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Can Egypt and Ethiopia share the Nile River?

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Oil is the Middle East’s glamor product, sought after by the entire world and bringing the region wealth beyond the dreams of avarice. But water is the mundane resource that matters even more to locals for, without it, they face the horrible choice of leaving their homes or perishing within them.

That choice may sound hyperbolic, but the threat is real. Egypt stands out as having the largest population at risk and being the country, other than Iraq and Yemen, with the most existential hydrologic problem.

As every schoolchild learns, Egypt is the gift of the Nile and the Nile is by far the globe’s longest river. Less well known is that most of the Nile’s volume, 90 percent, comes from the highlands of Ethiopia and that the river passes through 11 countries. For uncounted eons, its water flowed to Egypt in uncounted quantities.

In 1929, the British government, representing Egypt, signed an agreement with the independent government of Ethiopia guaranteeing an annual flow of 55.5 billion cubic meters (bcm) of water to Egypt. Counting a minimum of 1,000 cubic meters per capita per annum (the average worldwide is 7,230 cubic meters), that amount more than sufficed for the 15 million Egyptians of the day.

The succeeding 87 years saw Egypt’s population increase six times until today it numbers 90 million. Adding to the river’s 55.5 bcm, Egypt gets about 5 bcm from nonrenewable underground sources and 1.3 bcm from rain, leaving it with about 62 bcm a year, or one-third less than the country’s minimal needs. In addition, Egyptians recycle about 10 bcm of agricultural runoff water, whose highly polluted nature (fertilizer and insecticide residues) eventually kill the land through salinization. Exacerbating this shortage, Egypt’s high temperatures leads to higher rates of evapotranspiration, requiring more water for agriculture than in places with cooler climates.

This water shortfall translates into a need to import food and, at present, Egypt must borrow funds to import an alarming 32 percent of its sugar needs, 60 percent of yellow feed corn, 70 percent of wheat, 70 percent of beans, 97 percent of food oil and 100 percent of lentils. The need to import will get worse with time; estimating Egypt’s population at 135 million in 2050, it will need 135 bcm annually and, based on present assumptions, the water deficit will more than double to 75 bcm.

Making matters worse, Ethiopians recently woke up to the fact that vast quantities of water leave their land without benefit to themselves. Accordingly, they initiated a network of dams, culminating with the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).

As presently planned, the lake behind this dam would hold 74.5 bcm, plus 5 bcm would be lost through seepage and 5 bcm lost to evaporation. Four auxiliary upstream dams to reduce silting will retain another 200 bcm. Noting that 86 percent of Egypt’s water originates in Ethiopia, Egyptian specialists not unreasonably conclude that the allotted 55.5 bcm would not be forthcoming. Nader Noureddin, a professor of soil and water sciences at Cairo University, sees the dams placing “the lives of 90 million Egyptians at risk.” (Most statistics in this analysis derive from Noureddin’s work.)

Ethiopians reply: Not to worry, all will be fine, the guaranteed allotment and more will reach Egypt. When Cairo protests nonetheless, Addis Ababa agrees to one study after another, even as it furiously builds the GERD, which is scheduled to begin operations this year, storing an initial 14 bcm.

The potential for disruption is enormous; in 2013, during the Mohammed Morsi era, Egyptian politicians inadvertently bruited in public their military plans about special forces, jet fighters, and rebel groups to deal with the GERD (shades of the opera “Aida”). Morsi now sits in jail, but such ideas offer insight into Egyptian desperation.

At base, the Nile River confrontation lies in variant understandings of water possession. Downstream states like Egypt point to the immemorial nature of rivers flowing across borders. Upstream states like Ethiopia point to the water belonging to them in the same way that oil belongs to the Arabs. There is no right or wrong here; resolution requires creative compromise (for example, by lowering the height of GERD saddle dams), allowing the Ethiopians to benefit from their waters without Egyptians facing cataclysm.

Short term, statesmen are needed to prevent disaster. Long term, Egyptians need to learn how to manage water more resourcefully.

Daniel Pipes, president of the Middle East Forum, depended on Nile water for three years while living in Cairo. © 2016 by Daniel Pipes

  • Wedi Wedom Mebraqawi

    This is an absolutely flawed article and for me Daniel Pipes seems Egypt paid and proponent / sympathizer of the defunct Muslim Brotherhood, in disguise; or one of those who still hold grudges on Ethiopia’s victory over European colonizers, and her role as a nuclei for Africans emancipation, and becoming the symbol of rising Africa via the principles of the anti-neoliberal Developmental State Economics!!!

