide—still closely resembles the life-giving refuge from a hostile environment that it has been for millennia.

But ask the farmers, fishermen or anyone else who depends on the river for their livelihood, and they’ll tell you this isn’t the same Nile valley they once knew. The river’s water is often too dirty to tend vegetable plots or wash clothes, if they can access it at all. At times, it is so choked with sediment or trash, the current struggles to circulate through their irrigation canals. Nor is the weather behaving as it has in the past. The loss of a dependable Nile River comes at a time when rural communities are already up against a debilitating range of problems. Like many other villages up and down the valley, Wad Ramli is emptying out, its residents leaving to try their luck in the capital and other cities.

The decline of Wad Ramli and other nearby villages is part of a broader trend throughout the wider Nile basin, from the river’s source to the Mediterranean Sea. Decades of mismanagement have left the world’s longest river polluted and drained, even as mushrooming populations along the length of the Nile have fuelled demand for food, jobs, potable water and wastewater provision. The Nile basin’s population is projected to almost double to over 400 million by 2050, further magnifying the impact of authorities’ past mistakes and reducing their margin of error now and in the future. In addition to this poor governance, the effects of climate change are adding new uncertainty to a region in which the Nile has often been one of the few constants.

Into this already combustible mix comes the fiercely contested Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, or GERD, which seems to symbolize both the basin’s greatest hopes and anxieties. The mega project, the largest dam in Africa, is designed to power Ethiopia’s development and herald the country’s emergence as a regional heavyweight. But its construction has stirred downstream Egypt’s worst fears of a dried-out Nile; its fierce reaction to the dam has fuelled unprecedented tensions with Ethiopia. Amid frequent sabre-rattling and significant naval build-ups, the Nile basin has been transformed—in the popular imagination, at least—into the site of what could be the world’s first major transboundary “water war.”

“We always thought the river could handle anything. Now we find that’s not true, and we have nothing to turn to instead.”

But although that portrayal is both exaggerated and incomplete, the river and its dependents may actually be facing a more dire future than headlines suggest. Big, bold and tangible enough for its impact to be understood by the most casual of observers, Ethiopia’s huge new dam has understandably riveted the public and policymakers alike. But by monopolizing attention that ought to have been at least partly trained on the Nile’s deeper, more systemic woes, the dam has stifled much-needed action elsewhere.

This is no hypothetical drama. Egyptian farmers in the Nile Delta, at the end of the river’s roughly 4,000-mile course, already receive insufficient amounts of water, throwing many of them even deeper into poverty. Their counterparts in upper Egypt, northern Sudan and around the headwaters of the Blue Nile in Ethiopia, are battling everything from shrinking yields due to unprecedented heat, to crops that are failing altogether as the seasons shift. From Lake Tana in Ethiopia to Tanta in the Delta, many Nile-side residents speak, often in starkly similar terms, of the increased financial, psychological and health hardships they now encounter. In the words of one Egyptian farmer I interviewed near Alexandria in 2017, “We always thought the river could handle anything. Now we find that’s not true, and we have nothing to turn to instead.”

A History of Mismanagement

Ever since Ethiopia first broke ground on the GERD in 2011, the dam has consumed relations within the Nile basin. Both Egypt and Sudan initially opposed the dam vociferously, although Khartoum soon changed tack after accepting Ethiopian assurances that the project would serve its interests. Despite being increasingly isolated on the issue, successive administrations in Cairo went so far as to hint that military action might be on the table if construction progressed. But as the work continued, most Egyptian authorities slowly reconciled themselves to the dam’s inevitability, shifting their efforts instead to determining the time frame for filling GERD’s reservoir. Years of negotiations made little headway: Egypt has pushed for as extended a “fill time” as possible to reduce the impact on the river’s downstream flow, while Ethiopia has been keen to get the dam fully operational in order to begin making good on its massive investment. In January, however, with the dam fast-nearing completion, Cairo, Khartoum and Addis Ababa appeared to have hashed out some kind of compromise, though few details have been made public.

Yet, even if the dam dispute is brought to a satisfactory conclusion, there’s no guarantee of future peace or prosperity along the Nile. The key protagonists are increasingly aware of the river’s appalling environmental condition, but they’re still more fixated on external enemies than on tackling the root causes of their water woes.

