It is a “manifest truth even to a person who has not heard it beforehand”, wrote the fifth century Greek historian Herodotus, “that the Egypt to which the Hellenes come in ships is a land which has been won by the Egyptians as an addition, and that it is a gift of the river”.
Today, the vast majority of Egypt’s population of 94m still live along the river’s banks and delta. It would be no exaggeration to say the Nile is the lifeblood of the country – which is why tensions are flaring up again over Ethiopia’s plan to dam one of the river’s major tributaries.
At 6,853km the Nile, by some estimations, is world’s longest river. It crosses 11 countries in a region where water is scarce and demand is only expected to increase. As many as 300m people could be dependent on the river.
But rivers as large as the Nile offer more than just water.
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is a $4.8bn scheme to create a massive hydropower dam across a section of the river. The project would be a boon for Ethiopia, not only shoring up the country’s energy needs but also acting as a lynchpin for an economic development plan.
The project is already under construction and is thought to be about 60% complete. But Egypt and Sudan, both downstream from Ethiopia, are concerned about the impact the project will have on both their access to water and the nutrient-rich sediment that fertilises the river’s banks. Ethiopia is host to the Blue Nile, the tributary that provides both the most water and the majority of silt.
Access to water is at the heart of the dispute. Egypt holds onto a 1959 agreement that gives it the right to 55.5tn litres of water a year. Ethiopia was not a signatory, so does not recognise the claim.
So high were the levels of concern that in 2013 Egyptian politicians were caught discussing plans to sabotage the construction of the dam, not realising the discussion was being televised. More recently, more outspoken politicians have suggested actually bombing the project.
Egypt’s president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has publicly quashed any threat of conflict over the matter, but the latest round of talks between the countries about how to manage the impact of the dam broke down in November with accusations all round. Al-Sisi said the issue was a matter of life and death for Egypt, to which Ethiopia retorted the same.
It is true Ethiopia's need for energy is tangible: in 2014 just 27.2% had access to electricity according to the World Bank. This is compared to 99.8% in Egypt.
The dam will also benefit Ethiopia by providing a reservoir of 74tn litres – more than the entire volume of the Blue Nile – which is expected to be abundant with fish and create a tourist hotspot.
But the reservoir will take anywhere between five and 15 years to fill to capacity, and the slowdown of the river could cause problems for Egypt, not just because of the tangible loss of water. The banks of the Nile are dependent on annual flooding to replace the silt that makes them so fertile. Somewhat ironically, the dam could also cause energy shortages in Egypt as it would reduce the flow to its own hydroelectric dam.
Either way, Ethiopia is set on completing the project. The countries will need to find a way to cooperate if they are to manage the impact downstream.
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