Egypt & Ethiopia: Nile Cooperation at last?

By Patrick Keys 

UPDATE – “The Dragon and the Nile” exploring China’s role in Nile geopolitics

(This is Part V, of Water Security Blog’s series on post-Mubarak Water Security, the previous posts are: 1. Mubarak’s Fall and the Future of the Nile Basin; 2. Egyptian Water Security vs. Ethiopian Development; 3. Egypt’s Jonglei Canal Gambit; and, 4. Egyptian Saber-rattling and a White Nile Coalition)

This series on Egyptian water security has explored the hydrology, diplomatic relations with upstream riparians, and potential infrastructure changes to White Nile and Blue Nile streamflow. The emphasis has been on the relationship between Egypt and Ethiopia, because as evidenced in the second post in the series, Egypt receives the majority of its Nile streamflow from the Blue Nile. This final post seeks to summarize the series and briefly explore a few potential scenarios for what the future may hold.

What have we learned?

As the upstream riparians of the Nile River are finally planning to use their water, specifically Ethiopia, Egypt’s water security is uncertain. However, as the details of the Millennium Dam are becoming evident, Egypt and Ethiopia have exchanged strong words; but so far, only words. It seems unlikely to me that the nations in the Nile would resort to violence, simply because it would (a) inflame existing instability, and (b) the international repercussions would likely be swift. Furthermore, recent news indicates that Egypt is more willing to cooperate than previously thought.

What is most likely is the continued development of Ethiopian water resources. If this is so, we can expect to see Egypt continuing to pursue alternative/ back-up strategies to ensure that it receives the flow it needs for agriculture, municipal, and industrial purposes.

The perspective of this series has been that of “what are the impacts of X on Egypt’s water security” and relatively scant attention has been paid to “whether or not X is appropriate.” The development of Ethiopian water resources, both for hydropower and agriculture, is to be considered an important step forward towards modernization. Given the ambition and the potential of Ethiopian water resources, important strides could be made towards providing food, energy, and jobs to the current residents of Ethiopia, many of who live in poverty.

Future scenarios

These are speculative scenarios for how Egypt’s water security may proceed, focusing on Egypt’s relationship with Ethiopia.

Scenario 1: War on the Nile

by Kobus Savonije, Picasa

Let it be known that this is considered very unlikely. If armed conflict was to emerge, it would likely begin with Egypt striking first, and would cost Egypt resources as well as potentially contribute to additional instability. Furthermore, if Egypt were to attack, it loses the moral high-ground that it is trying hard to cultivate with the international community, as it has tried to cast itself as somewhat of a  victim.

However, instability can often lead to the emergence of nationalist sentiments, and the seeking for a rallying cause. This fall, assuming democratic elections take place, it is possible that one ore more candidates may try and take advantage of this cause.  Mohamed Elbaradei, a strong contender for the Egyptian Presidency, has already indicated he can use strong language towards Israel, so it should be considered a possibility that he can direct that rhetoric towards other nations which threaten Egyptian interests.

Though I do not think this is likely, this scenario is potentially catastrophic and warrants consideration, if for no other reason, to illustrate what should not be allowed to happen.

Scenario 2: White Nile Coalition

Sudanese and Egyptian flags from “One Step Forward”

This was described in the previous post , regarding a potential collaboration among the White Nile Riparians. This was evidenced by Egyptian officials visiting White Nile nations (Uganda, South Sudan, and Sudan), and the promises made (e.g. South Sudanese development funds) and partnerships forged (e.g. Ugandan “tabling” of ratification of the Entebbe Agreement).

If Egypt successfully forms this White Nile Coalition, as a counter to Ethiopian control of the Blue Nile, then it is likely  that the chief impacts would be in the form of non-violent hostility, such as trade tariffs, trade embargoes, or marginalization in the international community.

