the Risk of a ‘Water War’ Fades, Is It Too Late to Save the Nile?
Schwartzstein | Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020
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.
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.
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.”
always thought the river could handle anything. Now we find that’s not
true, and we have nothing to turn to instead.”
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.
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.”
History of Mismanagement
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Nile risks becoming known more for its water scarcity than for its
historical role as the cradle of great civilizations.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
the impact of the Nile’s decline is not limited to rural communities.
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
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.
along the Nile and its tributaries, rural communities that depend on the
river for their livelihood are bearing the brunt of its environmental
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.
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
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.
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.
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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