And while the Nile states may well choose cooperation over confrontation, for the time being, at least, they will still face undue water-related pressures that many of them seem ill-equipped or unable to handle. Unless Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia exhibit greater flexibility and capacity for action than they have to date, the Nile risks becoming known more for its water scarcity than for its historical role as the cradle of great civilizations.

In retrospect, it can seem as if the Nile has been doomed to some sort of showdown for at least a century. Starting in the late 19th century with British colonial administrators and then continuing with newly independent states from the 1920s onward, the authorities responsible for managing the Nile have spent decades reshaping the river and how it is used in new and ultimately unsustainable ways.

Throughout much of the Nile valley in Egypt and Sudan, for instance, officials moved away from planting high-yield, resistant native crops like millet and sorghum, instead promoting large expanses of rice, wheat and sugar cane. These replacement crops are more water-intensive and less resilient to sandy or salty soils, and they generally yield less in the sweltering temperatures along the Nile. This wasn’t necessarily a problem when populations were smaller and overall water demand more manageable, but it has become one as food requirements have soared. Egypt’s population has boomed by roughly 75 million people in the past 50 years, to about 100 million. In that same time, Sudan’s has grown from 7.5 million to over 40 million, and Ethiopia’s from 22 million to 110 million, making it Africa’s second-most populous country after Nigeria.

What’s more, both Egypt and Sudan developed entire stretches of the river in order to grow these needy crops on a grander scale. This too might also have been viable in the past, but it has now left both countries with tracts of intensely wasteful infrastructure that is poorly suited to the lower Nile’s arid and semi-arid climates. Take the 2.2-million-acre Gezira Scheme, Africa’s largest irrigation project, which was established by the British in the 1920s to grow cotton between the fertile reaches of the Blue and White Niles—the Nile’s two main tributaries—just south of Khartoum.

Understandably, like most engineering projects along the Nile, it was built without scarcity in mind. Now the Gezira Scheme, as well as the many thousands of miles of exposed irrigation canals to the north, haemorrhage water that the basin can ill-afford to lose. Down river in Egypt, locally based hydrologists estimate that Lake Nasser, the reservoir of the Aswan High Dam, loses more than 5 billion cubic meters of water to evaporation every year, roughly equal to Lebanon’s total annual water usage.

The Nile risks becoming known more for its water scarcity than for its historical role as the cradle of great civilizations.

Most importantly, authorities in Egypt and Sudan overhauled the Nile itself, constructing dozens of dams and barrages in order to harness the waters once and for all. The Aswan Low Dam, built in 1902, was among Cairo’s first steps in its bid to stifle the river’s annual summer floods, as well as to deliver dependable year-round irrigation and later hydroelectricity. The Aswan High Dam, which was finished in 1970, was the crowning glory of that project. Collectively, the dams fundamentally changed the Nile for millions of inhabitants, while also signaling the post-colonial ambitions of Egypt and, to a certain extent, Sudan. But in ways that are only now becoming fully apparent, dam construction also helped sow the seeds for some of the river’s most intractable current problems.

By stanching the passage of sediment downstream, the High Dam in particular deprived Egyptian farmers of the rich, fertile silt on which they had always relied. Lower Nile communities have since turned to fertilizers instead, large amounts of which dirty the river. By portraying dams as symbols of modernity and development, Egypt set a precedent that some states up the Nile are dead set on mimicking. By the terms of the 1959 Nile Waters Agreement between Egypt and Sudan that still governs their river usage rights, Egypt and Sudan are entitled to 100 percent of the Nile’s waters, leaving the nine other states in the Nile basin with nothing. But because Ethiopia and its Upper Nile neighbors weren’t party to the negotiations that led to the 1959 treaty, most of them reject it. With Egypt no longer the dominant regional force it once was, Ethiopia took full advantage to develop its plans for the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, particularly after the 2011 revolution in Egypt, which ousted longtime President Hosni Mubarak and led to years of domestic upheaval, leaving Cairo distracted.

