Egyptian Water Security vs. Ethiopian Development

By Patrick Keys 

(This is a continuation of a post here: Mubarak’s Fall and the Future of the Nile Basin)

In the previous post, the post-Mubarak political terrain was examined, with particular emphasis on how the polarity of power may be shifting away from Egypt and Sudan, towards the more coordinated upstream nations.  It was concluded, that without the hawkish stance of Mubarak, Egyptian influence in the Nile Basin may wane, while the influence of upstream nations may grow.

As the title of this post indicates, Egyptian water security is closely related to the development of Ethiopian water resources.  Based on the volume of water that Ethiopia contributes to the total Nile River flow, I argue that the most critical decisions impacting Egyptian water resources in the coming decades, will be implicitly related to Ethiopian development of its renewable water resources resources, specifically in terms of hydropower and irrigation.

Hydrology Overview

The Nile River encompasses a vast watershed, and is considered the longest river in the world, measuring 6,550 km, from the White Nile headwaters in Burundi to the delta in Egypt.

(click map to enlarge)

Photo from World Bank

Though there is enormous complexity that could be discussed, this ‘hydrology’ discussion will be limited to average streamflow. Below is a summary table of the average discharge at key points along the tributaries of the Nile.

Adapted from Wikipedia

An important characteristic of the Nile is the Sudd, which is a vast wetland in Sudan, where the White Nile enters with 1,048 cubic meters per second and exits with 510 cubic meters per second.  This loss is equivalent to 15 cubic kilometers per year.  This is an enormous volume of water, however it is worth comparing it to the volume of water lost from evaporation in the Aswan High Dam, which is roughly 10 cubic kilometers per year. The Jonglei canal, a planned diversion past the Sudd to increase the downstream flow, has been discussed for decades, though it’s construction is unlikely in the near term, not least because the Sudd now falls in the domain of the new Republic of South Sudan.

Additionally, you may notice that the flowrates from the White Nile, Blue Nile, and Atabara do not add up to the average discharge at the Nile Delta.  This is attributed to the evaporation losses in the Aswan High Dam, along with the very significant abstractions that are used for irrigation (that never return to the main stem of the river).

The Blue Nile = Egypt’s Lifeblood

For Egypt, the Blue Nile is the most critical component of water security. Though the White Nile provides the stable flow during the dry season, this volume of water (relative to the wet season flow) is much less significant.  This has been recognized as recently as March 3, 2011, with the Egyptian Ministry of Irrigation “seeking to form a legal committee that will help ensure Egypt retains its “historic water rights“, as well as aiming to step up cooperation with Ethiopian water projects.

Tississat falls on the Blue Nile (posted to Flickr by Giustino)

Photo by Giustino, from Flickr

Furthermore, given that the Blue Nile originates in Ethiopia, the dependence of Egypt on Ethiopian water resources management is clear.  Currently, the Ethiopian government is doing very little to alter the flow of the Blue Nile, given that access to the river is largely prohibited by a deep, treacherous, and long gorge.  If Ethiopia were to undertake large scale hydropower projects on the Blue Nile, there could be serious implications for downstream users (read: Sudan & Egypt) when (1) hydropower reservoirs are filled (when downstream flows could be significantly reduced) and when (2) irrigated agriculture emerges, since the hydropower infrastructure, namely roads and access to electricity, would make this a possibility.

Dams & Irrigation

The importance of the Blue Nile to Egypt’s flow suggests that any alteration of the flow-rate, particularly on the part of Ethiopia, could be very important to downstream consumption.

As an example we will look at the Tana-Beles hydropower project, potentially Ethiopia’s largest power plant, which is located on the Beles River and Lake Tana, tributaries of the Blue Nile River.  The project, which was begun in 1992, reached a milestone in 2010, when the first electricity was generated (115 MW).  Eventually, the goal is to generate 460 MW and provide irrigation for 140,000 hectares (ha). Irrigating 140,000 hectares is a considerable volume of water, if you assume that the depth of irrigation is 1 centimeter (which is a very conservative estimate).  After converting all the units, that is equal to 14 million cubic meters.  Compared to the flow of the Blue Nile, this is negligible; less than 1/millionth of total discharge.  However, this is only one project, and the potential for more irrigation is enormous.

According to a 2009 report published by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), Ethiopia is currently irrigating 289,530 hectares (ha), which is only 11% of its irrigation potential (irrigation potential is a term used by the Food & Agricultural Organization (FAO) to denote “land resources suitable for irrigation”). Compare Ethiopia’s values to Egypt’s, which is irrigating nearly 3.5 million ha, and is at 77% of its irrigation potential.