Scenario 3: Egyptian & Ethiopian Cooperation

This is rarely suggested in either News reports or more thorough analyses; however, I think there is a strong case to be made for cooperation between Egypt and Ethiopia. Egypt is much richer than Ethiopia, with a more diversified economy. Ethiopia has the potential to store a great deal more water in the Blue Nile, which could have further benefits to downstream nations in terms of preparing for and adapting to changes in streamflow.

Cooperation would also provide an opportunity for Egypt to monitor construction of new dams along the Blue Nile, and play a role in the negotiations of when and how these dams are filled. Hostility would not be likely to produce the same willingness to share this type of information.

Recent news indicates that it is looking increasingly likely that Egypt will pursue a strategy of cooperation. Egyptian Ambassdor to Ethiopia, Tarik Ghoneim, said Thursday: “Everything is on the table.” He says Egypt’s new government wants to start discussions with all nine Nile countries about using waters in the best interest of all.

The long-term impact of this “willingness to negotiate” will be measured by Egypt’s willingness to participate in international treaties, specifically the Entebbe Agreement/Comprehensive Framework Agreement. I predict that Egypt will seek only bilateral cooperation with Ethiopia, and avoid larger agreements because there is more sacrifice associated with a broader agreement.


The final message of this series, though not apparent at first, appears to be a positive one of cooperation. Though the news mentioned above is less than a day old, it suggests that Egypt is seeking a balanced and regionally productive approach to managing transboundary issues.  Rest assured, however, that updates to Egyptian Nile relations will be explored as they arise, here on this blog.

What’s next?

Center pivot irrigation in Sahara, from Wikipedia

In exploring the relationship between Egypt and its dependence on the Nile River, interesting questions have arisen. Among these, what has been interesting to me is the foreign acquisition of land resources for the purposes of food security (or biofuels security). This land acquisition, also known as “land-grabs”,  is taking place quickly, in a less-than-transparent manner, and is concentrated in Africa. Given that large-scale appropriation of water for irrigation can be disastrous for downstream users (see inflows of the Colorado river to Mexico) it is worth exploring the potential impacts of irrigating these land acquisitions relative to changes in streamflow.

This will be the topic of the next series. “Global Land-grabs and Irrigation.” Gathering the necessary information for this will take a bit of time, so please be patient!

China’s Impending Drought and its Implications

Another major drought looks set to hit Chinese grain production this year, with some officials suggesting that the drought could be the worst in 60 years (while in Shandong province specifically, some are suggesting that it could be the worst drought in 200 years).

A recent China Daily article says “Some 2.57 million people and 2.79 million livestock are suffering from drinking water shortages, official figures showed…Eight major grain-producing provinces, including Shandong, Jiangsu, Henan, Hebei and Shanxi, have been affected. Together they produce more than 80 percent of China’s winter wheat.”  In response to the drought, the People’s Daily reports, “Zhang Qiang, head of Beijing’s artificial weather intervention office, said the office began cloud-seeding Wednesday night in nine districts and counties of Miyun, Mentougou, Yanqing, Haidian, Pinggu, Changping, Shijingshan, Fangshan and Huairou… By 6 a.m. Thursday, 759 silver iodide rods had been used to increase precipitation.” (sidenote: Interesting that China has state-sponsored & endorsed  “artificial weather intervention offices”).

The major issue is that if China’s domestic grain supplies tumble, they will be forced to purchase grain from the international market; which happens to already be overtaxed by under-supply.  This graph depicts the top 10 wheat importers by tonnage (chart found here; data from USDA).

As you can see, China is not in the top 10.  In fact its ranked 34, between Iraq and Pakistan.  For a country the size of China to be that far down this list is very surprising, and goes to show how self-sufficient they are.  However, this hides the mass of people in China.

Furthermore, sustained temperature increases can be expected from climate change, along with more frequent extreme events, including droughts and dry-spells.  If China were to switch permanently to a grain importer, rather than a grain exporter (as Lester Brown suggested over a decade ago), then serious adjustments to global food production will need to be addressed, including increased exploration of GM and non-GM drought resistant varieties.

