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February 19, 2016 5:12 am

Is It Possible for Egypt and Ethiopia to Share the Nile?

avatar by Daniel Pipes

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Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Oil is the Middle East’s glamor product, sought after by the entire world and bringing the region wealth beyond the dream 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 non-renewable 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 by salinizing it. 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 territories without any benefit to themselves. Accordingly, they initiated a network of dams, culminating with the pompously named 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, 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 in 2016, storing an initial 14 bcm.

The potential for disruption is enormous; in 2013, during the Mohamed 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 Aïda). 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.

Mr. Pipes (, @DanielPipes) president of the Middle East Forum, depended on Nile water for three years while living in Cairo. © 2016 by Daniel Pipes. All rights reserved. This article was originally published by The Washington Times.

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  • Favor no one! ” Oil is the glamor product of the Middle East,” you said. It won’t be long for us to say, ” Power is the glamor product of East Africa.” I know you don’t like it Mr. Pipes, Beacause Egypt is your beloved State. True water is mandatory for all local natives. It’s even much more usefull if it’s used wisely. A Historian, scientist, President of the Middle East Fourm! It’s quite a Knowlege you have there. Use that dynamic knowledge & try to see what a meracle we’ll do with our beloved Abbay,in 2025. Besides our fish products we’ll fulfill your beloved Egypt’s need:- Sugar,Corn, Wheat, Beans etc. Imagen what we provide for the fast growing population of Egypt & Ethiopia. Then Mr. Pipes, you will understand what we meant by ” not to worry ” Use your Historian ethics, depend on facts only, without favoring no one !!! Thank you Yared Seyoum.

  • I didn’t understand what Algemeimer print is. Can you please explain it to me. Yared Seyoum.

  • Markos

    Dear Mr. Pipes (, @DanielPipes) your statement is very wrong please refer history it is good to know also for your knowledge. Ethiopia never sign any agreement regarding Nile river with any country before 1929 and after, its very shame for you mr.Pipes to writer without references, yes everything is possible if people are ready to understand what is the mining of fairly. its not good to write mr. Pipes just try to sketch free hand picture no one will comment.
    Thank you

  • Tamiru

    As everybody know GERD is built only for electricity, 25km off from Sudan boarder i.e. Using the lake water back-ward for irrigation is impossible b/c it is not economical or beyond ethiopias technology capacity, So why Egyptians worry knowing the reality on the ground? Whether Egyptian like or not ethiopias don’t stop building the dam for a minutes!

  • Wedi Wedom

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

    Such an embellish article on such a prominent newspaper? Washington 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 to 4 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 Mr. Pipes to have his say on this. My grandfathers defeated yours on the battle of Adwa and I surely will defeat you here on the Keyboard battle – because none of you have truth with you except that super greed and racism we all know. Imbecilic!

    Wedi Wedom

  • Faysal

    “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.”
    This statment is false. Ethiopoia has never signed such an agreement with Britain or Egypt.
    Both countries have a win-win option, when Egypt accepts the fact that it has no veto right over the Nile.
    Furthermore, Egypt must learn to it’s water resources wisely. First, annual loss due to evaporation at Asswan Dam in Egypt is more than 7 billion m3.
    Second, it is plain stupid to cultivate water-intensive crops like rice and cotton in the Sahara desert.
    Third, it is insane to entertain tens of thousands thirsty golf courses in such a country.
    The list is long!