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Why Ethiopia is winning the Nile waters dispute

In good years, the Nile is reaching the desert; in bad years the desert is reaching the Nile (Napoleon)


   Napoleon was the first to develop a plan for “doubling” the use ot Nile water for irrigation in the Egyptian delta. Many more plans followed. The most interesting one was the Century Storage Scheme developed by Harold Hurst (1949) which envisaged a series of dams and canals along the Nile which would store the entire annual water flow and prevent any water from being discharged into the Mediterranean.

   One of the dams was to be built near Lake Tana in Ethiopia near the border with Sudan. An earlier idea of a dam on the Blue Nile had been dropped during the Abyssinian war. As a consequence, Ethiopia remained the only riverine country which could not benefit from the water although its contributor, the Blue Nile, accounted for about 57 percent of the entire Nile water flow.

   The Century Storage Scheme failed to be realized because of squabbles between the countries involved and lack of funding. In the late 1950s, Egypt’s population growth forced its government headed by Gamal Abdel Nasser to seek for ways to provide more water to expand and improve its food production. The IBRD, the lending facility of the World Bank, jointly with the Egyptian government, developed a plan for a huge reservoir near the old Aswan dam in Upper Egypt. The new dam, called Sadd-el Aali (SAP), was intended to store the entire annual flow and maintain a stable downstram water level in the Nile all year round.

   In my doctoral thesis I wrote (in German): The SAP had been conceived under the assumption that Sudan would merge with Egypt in January 1956 and Egypt would therefore be able to control how much water was taken from the Nile in Sudan. This did not happen.1)

   When Sudan had shed the shackles of the colonial administration it discovered that its rapid population growth required more water, and it took the water by violating the regulations of the 1929 Nile Waters Agreement in which U.K. had represented Sudan and Uganda and which stipulated that water works on the entire Nile were not permitted without Egyptian agreement.

   Domestic problems forced the Egyptian government on 8 November 1959 to conclude with Sudan the  2. Nile Waters Agreement. Had the 1. Nile Waters Agreement clearly favored Egypt, the 2. Nile Waters Agreement clearly disadvantaged Egypt.2)

   As a result, the IBRD plans for the SAP project were heavily damaged. Less water was available if Sudan extracted its higher quota, and doubts arose whether the new reservoir could even be fully filled. The IBRD withdrew its funding pledge.

   Abdel Nasser, cornered, looked desperately for a face-saving solution and found it in the Soviet Union. Despite all doubts about viability and economic justification, the dam was built, now called the Aswan High Dam, and the reservoir was duly called Lake Nasser. Undoubtedly, by unilaterally building the dam, Egypt had harmed itself and the overall Nile water shortage quandary but population growth and rising demand for food left the government with no choice. Much water is lost by evaporation and seepage in the long lake which is extends into Sudan. Fertile mud is depositing in the lake instead of reaching farm land where fertilizers are needed to replace it. Many other problems arose.

   Sudan did not require all the water it was allocated and graciously offered water “credits” to Egypt to be “repaid” in kind later on. Somehow both countries tagged along until an elephant entered the room: Ethiopia.

   On March 30th, 2011, the former ruler Meles Zenawi announced the huge project of building the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) to store all Blue Nile water in a basin near Lake Tana. While an Italian company was busy building the dam, diplomats and experts from all riverine countries talked, schemed and bickered for years without any tangible result. Sudan first supported Ethiopia because it was promised cheap electricity from the dam’s huge turbines. After the Muslim Brothers were ousted in Khartoum, the new Sudanese government changed sides and supported Egypt in its efforts to domesticate Ethiopia and ensure Egypt’s share of the Nile water.

   As the diplomats hammered out agreements to be immediately broken, behind the scene efforts looked less peaceful. Egypt made friends with Isaiah Afwerki, the ruler of Eritrea, and succeeded in setting up a military base in Eritrea close to Lake Tana and GERD.  Still not satisfied with its role as a new actor in the Horn of Africa, Egypt is currently negotiating the creation of another military base in Somaliland. Both endeavors mean a hardly concealed threat to Ethiopia that Egypt might bomb GERD at any time it likes.

   No doubt, Ethiopia is aware of the danger and its new Prime Minister Ably Ahmed hurried to make peace with the neighbor Afwerki of Eritrea who now adopted a new role of mediator between Ethiopia and Egypt. With Afwerki becoming less reliable, Egypt is now focusing on Somaliland.

   While Ethiopia continues to maintain the smokescreen of negotiations and compromises, it has by now become abundantly clear that Addis Ababa does not intend to surrender any of its sovereignty over the Blue Nile water to its neighbors. Instead, it suggests that Egypt should save water by any means, cut wastage und resort to desalination of sea water. That’s easier said than done: Egypt’s water management skills are far from the water wizardry of Israel, for example. The situation especially in the delta is desperate; who depends on tap water and cannot afford imported bottled water is in acute danger of being gradually poisoned because all water is polluted. Egypt’s government is understandably desperate because the population, despite the dire situation, continues to grow vigorously.

   Hardliners in the military have since 2011 seen this as a problem to be solved by force. Although both countries are of the same size – 100 million people – Egypt is militarily more powerful. Ethiopia’s small air force is probably no match for Egypt’s power built up with years of U.S. military assistance. Yet, President Abdel Fattah as-Sisi hesitates, and rightly so. Bombing GERD when the reservoir is still mostly empty is no option. Bombing it when it is full is dangerous because of the deluge of up to 74 000 million cubic metres of water gushing through Sudan towards Egypt, overwhelming the Aswan High Dam and joining its waters in drowning and destroying almost all of Egypt.

   Ever since the Aswan High Dam was erected, Egypt has been living with the nightmare of the dam breaking and the water wiping out the country. Fear of Israeli bombs or Islamistic sabotage forced Cairo to adopt cautious policies. It was even feared that spraying the lake’s surface with an evaporation blocking film could build up such a high water table in the lake that the gates would break and the water would drown the valley and the delta.

   Even it Egypt were able to destroy GERD before the water level could endanger downstream settlements and farming, the Aswan High Dam would remain Egypt’s weak spot. Ethiopia may not have a large air force. But it is known for its excellent pilots.

Heinrich von Loesch


1) Ernährung und Bevölkerung in der Entwicklung der Wirtschaft Ägyptens. Thesis LMU Munich 1966, p.87

2) p. 87

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