China and Relocation

Recently the China Daily online news posted this article entitled “Anhui to relocate 390,000 residents for river control.”  The Chinese authorities are planning this relocation to keep the residents out of harms way from the flooding of the Huai River (Huai He).


China has invested billions of yuan into controlling flooding and harnessing hydropower.  It has also invested billions into the (mostly forced) relocation of millions of its own citizens. According to Wikipedia, China relocated 1.24 million people to make way for the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River.  The number of people being relocated in Anhui province is less than 1/3 of the relocation required for the Three Gorges project, but still, 1/3!  By any measure, 390,000 people is an enormous number.  Whats more, it requires rebuilding the infrastructure somewhere else!  For example, this relocation effort would be like moving all of the people in the city of Minneapolis, MN to a new city… and building a whole new Minneapolis (see Google Earth version of Minneapolis skyline below).

What I find interesting about this is that currently the Chinese government has both the financial resources, material, and political clout to actually pull this off. There will inevitably be disagreement and protests, but I have very little doubt that this relocation will happen.  The question is, what happens when/if the Chinese people acquire greater rights, specifically personal freedoms and the right to disagree with the government?  Will the speed with which decisions such as these are acted upon decrease?  Does the fact that China has centralized governance mean that it is better at the execution of long-term strategic infrastructure planning?

Whatever your feelings are toward Communist rule in China, the ability of the government to move quickly on very large scale projects such as this allows it an agility in policy that representative democracies rarely seem to have.

Rare pollution event in Europe

A toxic sludge spill has occurred in Hungary, and has killed nearly all life in the Marcal River, the spill is rapidly spreading towards the Danube River, which flows into Romania, Serbia, and Croatia.  This is a surprising event simply because the spill has the potential to impact downstream neighbors in a significant way, though not as significant as loss of human life.

Check out the latest BBC story (among others) on the spill.  The following is from the BBC:

The sludge is a by-product from the early stage of aluminium production, which leaked from storage reservoirs.  As part of the process, bauxite, the raw material, is taken out of the ground and washed with sodium hydroxide.  This produces alumina, which is processed further, and waste, which is composed of solid impurities, heavy metals, and the chemicals used as processing agents.

About 40%-45% of the waste is iron-oxide, which gives it the red colour.  Another 10%-15% is aluminium oxide, a further 10%-15% silicon oxide and there are smaller quantities of calcium oxide, titanium dioxide and sodium oxide, according to MAL Hungarian Aluminium, the company that owns the Ajkai plant.

Also, here is the link to the Wikipedia article which has updated facts and link.


It seems relatively rare that this type of event occurs in the developed world.  This type of activity is much more commonplace in poorer countries, namely in Africa and Asia, but that doesn’t make it more excusable.

How will the downstream nations respond to Hungary if there is a loss of jobs, impacts to human health, and ecosystem degradation?

Reframing the “Water Crisis”

Doom and Gloom

Lately, there seems to be a lot of doom and gloom regarding the looming freshwater water crisis.  Whether it is in blogposts, NYT articles or scholarly magazines like the UK’s Ecologist, it seems as though there is a universal sense of despair regarding freshwater availability.

Though I agree with the assessment that more than a billion people lack regular access to clean freshwater, it is important to remember that progress is being made towards the goal of access to clean water for all.

Water is not the problem

I think all too often it seems as though people think there isn’t enough water to go around.  This may be the case in absolute deserts, but in many places (including the arid Sahel of Africa), it is a problem of holding onto the water when it falls for use when it doesn’t.  Conventionally this might mean “BUILD DAMS!” but that message doesn’t resonate as strongly anymore due to real and imagined problems associated with large reservoirs.

Small-scale rain harvesting, ala small, run of river reservoirs, are farm-scale and community-scale alternatives to their watershed spanning cousins (read: Three Gorges).  These systems can help hold onto water for a longer period of time between rainfall events.

