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.