The Nile has been a source of civilisation for millennia and today hundreds of millions of people still rely on it to survive. For Egypt, 90% of its water needs depend on the Nile, however it is struggling, if not failing, to meet the needs of the population. Unsurprisingly this is having adverse effects on its economy. 12% of Egypt’s GDP comes from agriculture dependant on the Nile and the fishing industry has had to resort to water intensive fish farming as numbers of wild catches are falling. Many of Egypt’s tourist attractions are no longer accessible by boat and costing the industry dearly. There are numerous factors to blame for this; population increases, climate change and poor water management are all impacting the flow.
When Ethiopia announced its hydroelectric Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) a decade ago, tensions between the two nations rose significantly. There are claims that it could reduce the flow of the Nile in Egypt by 20-30 percent. These tensions have been bubbling away steadily for the past decade and numerous negotiation attempts have been unsuccessful, most recently collapsing in late 2020. Many worry this could escalate into a conflict.
Egypt has historically been given primary control over the Nile due to its support from imperial Britain. Both the 1929 and 1959 Nile water agreements gave Egypt veto power over any decisions to dam the river upstream. Ethiopia ignored this and started construction of the GERD without permission from Egypt. They have also started filling the dam without an agreement and in response, Egypt has been launching cyber-attacks. Egypt sets a worrying precedent; its actions could be misinterpreted and lead to escalation.
The GERD is vital for the growth of Ethiopia and its regional power ambitions. It is proposed to bring electricity to 86 million people, with some left for export. Sudan, previously against the dam has come out in favour of it as this may reduce seasonal flooding which hampers its agricultural industry. Egypt is isolated in the region and its dominance over the Nile may be coming to an end.
The role of external Actors:
Intra-gulf tensions have come into frame with Qatar supporting Sudan and Saudi Arabia an ally of Egypt. Despite Saudi Arabia ending its blockade on Qatar, tensions remain high. The UAE has not picked a side as such and has just agreed an aid deal with Ethiopia. This has resulted in Egypt Today accusing Qatar of ‘funding and inciting’ the GERD. The claims have been denied and are not independently verified. External actors potentially playing politics in the region does little to reduce fears of escalation.
With the GERD well on its way to being finished, and its reservoir being filled, Egypt must act to secure water for its own population. Egypt could invest in dams, canals and desalination plants to reduce its dependence on the Nile. These water security concerns could become futile with proper investment in water-saving technologies.
With Egypt’s worsening human rights record, it will struggle to gain investment from western countries. The UAE and Saudi Arabia are likely to fund many of the projects. China is unlikely to miss the opportunity either. Egypt is of strategic relevance due to its proximity to the Suez Canal and its importance to the Belt and Road Initiative.
Will Conflict Arise?
Military intervention has not been ruled out, especially if Ethiopia rapidly fills the dam. If Egypt does not invest into water saving projects effectively, a conflict could arise in the long term. Ethiopia is gaining power and a continued worsening of the domestic situation in Egypt fuelled by nationalist sentiment to regain regional power may result in military action.
However, this is an unlikely outcome in the short term. There are alternative solutions, Egypt lacks firepower and international support. Ethiopia is struggling internally with a conflict with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, so it is unlikely they will be willing to fight a foreign power. They will both be conscious of destabilising the region too.
There is an increase in water security concerns across the globe, but if adequate action is taken then conflict will be avoided, and tensions eased in the region. Israel being one case where innovation and investment have been successful in eradicating its water security concerns.