Continuing Blunders

Even now, with the Nile facing a grim future, officials continue to repeat past mistakes, while making plenty of new ones. Beginning in the 1950s with Gamal Abdel Nasser, who championed the Aswan High Dam and oversaw its construction, successive leaders in Egypt have pursued unwieldy mega projects in an effort to convince the public they are delivering economic gains. Mubarak used Nile water to try to cultivate a new breadbasket in the desert at Toshka, to the west of Lake Nasser. The project, the most ambitious of Egypt’s “desert reclamation” schemes, failed. The country’s current president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, tried to revive that scheme as part of an even bigger 1.5-million-acre reclamation project to create new farmland beyond the Nile Valley, often using Nile water. So far, he has little more to show for it than a few thousand cultivated acres, a half-built settlement at Toshka, and tracts of low-yield farmland around distant desert oases that lack sufficient workers.

These ill-considered schemes are not the exclusive preserve of Nile states. In recent years, oil-rich Gulf Arab countries, among others, have also gotten in on the act to make up for their water shortages. In Sudan, for instance, Saudi, Qatari and Emirati agribusinesses have planted tens of thousands of acres of alfalfa, an animal feed that uses more water than almost any other crop on Earth. The Sudanese government has allotted many of these projects gigantic water allowances of up to 1 billion cubic meters, even though they sometimes farm in dangerously imprudent ways. The one or two projects in Sudan that had previously relied on groundwater for their irrigation have started tapping into the Nile after over-pumping their wells. While these Gulf-funded industrial farms currently draw a negligible share of the Nile’s water, Gulf states could seek to expand their operations as their own food security concerns escalate. If nothing else, this agricultural investment provides useful leverage over Khartoum in regional geopolitical squabbles.

For all the attention devoted to Ethiopia’s new dam, it is the erratic rainfall around the source of the Blue Nile that really threatens Egypt and Sudan’s water shares in the long run.

All the while, authorities along the Nile continue to treat the river like a quick fix for their failing and inadequate wastewater infrastructure. Unable to handle the scale of sewage emanating from their swelling cities—Greater Cairo’s population has already topped 20 million—municipal and federal officials alike are dumping more and more filth into the river’s shallows, misguidedly believing that it will soon be someone else’s problem. During Sudan’s most recent civil war, which eventually led to the creation of South Sudan, some communities along the White Nile in the South allegedly defiled the river intentionally to take revenge on their downstream enemies. In Khartoum, riverside factories funnel toxic waste directly into the water. And in the heart of historic Aswan, one of the Nile’s most scenic spots, jagged pipes discharge raw waste within eyeshot of tourist-filled cruise ships. The river might once have been sufficiently abundant, and populations sparse enough, to dilute the pollution. It no longer is.

Though celebrated as one of the world’s great rivers because of its length, the Nile’s flow is actually relatively meagre compared to much shorter rivers, like the Congo, which can discharge up to 12 times more water. So expectations of its capacity often surpass reality. The Nile’s famed length has also historically been an impediment to effective water management, because it binds together distant countries with radically different needs.

Water-impoverished Egypt, for instance, relies on the Nile for well over 90 percent of its freshwater needs. Ethiopia, by contrast, boasts myriad water sources in some parts of the country, but lacks sufficient power-generation to meet its demand for electricity. Because many Nile basin states have scant economic or cultural ties, misunderstandings over intentions have often festered, fueling suspicion among the river’s dependents.

Then there’s the response to climate change, or lack thereof. For all the attention devoted to Ethiopia’s massive new dam, it is the erratic rainfall around the source of the Blue Nile not far from the dam, much more than the mega project itself, that threatens the downstream states’ water shares in the long run. Farmers in the Ethiopian highlands have always relied on rainfall to irrigate their crops, even though watercourses from the region supply over 80 percent of the Nile’s flow. As rainy seasons grow less reliable, frustrated communities there are already pushing to tap the bulging Blue Nile and its tributaries instead. Recent climate change projections forecast a potential increase in rainfall across the Nile basin, but also hotter and drier spells along with more erratic seasonal swings. Though the actual impact is exceedingly hard to predict, climate change is likely to wreak havoc, and authorities are doing nothing to prepare for it.

An Uncertain Future

All along the Nile and its tributaries, most inhabitants still depend in some way on the land or natural environment for their livelihood, yet these rural communities are bearing the brunt of the river’s environmental degradation. Farmers from Egypt to Ethiopia say they need more water to keep their crops alive due to higher temperatures—and hence higher rates of evaporation and transpiration—but many lack access to supplementary irrigation.