Efficiency and water productivity

A major issue associated with access to water is that it is used in ways that do not maximize productivity of the water being used.  Agriculture accounts for 70% of global freshwater use, and that figure is even higher in non-industrial areas.

By shifting the focus from the “threat of deserts everywhere”, to the efficient use of existing supply (whether it falls from the sky, flows on the land, or is under foot), a great deal of water could be made available to users.

Efficiency increases often require additional technology, knowledge, and/or capital, but at least thats a starting point.  The whole “world is ending” narrative is at best a distraction, and at worst a method of disengaging people entirely from understanding how to solve these problems.

Monday ramblings: Hidden Water

Ever wonder “Wow, this is a delicious hamburger!  I wonder how much water was used to grow the food that fed the cow that is now feeding me?”

Well… wait no longer!

Also known as “virtual water” or “embedded water”, Hidden Water refers to the water that is contained in the products that we consume.  This includes everything from food products (beef, pork, milk, coffee) to non-consumables (cotton, paper, etc).

National Geographic’s “Hidden Water” link is a useful tool to understand the volume of water required to produce certain food and non-food items.

Key point for illustrating relevance of water issues

The concept of hidden water is something that is easy to grasp for the average consumer.  It is also the concept which links  consumption patterns in the industrialized world with the location that produced those goods.  This is not always going to be relevant, since a famine in Africa that affects the availability of millet and sorghum is not really relevant to a US market that mostly doesn’t know that millet and sorghum are food.

However, in the face of global change, especially with regions all over the world experiencing climate stress simultaneously, hidden water may become an economically relevant issue.

Hopefully I’ll be updating the QANAT soon with some water news… till then check these WATER NEWS sites:

Water News @ Circle of Blue

The Week that Was @ Chance of rain

The QANAT July 3 to July 12


“Both India and China will face drop in the yield of wheat and rice anywhere between 30-50% by 2050. At the same time, demand for food grains will go up by at least 20%. As a net result, China and India alone will need to import more than 200-300 million tons of wheat and rice, driving up the international prices of these commodities in the world market.” The Taps Running Dry, Forbes India, 7/6/10


“The municipal government has set up 900 tents, four toilets and tap water supply for the evacuated people from 2,000 families near the Wenquan Reservoir, said Zhu Jianping, Golmud mayor.” 9,000 evacuated from NW China city near risky reservoir, China Daily, 7/11/10

“Nearly 17.2 million residents in nine provinces were affected by flood-related disasters and 597,000 people were relocated from July 1 to 12 a.m. of July 10, the ministry said in its latest disaster relief update.” South China flood death toll reaches 50, China Daily, 7/11/10

“Engineers opened three sluice gates to discharge some 32,000 cubic meters of water per second and another sluice gate to release floating objects.” Three Gorges Dam discharges flood, China Daily, 7/11/10

“More than 27,370 hectares of farmland were flooded, 242 houses collapsed and at least 10,157 residents were evacuated from flooded homes, the disaster relief office of Hubei Provincial Civil Affairs Bureau said” China to battle storms following heat wave, China Daily, 7/9/10


“A massive aid relief operation in Mexico has brought aid to tens of thousands of people cut off by severe flooding.” Mexico rushes aid to flood victims, al Jazeera, 7/6/10


“Residents of Sebalang village, Lampung, have urged the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) to immediately name suspects in what they allege to be a case of illegal land grabbing for a steam-powered power plant (PLTU) project.….”The compensation of only Rp 500 *about 5 US cents* per square meter of land is inhumane. But we have no choice because we risk attracting violence,” Sebalang resident Rosihan said recently.” Residents left in the lurch after land grab, The Jakarta Post, 7/12/10

“… about 2.5 millions of  people in Niger are currently affected by food shortage.” Niger: The Silent Famine, Global Voices, 7/12/10