Additionally, the same IFPRI report examines ‘Total Available Renewable Water Resources’ or TARWR.  There are several measures they use summarized in the table below.

Egypt’s numbers are (not surprisingly) quite high.  The dam capacity per capita is especially large compared to most other African nations (although not as high as Ghana, due to the enormous Lake Volta behind the Akosombo Dam).  Ethiopia’s figures are, by comparison, very low.  The general conclusion a reader may draw from this table is that Ethiopia has enormous potential to build more dams.

Chinese Influence

The importance of the Chinese in developing Ethiopian water resources must not be understated. As the Wikipedia table below demonstrates, 6 of the 11 (or more than 50%) of Ethiopian dams have been, or will be, contracted to Chinese corporations.  And since three of the dams were “no bid” contracts, China received 6 of the 8 “bid” contracts, thus making China (or Chinese corporations) responsible for underwriting 75% of Ethiopia’s dams. At this point, it is abundantly clear that China has enormous interest in Africa, both in terms of influence and resources.  Whether it is land acquisitions for food production, oil contracts, or (in this case) hydropower production, China is a major force in African infrastructure.

(click to enlarge)

What China’s involvement with Ethiopian water resources implies for the future of Nile basin politics remains to be seen.  However, I think it is very unlikely that China would allow its significant investments of money and good-will in Ethiopian infrastructure to be threatened by Egyptian military force. Perhaps with the emergence of China as a major player in the development of Nile basin water resources, we are also witnessing the emergence of a new balance of power, with the interests of downstream Egypt (historically guaranteed by the US) vying with the interests of upstream Ethiopia (which may now be guaranteed by China).

In the next post, the status of the Comprehensive Framework Agreement will be examined, with an examination of the impacts on Egyptian water resources, and the potential timeline associated with ratification of the CFA.

NEXT: The CFA and some Future Scenarios

14 Replies to “Egyptian Water Security vs. Ethiopian Development”

  1. Really interesting, Pat. This blog is great. I have a couple of questions and a couple of recommendations for future posts.

    First, Egypt appears to depend on its upstream neighbors for water, but I wonder what leverage Egypt might have on these states. Thinking beyond the threat of military force (Egypt clearly has the stronger military), are these other states dependent on Egypt for anything? How has Egypt responded to the construction of Sudanese and Ethiopian dams in the past?

    Second, I wonder how this situation compares to other upstream/downstream relationships around the world. Are there any models for riparian cooperation? I once saw the Colorado “River” as it flowed across the border into Mexico and thought there must be a better way.

    Two ideas for future posts: 1) I’d love your take on the occupation of the high glaciers over Kashmir. 2) Japan’s earthquake has led the authorities to use sea water to cool the reactors to prevent an emergency meltdown. I hear this has never been done before. Aside from the plot of “Godzilla,” I don’t know of any cases where huge volumes of radioactive water has drained into the ocean. Any ideas about what this will do?

    1. Thanks for the feedback Dr. Bell. I’ll reply to your comments in order:

      As for “soft power”, Egypt has a significant track record of positive involvement w/ international institutions (e.g. Mohamed el Baradei & the UN Intl. Atomic Energy Agency), and the relationship with the US is obviously very important. Its cynical to think that just because Egypt has strong ties to the US, that they can call upon the global hegemon at their whim; but I think they could. If Egypt, and by proxy the US, actually felt threatened in a manner that could ignite additional unrest (i.e. significant reductions in irrigation water for its cotton harvest), I think the US would use some of its clout, likely in a “soft” way (economic sanctions, AID distribution, etc).

      Egypt’s status as a downstream riparian (riparian = “a nation bordering an international river”) is fairly unique in many respects, in that it is the last to receive the waters of the Nile and the most powerful in the basin. Commonly, the most powerful nation in an Intl. river basin is located at the headwaters: the Colorado River (U.S.); the Tigris-Euphrates (Turkey); the Ganges-Brahmaputra (India); the Mekong (China). There are models for riparian cooperation, oddly in our own backyard; the International Joint Commission (IJC) is a transboundary entity between the US and Canada which works together to manage the Columbia River flow. There are several significant dams in Montana, on the Columbia River system that flow into Canada, and back into the US. Cross-border management is necessary for managing river levels, flooding, etc. Therefore, there are examples of successful cooperation; however, in basins with developing nations, the “Basin Hegemon” commonly acts the way it sees fit, and the other nations adapt. Prime example is the damming of the Mekong in China (see an old post of mine: Drought in the Mekong Basin, where I illustrate the extent of China’s damming ambitions). Another example is Israel, w/ regard to (1) the Jordan as well as (2) the groundwater beneath the West Bank (I’m planning to post on this soon…).