Fishermen say their hauls have shriveled as pollution takes a toll on the Nile’s aquatic life, even as increased competition from an expanding aquaculture industry has brought down prices for their catch. As a consequence, related industries, like boat construction, have more or less died out along much of the river. In the Nile Delta, some villages are already getting a taste of the grim future many upstream communities fear. By the time the river nears the end of its journey, fanning out before the Mediterranean, its flow is often too weak to fill their most distant irrigation canals, and the water is too full of filth to irrigate their vegetables. To complete the dystopian picture, a rise in the sea level is propelling saltwater into their coastal aquifers.

But the impact of the Nile’s decline is not limited to rural communities.

Urban centers like Cairo, Alexandria, Khartoum and Addis Ababa are increasingly overwhelmed by the influx of battered rural migrants trying their luck in the big city. In a grim feedback loop, the added population burden has pushed municipal wastewater facilities further beyond capacity, while propelling urban sprawl deeper into the food-producing peripheries. Enormous tracts of agricultural land have already been lost to uncontrolled urban development in Egypt, even as food needs have explo

Worse yet, perhaps, are the political ramifications of the Nile’s struggles, which are unleashing forces the region might ultimately struggle to contain. Egypt has reinforced its navy with amphibious assault ships—in large part, it seems, to send a thinly veiled threat to Ethiopia about the potential consequences of proceeding unilaterally with filling the GERD. Ethiopia, landlocked since Eritrea seceded from it in the early 1990s, recently announced its intention to rebuild its navy, using neighboring Djibouti as its outlet to the sea. Throughout the Nile basin, the dam dispute’s key protagonists have engaged in a fierce, years-long battle to advance their positions and outmaneuver their adversaries. In so doing, they’ve contributed to the politicization and securitization of the Nile’s water in ways that will last well beyond their current showdown. Just reporting on the Nile has become enough to arouse many officials’ suspicions. After working on Nile-related stories with few problems from 2013 to 2015, I’ve since been detained multiple times while reporting on the same topics in Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia.

All along the Nile and its tributaries, rural communities that depend on the river for their livelihood are bearing the brunt of its environmental degradation.

Even though there’s little chance of an actual interstate conflict over the Nile—especially if Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan are able to turn their tentative deal into a comprehensive one—the conditions are still ripe for future trouble. Localized water-related conflicts are proliferating globally, and the Nile valley has more than its fair share of violent or potentially violent water disputes, including several that span borders. The dominant narratives in Egypt and Ethiopia—that Ethiopia is looking to marshal the Nile for geostrategic reasons alone, while Egypt is intent on keeping Ethiopia poor and undeveloped, respectively—remain largely entrenched. As greater numbers of people, including many unaccustomed to scarcity, suffer from the Nile’s decline, there is every reason to expect old grievances to re-emerge and new ones to crystallize.

For all the ugliness of the Nile’s prognosis, however, there are flickers of optimism amid the gloom. Sudan’s new Prime Minister, Abdalla Hamdok, has acknowledged the importance of pivoting away from thirsty, non-native crops, while Egypt has made some moves to rein in water-intensive rice cultivation.

There are more plans afoot to fix leaky infrastructure and deploy more of the tools that are characteristic of water-scarce regions, like reusing greywater, or non-toilet wastewater, and installing drip irrigation. The fact that, after years of chest-beating and uniquely nasty threats, the dispute over Ethiopia’s enormous dam will likely be resolved peacefully is testament to the ability of the Nile states to cooperate to their collective advantage. The dam, in other words, will not determine the river’s ultimate fortune.

But in order to secure a truly viable long-term future, Nile states big and small will have to get to work, fast, on tackling the river’s pollution, its agricultural troubles, shrinking per capita water shares and much more. The Nile basin has already devoted years to the dam dispute, an issue that for all its short- and medium-term pitfalls is ultimately something of a sideshow compared to the Nile’s even bigger problems.

Peter Schwartzstein is an environmental journalist, who covers water scarcity, food security, and the conflict-climate nexus across the Middle East and Africa. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic and Newsweek, among other publications. He’s worked on Nile issues since 2013 and spent several months traveling the length of the river in 2015.

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