The Hill is a top US political website, read by the White House and more lawmakers than any other site — vital for policy, politics and election campaigns.  In this article published 23 Dec 2014, we see how the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is causing waves not only in Egypt, but here in the United States.  (Read “Ethiopia thwarts Egypt by paying for Nile dam itself for the back-story on the Biblical implications)


Water worries on the Nile

Without the Nile, there would be no Egypt as we know it. Egypt has relied on the Nile waters for all of its known history: the great civilizations of ancient Egypt, of the Pharaohs and the pyramids, would never have been without the Nile.

Nearly all of Egypt is desert, and almost all Egyptians live along the Nile and its delta. 98 percent of Egypt’s water comes from the Nile, and the country currently uses 98 percent of that water. Between 60 and 70 percent of this water flows to Egypt from the Blue Nile, which is fed by rains in the mountains of Ethiopia. There is little leeway for Egypt if the waters of the Blue Nile were significantly diminished.

Ethiopia is about 40 percent finished with the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, or GERD, which is on the Blue Nile, the major source of water for Egypt. Egypt is worried. It should be.

The reservoir of water to be filled behind the GERD could be as large as 75 cubic kilometers of water, which is much larger than Egypt’s Nile allocation of 55 cubic kilometers of water dating back to a 1959 treaty. This reservoir is also greater than one-half of the size of Lake Nasser, which is Egypt’s major “bank” of water in case of droughts.

When there were major droughts in Ethiopia in the 1980s, water flows to Egypt diminished drastically, electricity production from hydropower dams in Egypt declined, and water for irrigation of crops to feed Egyptians was threatened. When Egyptians think of what might happen if the GERD reservoir is filled too quickly, they can remember what happened in the 1980s. They may also fear that Ethiopia will use the GERD reservoir not only for electricity but also for irrigation — even if the government claims now that they never would.

If there are droughts in Ethiopia in the future, it is a near guarantee that Ethiopia will use the water from the GERD reservoir for irrigation. It would be politically impossible for the government not to. Once that water is taken out of the Blue Nile, then Egypt has even less to work with. With the construction of the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, Ethiopia controls the tap of the Blue Nile.

The population of Egypt is expected to grow from its current 87 million to 145 million in 2050. During that time, the population of Ethiopia is expected grow from 94 million to 167 million. Let’s not forget Sudan, a country along the Nile between Ethiopia and Egypt that is expected to grow from its present 37 million people to 77 million in 2050. These rapidly growing populations will need a lot more water for agriculture, industry, homes, schools, hospitals and more. As these countries develop their economies, their populations will use more water-intensive foods, such as meats. They will also increase their reliance on water-intensive energy, such as thermal electricity.

Climate change could act as a significant stress multiplier as rains and Nile River become less predictable and possibly lead to increased drought.

There are various competing treaties, UN Conventions and agreements regulating water sharing that could be applied on the Blue Nile. But none of these has any enforcement mechanism to back them up.

The United States has considerable national interests in the peaceful development of the nations along the Nile. It has national interests in the continuing development of Egypt. Camp David comes to mind. Terrorism also comes to mind.

A serious water problem in Egypt could spur greater social unrest in Egypt and could act as a recruiting tool for terror groups. It could also bring back the Muslim Brotherhood. And that would be a nightmare considering what is happening with ISIS, Hamas, Hezbollah and the various extremist groups in Libya, as well as growing extremism in Sudan. Let’s remember that Egypt is on the Suez Canal and is in a vital strategic location for many other reasons.

For now, the U.S. also needs to help ensure that the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam reservoir is filled in a manner that does not put Egypt under increased water stress.

What happens with the GERD can be precedence for future peace or conflict in the region. Water can be for peace and prosperity. Water can be for war. The time for finding a better way of dealing with water on the Nile is now.

Sullivan is a professor of Economics at the National Defense University and adjunct professor of Security Studies at Georgetown University. All opinions expressed are Professor Sullivan’s alone.