      The occupation of glaciers in Kashmir is a great idea for a post. When I finish up this series, consider that next 😉 The flushing of seawater through Nuclear reactors to cool them is common practice, and is the fail-safe for many coastal Nuclear power stations. I imagine the consequences would be marginal, if the outlet for the water is sufficiently far out to sea. The temperature differential (super heated water entering a very cold environment) might actually cause more problems to local aquatic flora and fauna than the presence of radioactivity.

    2. Also, as a newly minted PhD in International & Comparative Politics, how realistic do you think my assertions regarding Chinese-Ethiopian ties are, with respect to China being a potential major player in African politics?

  2. Tell the Egyptians they can try to invade, but they will be crushed again just like in 1875 at Gundet and Gura. Ethiopian military destroyed them.

    We are not your neighbors Egypt, so you wount last long in a war, we can poison the river if we feel threatened

    1. I approved your comment, but I’d like to keep things civil on the blog. This is not the appropriate forum for making overt threats; In the future, please keep your comments constructive (especially since you apparently have some strong opinions!). Thanks!

      On a separate note, I was intrigued by your comment on Gundet and Gura, and looked up the war you reference on Wikipedia. Low and behold, I could not find an English article, and thus used Google to translate the French article. Military tactics have changed significantly since the 1800’s, however, you bring up a valid issue in terms of bio-warfare, with regard to the Nile. If Ethiopia (or an organization acting on its behalf) actually poisoned the Nile (or some similar act), the International response would certainly be swift and decisive, in the form of severe economic sanctions, withdrawal of aid, and certainly criminal proceedings for those that perpetrate the act. The primary reason for this would be the disregard for downstream civilian life, and the widespread environmental catastrophe that could result. Non-state, terrorist actors however could pose a real threat, and I am curious what counter measures could be deployed to combat this.

  3. I was wondering if Mubarak’s Fall could change the prespective of the egyptan policy on the nile basin?
    thank you

    1. Good question. Mubarak was a water hawk, and was unrelenting in his assertion that Egypt had an absolute right to its historic allocation. I think a great deal of Egyptian water policy in the past was due specifically to Mubarak’s aggressive stance on Egyptian water rights and his willingness to travel throughout the Nile Basin countries asserting this right. So, unless the new Egyptian PM (or whoever becomes the prime negotiator) is as aggressive and hawkish as Mubarak, I think that Egyptian water policy could change.
      It is worth considering that the success of Mubarak’s aggressive stance for Egyptian water policy could, at least in part, have been due to the economic weakness of the upstream riparians. That is changing significantly now, and so it is possible that great changes could take place in the upper basin without Egypt playing a role at all.

      1. i have a question!
        can ethiopia have any right to utilize the waters of the nile either for irregation or HEP? should we leave 85million people starve and live under poverty throug out thoer history? or Is there any middle ground to share the water fairlly and equitablly?
        i like to learn from the best!

      2. Hello Arnold,
        Thanks for reading. Depending on your definition of what is “right” Ethiopians can certainly have rights to the Nile waters. There must be a middle ground to share the waters of the Nile with the other users.
        I think the difficult thing is that it is unfair to shut off the water entirely for all the people in the lower Nile region, since their livelihoods may currently depend on the waters upstream. However, it is also unfair to use their livelihoods as an argument to suppress the development of upstream nations like Ethiopia.
        Though the Comprehensive Agreement (CA) that is being discussed by the Nile Basin Initiative parties is potentially a useful tool for facilitating international dialogue, the most important users of the Blue Nile are Egypt and Ethiopia. Thus I think if Egypt is going to remain outside of the CA, then Egypt and Ethiopia must pursue bilateral negotiations in parallel – primarily to ensure that both countries understand and agree to what the other is doing. This is, however, a lot to ask of both the Egyptian and Ethiopian people, given that they both feel a sense of entitlement to the Nile.

  4. Thanks for ones marvelous posting! I actually enjoyed reading it, you can be a great author.I will always bookmark your blog and may come back in the future.I want to encourage continue your great job, have a nice day!

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