    Such an imbecilic article on such a prominent newspaper? Japan Times should really review this matter carefully. I don’t want to go into detail and provide invalidating arguments to each idiotic account Daniel Pipes reflected. However, to the knowledge of readers I would like to bring some legal accounts on the use of Nile.

    There were three major treaties on Nile. The first, signed in 1902 between Britain and Ethiopia, was never ratified by Ethiopia due to different meanings in the English and Amharic versions. The second, signed in 1929 between Egypt and Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, gave Egypt the right to 48 billion cubic meters of water per year, complete control over the Nile during the dry season, and veto power over any upriver water projects. Sudan received rights to4 billion cubic meters of water, and Ethiopia was not consulted at all nor acknowledged it.

    Nearly three decades later, Egypt and Sudan (now independent) signed the 1959 Nile Waters Agreement. This treaty was far more comprehensive and sought to replace the former by providing a legal framework for complete control over the waters. Sudan was given the right to utilize 25 percent of the waters, and Egypt the remaining 75 percent; none of the upstream states were consulted, included, or given any shares.

    Unsurprisingly, the upstream states have never accepted these colonial-era treaties. In fact, one source claims that the 1959 treaty “so negatively affected the upriver states that it provided the inspiration for the Nyerere Doctrine, named after independent Tanzania’s first president, which asserted that former colonies had no obligation to abide by treaties signed for them by Great Britain.” The two groups of riparian states each emphasize different principles of international law in their Nile Basin claims. The downstream states of Egypt and Sudan claim, based on the notion of customary law, that they have historical and natural rights over these waters. In addition, they invoke the more moderate principle of the “obligation not to cause significant harm” from Article 7 in the UN’s Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses. Upstream states have, on their part, moved from initially invoking the more extreme principle of absolute sovereignty – i.e. a state has the right to utilize all resources within its borders in any way it wants-to the more moderate principle of “equitable use,” also derived from the same UN convention.

    In an effort to reach a common understanding and develop a mutually beneficial framework, the Nile Basin Initiative was launched in 1999 by all riparian states: Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), as well as Eritrea as an observer. The old divides have nonetheless yet to be overcome; while nearly all downstream states (Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, and Tanzania) have signed a May 2010 Cooperative Framework Agreement, which seeks to replace previous colonial era treaties based on the principle of equitable use, Sudan and Egypt oppose it and claim it infringes upon their “historical rights”

    I would like Pipes to have their say on this. My grandfathers defeated yours on the battle of Adwa and Elsewhere on Ethiopian soils, and I surely will defeat you here on the Keyboard battle – because none of you have truth with you except that super greed we all know. Imbecilic!

    Wedi Wedom

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  • Dave

    Water is coming from Ethiopia..Britain has NO right to give or allocate water overseas…Egypt must used technology to desalinate water from two adjacent seas, and stop growing water heavy crops like cotton and grow food for its citizens.

    • Wedi Wedom Mebraqawi

      Thank you Dave. It is always a pleasure to see rational thinkers like yourself! As you can imagine, Daniel Pipes’ brain is enslaved by petrodollar and I don’t think any fact would ever change his mind. In the past week he purposely and repetitively published this article on Washington Post, The Algemeiner, AFK insider, etc. Despite several comments from Ethiopian scholars asking him to correct his mistakes and accurately reflect the legal issues behind Nile, he seemingly has decided to remain “deaf eared” and continue instigating hatred and, if possible, war between the two sisterly countries. What an imbecile and enslaved writer! Isn’t that amazing?

  • brianreilly

    Anyone who lives at the end of the river will be reliant on those upstream to allow flow if the upstream parties have the means and will to impede stream flow. That is just the way it is. Politics and treaties are simply non violent ways to agree on how the stream flows. If the Ethiopians can impede flow, and have the will to carry out the possibilities that the technology affords them, the Egyptians must find some way to persuade the Ethiopians to allow stream flow, or face reduced stream flow. That worst end game is for the Egyptians to march on Ethiopia or destroy the technology. I have no idea whether that is even possible, let alone likely.

    Better make a durable deal with the Ethiopians, Egypt, or find a way to et along with less water. In either case, your Nile future will always be in someone else’s hands, and that someone my not like you very well.

    Take notes, you Americans dependent on the Colorado river. This dispute could be coming to visit you, and soon!

    • hernandayoleary2

      The Egyptians would rather waste $8 billion a year on military parades for wars they cannot win, than to spend it on buying water. Shows you how messed up the leaders are.

  • hernandayoleary2

    Ethiopia is going to build the dam, and egypt, is going to pay for it.

  • hernandayoleary2

    Ethiopia is going to build the dam, and egypt, is going to pay for it.