Egypt’s urgent water problem

Egypt’s urgent water problem

The topic on the forefront of discussions in Egypt has focused on the expansion of the Suez Canal and its possible economic benefits. But little attention has been devoted to Egypt’s other pivotal flow of water, the Nile, and the implications of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the flow of water to Egypt.

Since his inauguration just over a year ago, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has attempted to reconcile and rebuild relations between Egypt and Ethiopia, focusing on reaching agreements with both Sudan and Ethiopia concerning the effects of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the flow of the Nile River upstream.

However, recent negotiations have stalled due to disputes over the division of labor contracted to foreign consultants who will assist in providing a comprehensive study on the effects of the Dam on the flow of the Nile River.

Since work began on the Grand Renaissance Dam in April 2011, Egypt and Sudan have continued to vehemently oppose its construction. As such, as the Ethiopians proceed in their pursuit to complete the Dam, preliminary agreements have yet to be reached by the three nations, who have been locked in diplomatic disputes since 2011.

Conflict of interest

Agreements signed in 1929 and 1959 granted Egypt approximately 55.5 billion cubic meters annually, and Sudan 18.5 billion cubic meters, from an estimated total of 84 billion cubic meters. However, the question of water sharing between the Nile Basin states emerged again in 1999 with the signing of the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI).

The Initiative, which was signed by all the Nile River riparian states excluding Eritrea, called for increased dialogue and information sharing as well as joint planning and management of water and related resources in the Nile Basin. Over the next eleven years, Nile Basin states worked on a Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) intended to ratify an agreement concerning the cooperative management of the Nile resources.

In 2010, the agreement was officially signed by Ethiopia, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda, but Egypt and Sudan rejected it, claiming that it infringed on their current uses and rights of water resources from the Nile River.

Several studies focusing on the effects of the Renaissance Dam already conducted by the Egyptian National Panel of Experts claims that the construction of the Dam will have catastrophic effects on Egypt, which could stand to lose up to 60% of its agricultural land. Indeed, Egypt’s share of the water supply could decrease from anywhere between 9 billion to 12 billion cubic meters per year.

With Egypt’s population currently at 84 million people, and with an annual population growth rate of 2.6%, the Egyptian Government will have to tackle the issue of Nile water resources as quickly as possible in order to address a population that could increase by an additional 30 to 40 million people within the next 15 years.

At the same time, Ethiopia’s current population of 96 million people is in dire need of additional sources of energy, and also saw a population growth rate of 2.5% in 2014. This huge growth in population will mean that the Ethiopian government will be looking towards the Grand Renaissance Dam (which is set to become the largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa) as a crucial source of water supplies, employment, and energy for its people.

Contingency plans

While Egypt should be exerting as much effort as possible in resolving the dispute, the Egyptian authorities should also simultaneously develop a contingency plan for a dramatic decrease in Egypt’s water supplies. One option that is available to the Egyptian government is to begin fully utilizing the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer Systems (NSAS), found in its western desert and along its border with Sudan.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the NSAS is one of the largest aquifer systems in the world. It extends over 2,000,000 km2 and contains about 540,000 km3 of water. This underground goldmine of non-renewable water resources could be the vital lifeline that helps sustain parts of Egypt’s agriculture, and could also assist in developing new habitable areas for Egyptians in the once uninhabitable western desert.

Another option for the Egyptian authorities is to pursue further development of water desalination plants. Egypt’s current desalination plants operate on a small scale, and primarily service the tourism and industrial sectors. Due to its high costs, however, development of larger additional desalination plants to cater to agricultural and human settlement needs has not yet been exploited.

These two opportunities provide Egypt with strong alternatives to the water crisis that the upstream Nile Basin states face in the long-term. Nevertheless, Egyptian authorities should prioritize reaching a fair and just agreement with relevant African countries.

What is clear is that both Egypt and Ethiopia are in need of resolving this water conflict sooner rather than later; any continued delays in negotiations will only lead to further degradation of relations between all the Nile Basin states. Regardless of any bilateral trade agreements and increased cooperation, all the states involved in this dispute should make it a priority to resolve the conflict before regional or international actors become involved and further complicate the process.

With all three nations set to meet again on the 20th of August, President Sisi and his government should make reaching a preliminary agreement with Sudan and Ethiopia a top priority.

About Author

Marwan Ezz Al Arab

Marwan Ezz Al Arab is an Economic Analyst for the World Bank based out of Cairo. He completed his Master's in International Affairs from Columbia University with a specialization in International Security Policy and Conflict Resolution.