Rhein on Energy and Climate

The Nile River Basin, the longest on earth, will be confronted with rising imbalance between water demand of a rising population and declining supply, due to global climate change.

This perspective risks to generate increasing tensions among the 10 riparian countries, especially Egypt and Sudan, which presently obtain 90 per cent of all Nile water, and the up-stream countries which have to do with only 10 per cent, an unsustainable situation.

The Nile water issue is very old

As early as 1929 Egypt concluded an agreement with Britain representing its East-African colonies guaranteeing it the bulk of the Nile water, 55 billion cubic meter per year, enabling it to produce more cotton for the British textile industry!

Since their independence in the 1960s the upstream countries have repeatedly called on Egypt and Sudan to revise the terms of the 1929 agreement to which they had never given their consent.

Most recently the issue has again come to the forefront following the decision by the Ethiopian government to go ahead with the construction of the 6 GW “Renaissance Dam” on the Blue Nile, which will be the biggest in Africa.

As it is meant to produce electricity the Dam will not impair the water supply of down-stream Egypt and Sudan. If properly managed, it may even help to better regulate their water supply.

The Egyptian government seems to accept this. It has therefore scaled down its protests against the construction.

The real conflicts are due to come when upstream countries will claim a more equitable distribution of the Nile water and, in the absence of a new contractual framework, take unilateral action.

It is imperative to prepare for this eventuality. In face of the rising imbalance between supply and demand allriparian countries will have to introduce strict water management, from advanced irrigation techniques to recycling and tariffs reflecting water scarcity.

Egypt will be the most concerned country. It will have to abandon its historical water entitlements and learn to do with much less than the 55 billion cubic meter it has been accustomed to. This will require a painful adjustment, involving profound reforms. Egypt will have to take draconian, politically unpopular, measures, including hefty hikes of water tariffs and abandoning desert irrigation projects.

Managing the Nile Basin will be a formidable challenge for the 300 million people that will in future depend on its limited water resources. They will only succeed through cooperation and mutual respect. Military interventions are no answer. They will neither generate nor redistribute any water.

The EU has been the main external source of financial and technical support, alongside with the World Bank, for bilateral water projects in the Egypt and other countries of the region. However useful, this role will not suffice in the future.

It should engage in a comprehensive diplomatic activity prodding all riparian countries to become partners of a revised “Nile River Cooperative Framework” and help formulate the necessary compromises between upstream and downstream countries. Benefiting from its 60-year experience in regional cooperation the EU seems well qualified to assist the 10 riparian countries in this crucial challenge to transform potential conflict into cooperation.

In close partnership with the World Bank, it should focus its cooperation in the coming years on this overriding issue. Without an equitable solution of the water issue Eastern Africa risks political increasing tensions which it cannot afford.

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