“Ethiopia’s move was unprecedented. Never before has an upstream state unilaterally built a dam without downstream approval,” Ayman Shabaana of the Cairo-based Institute for Africa Studies had told IPS last June. “If other upstream countries follow suit, Egypt will have a serious water emergency on its hands.” The dam is part of a broader scheme that would see at least three more dams on the Nile.
Relations between Egypt and Ethiopia have soured since Ethiopia began construction on the 4.2 billion dollar Grand Renaissance Dam in 2011. “Egypt sees its Nile water share as a matter of national security,” strategic analyst Ahmed Abdel Halim tells IPS. “To Ethiopia, the new dam is a source of national pride, and essential to its economic future.”
Egypt fears the new dam, slated to begin operation in 2017, will reduce the downstream flow of the Nile, which 85 million Egyptians rely on for almost all of their water needs. Officials in the Ministry of Irrigation claim Egypt will lose 20 to 30 percent of its share of Nile water and nearly a third of the electricity generated by its Aswan High Dam.
Citing a pair of colonial-era treaties, Egypt argues that it is entitled to no less than two-thirds of the Nile’s water and has veto power over any upstream water projects such as dams or irrigation networks. Accords drawn up by the British in 1929 and amended in 1959 divvied up the Nile’s waters between Egypt and Sudan without ever consulting the upstream states that were the source of those waters. The 1959 agreement awarded Egypt 55.5 billion cubic metres of the Nile’s 84 billion cubic metre average annual flow, while Sudan received 18.5 billion cubic metres. Another 10 billion cubic metres is lost to evaporation in Lake Nasser, which was created by Egypt’s Aswan High Dam in the 1970s, leaving barely a drop for the nine other states that share the Nile’s waters.
The desire for a more equitable distribution of Nile water rights resulted in the 2010 Entebbe Agreement, which replaces water quotas with a clause that permits all activities provided they do not “significantly” impact the water security of other Nile Basin states. Five upstream countries – Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda – signed the accord. Burundi signed a year later. Egypt rejected the new treaty outright. Cairo now finds itself in the uncomfortable position of watching its mastery over the Nile’s waters slip through its fingers.
While the treaty’s water allocations appear gravely unfair to upstream Nile states, analysts point out that unlike the mountainous equatorial nations, which have alternative sources of water, the desert countries of Egypt and Sudan rely almost entirely on the Nile for their water needs.
“One reason for the high level of anxiety is that nobody really knows how this dam is going to affect Egypt’s water share,” Richard Tutwiler, a specialist in water resource management at the American University in Cairo (AUC), tells IPS. “Egypt is totally dependent on the Nile. Without it, there is no Egypt.” But upstream African nations have their own growing populations to feed, and the thought of tapping the Nile for their agriculture or drinking water needs is all too tempting.