A River that Belongs to None: The Nile River Dispute

Chase O'Brien-Steele, Staff Writer

The Nile River, for all of its recent history, has been a crucial geographic feature in Africa’s landscape. The fertile lands around the Nile have provided livable and farmable land to its inhabitants. In modern times, the Nile has been a hotly contested resource. Since Egypt completed the Aswan Dam in 1970, the first modern dam of the Nile, Egyptians have depended on it for water, flood control and electricity. Several dams have been built since then, but the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), begun in 2011 and now near completion, has generated turmoil among several powerful African nations and their allies. While the GERD is slated to be the largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa, its situation along the Blue Nile is currently one of the most contentious political and economic situations in Africa. The question of sustainability is at the core of this current crisis. 

Ethiopia and Egypt have butted heads ever since construction began; from the Egyptian point of view, the dam is a detriment to the country’s potential. Egypt claims the dam will cut off water supplies to the south; any amount of water loss is problematic, as the Nile provides Egypt 90% of its water. Since the only farmable land in Egypt lies within a couple of miles of the river, Egypt doesn’t produce enough food to feed its whole population; as a result, Egypt is an import-reliant economy. The Egyptian government doesn’t want to make their food insufficiency worse by conceding water rights to Ethiopia. However, with construction almost complete, Egypt’s focus has turned to the filling of the dam. The two countries mainly disagree over how long the new reservoir would take to fill up. 

For Ethiopia, the country’s economic ambitions hinge on the completion and success of the dam. The dam will be the country’s largest-ever public works project in its history and will help solve Ethiopia’s energy shortage (60% of Ethiopians have no electricity). While Egypt has conceded that the completion of the dam is inevitable, there is still incredible tension. Negotiations have come to a halt, as Ethiopia and Egypt disagree upon the filling time. While Egypt wants Ethiopia to gradually fill up the dam over twelve years, Ethiopia hopes to fill it in six. Because of the lack of negotiating progress, the United States recently withdrew $130 million of aid to Ethiopia. A lot is at stake for both Ethiopia and Egypt. On one hand, Ethiopia is shouldering most of the cost of the dam and would like to get a return on their investment as soon as possible. On the other, the dam could exacerbate Egypt’s already significant water insecurity.  

Tensions have risen so high that the Ethiopian government has banned flights over the dam for security reasons. With Ethiopia taking such strong safety precautions, it’s probable the government foresees future non-diplomatic measures being taken by Egypt if negotiations don’t progress. Ethiopia has also just announced they have achieved one year of filling, and that the dam will start generating electricity in the next twelve months.  

Climate change and sustainability are at the heart of this debate. Sudan is experiencing its worst floods in recent history, crippling an emerging country that has struggled with violence, disease and political turmoil. The Nile River Delta, where 40-50 million Egyptians live, could be partially underwater soon if sea levels rise. Additionally, the area is becoming less fertile as a result of sediments caught in the Aswan Dam; another huge dam will only worsen the problem. Saltwater intrusion also is lowering farmer’s outputs already, and the problem will only get worse. The flooding every year is devastating; however, the drought that an impending climate crisis will bring will be more devastating.

The issue of Nile water availability is a microcosm of the region’s slowly manifesting confrontation with climate change. Finding agreement on the dam’s filling has been difficult because the lifeblood of several African countries depends on the outcome. Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia can find a suitable agreement for all parties on the filling of the dam, but only if each country makes concessions. With Egypt historically being in control of the Nile, it’s going to be difficult to give up the regional hegemony they’ve enjoyed over the Nile’s water. The Nile is a shared resource, and the countries it runs through must find a fair agreement to make sure it stays that way. Finding an agreement soon is crucial. Ethiopia has already filled the dam with a year’s worth of water and will fill it up as fast as possible if negotiations remain stalled. Once they find a solution, the countries can move on together to face the biggest threat to the region’s health and existence: climate change.