The Nile River, the world’s largest river and min resources for Northern Africa, has been the center of many debates between the countries in which it flows through for decades. Most importantly, the Nile has been central to the social and political development of Egypt. The Nile also impacts the resources of Burundi, Tanzania, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Uganda, Sudan, Ethiopia, and South Sudan. Currently, 95% of Egypt’s population lives within a few kilometers of the Nile. It continues to be a crucial trade route to connect Africa and Europe. Running through a largely barren desert, the Nile is crucial for the sustenance of the people because it supports the production of crops with its nutrient rich soil. In modern times, the Nile is essential to producing electricity for the impacted regions as well. But modern environmental problems are also plaguing the river. Mostly noticeably, river side communities have caused a lot of pollution which has impacted the sanitation of the river. Climate change is also already appearing as a problem within the communities dependent on the Nile. One of the main consequences of climate change is that dry climates become drier, whereas wet climates become wetter. The area surrounding the Nile is obviously a desert and the subsequent impacts of climate change will have more and more communities becoming dependent on a singular water source that is becoming more polluted. This does not even address the political implications of control over the Nile.
As the Nile greatly impacts many large countries in Africa, there has been a long history of changing power structures and conflict. Given Africa’s history of being colonized by imperialist Great Britain, the control of the river was not always determined by the actual people occupying the land. In 1929, The Nile Waters Agreement was signed between Egypt and Great Britain and this contract gave to power of veto to Cairo. The purpose of this was to ensure that Cairo could veto a project that could have potential downstream effects that would limit their water supply. At the time of this agreement, Great Britain was representing the interests of Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, and Sudan. So, Cairo had the power of veto against all of the stated countries and Egypt.
In 1959, the previous agreement was revised to instead allot Egypt and Sudan specific amounts of water per year. Specifically, Egypt was allotted 55.5 billion cubic meters and Sudan was allotted 18.5 billion cubic meters per year. This agreement began building a lot of resentment for other states along the Nile, as they felt their interests were not being represented at all, which is true.
In an effort to foster good relations and cooperation, the Nile Basin Initiative was enacted in 1999. This initiative included the nine countries on the Nile and stated that they would share socioeconomic benefits and uphold the promotion of regional peace and security. The nine countries included began with Burundi. Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda. South Sudan was added after the initial plan was created.
Conflicts begin to arise more strongly in 2010 after some of the countries from the Nile Basin Initiative decided to sign the Entebbe Agreement. Uganda, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya, and Burundi signed the Entebbe Agreement which allows these countries to conduct projects on the Nile without the consent of another country first. Following this decision by those countries, Egypt immediately paused their participation in the Nile Basin Initiative. Egypt viewed the enactment of the Entebbe agreement as a huge threat to their share of the Nile as they are downstream from the countries in the Entebbe Agreement and this is still the case.
The last formal agreement signed regarding control of the Nile was in 2015 with the Declaration of Principles. Signed between Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan, this agreement has the intention of fostering future positive diplomatic relations, while also ensuring that priority is given to downstream countries for purposes of electricity generation. The goal of this agreement was to ultimately ease growing tensions and hopefully provide a way to resolving conflicts, should they arise in the future. However, clearly this has not been entirely successful, as conflicts are being to emerge at alarming rates.
The most pressing issue of the summer for the Nile river and its surrounding countries has been the enormous dam built in Ethiopia. The Ethiopian Great Renaissance Dam began being built in April 2011 but was not operational until July 2020. Throughout its construction, the dam has proved to be a major point of contention between Ethiopia and Egypt. The dam is situated in the highlands of Ethiopia through which 85 percent of the Nile’s water flows. The concerns of Egypt are centered around the consequences of the dam filling in the Ethiopia, which would then significantly decrease the amount of downstream water available to Egypt.
Ethiopia was set on building this dam for the large amount of energy it would provide for their country. They are currently experiencing an energy shortage in which 65% of its population is not connected to the grid. This dam would be able to fill that gap, while also generating enough electricity to sell to neighboring countries for profit.
One way that Ethiopia and Egypt discussed to mitigate the impacts would be through the slow filling of the dam during rainy seasons over a period of 6 or so years. Egypt would prefer a longer time period of 12 years or longer, so this was another point of contention between the countries. The level of the river downstream would not be significantly impacted if the dam were slowly filled. The issues of downstream flow would only arise if the dam were filled quickly.
On July 15th, news broke that the Ethiopian dam was being filled at alarming rates. Initially, the Ethiopian Minister of Water denied this claim and argued that the photographs the media released were misleading as there had recently been heavy rains. However, Sudan came forward to state that they believed the dams were being filled at unprecedented rates due to the loss of power in their power-generating sources on the Nile. These stations would only be offline if the downstream flow had significantly decreased, suggesting that the dam had been retaining large amounts of water. Ethiopia was then forced to admit that they had been filling the dam. Currently, the tensions continue to rise, and misleading statements provided by both governments have not improved the situation. Egypt and Ethiopia have intended to have meetings to discuss the future of their relations with specific attention on the dam.
What will be the future?
The future of this conflict appears to be on a quick path to a violent outcome. Ethiopia and Egypt have both made questionable actions that were carried out in secret. Obviously, Ethiopia beginning the operation of the dam by filling water at a rate at which they explicitly promised not to, along with lying to the media at first response, sets a very negative tone for the following conversations. Egypt has a lot of environmental factors at stake, which they need to protect. In a study conducted by Reuters in 2018, They reported that 17 percent of agricultural land and 75 percent of fish farms would be destroyed in Egypt if the dam was filled in 6 years. This puts Egypt at risk, specifically in food and water security, at the hands of Ethiopia. With Egypt being a historically strong force in the control of the Nile, it would not make sense for them to submit easily with so many imminent negative impacts. These concerns have not yet even begun to discuss the quickly approaching impacts of climate change and how the environmental could change and result in even more devastating impacts than expected. All things considered; this current path does not appear to be leading to reconciliation in any degree. It would seem as if a violent response is imminent.
Featured image courtesy of NASA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons