Battle for the Nile: Why Ethiopia’s GERD reservoir filling may be just the start of Egypt’s worries

Battle for the Nile: Why Ethiopia’s GERD reservoir filling may be just the start of Egypt’s worries
On Monday, as the summer rains began to swell the Blue Nile, Addis Ababa notified Egypt it had resumed filling the vast dam reservoir. (AFP)
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Updated 08 July 2021

Battle for the Nile: Why Ethiopia’s GERD reservoir filling may be just the start of Egypt’s worries

Battle for the Nile: Why Ethiopia’s GERD reservoir filling may be just the start of Egypt’s worries
  • UN urges Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt to recommit to avoid unilateral action on operation of dam
  • There is not enough water to meet the rapidly growing needs of 11 Nile Basin nations

LONDON: Amid calls for renewed talks and a last-minute UN intervention, a stark truth is becoming apparent as Ethiopia begins filling the reservoir of its controversial Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).

There is simply not enough water to meet the rapidly growing needs of all 11 nations dependent on the Nile basin.

The GERD is proof that the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), a collaboration of the Nile basin nations set up in 1999 to manage fair access to the waters of the great river, has failed.

On Monday, as the summer rains began to swell the Blue Nile, Addis Ababa notified Egypt it had resumed filling the vast dam reservoir.




This week the 10-year strategy of the NBI appeared not to be worth the paper it was printed on. (AFP)

Half of Ethiopia’s population of 120 million has no electricity, and the government is desperate to begin generating power for domestic use and profitable export.

Egypt, which fears the dam will deprive it of crucial amounts of water, has said the unilateral move is a threat to regional stability.

For centuries master of the Nile, Egypt is now faced with the reality that in the 21st century it no longer has exclusive rights to what is an international, transboundary resource.


Read our full interactive Deep Dive on the GERD Dam and its impact on Egypt here


On Thursday, at the request of Egypt and its neighbor Sudan, the UN Security Council will debate the escalating crisis, but has warned there is little it can do.




As the populations of the basin’s 11 member states grow, notes the NBI, so “demand for energy in the Nile basin is expected to triple by 2035.” (AFP)

This week the 10-year strategy of the NBI, devised in 2017 to ensure “cooperation and joint action between the riparian countries, seeking win-win gains,” appeared not to be worth the paper it was printed on.

The initiative’s admirable aim of seeing the Nile waters used in an “equitable way to ensure prosperity, security and peace for all its peoples” is today exposed as an ultimately fanciful ambition.

The reality now facing the 11 nations of the Nile basin — and none more urgently than Egypt — is that there is only so much water to go around and, every minute, more and more people to consume it.

The riddle of the Nile, it seems, cannot be solved without the creation of winners and losers. The volume of water that each year flows down the Blue and White Niles is finite. It varies from season to season, but the average volume available to the 11 nations of the Nile basin is, ultimately, limited.

What is not limited, however, are the populations of those countries, and their development ambitions.


Read our full interactive Deep Dive on the GERD Dam and its impact on Egypt here





The GERD is proof that the Nile Basin Initiative has failed. (AFP)

Currently some 260 million people, about 54 percent of the total population of the 11 countries through which the Nile runs, live in the basin. Egypt has by far the largest number of citizens dependent on its waters — 86 million, about 94 percent of its entire population.

Egypt is already experiencing what the UN defines as “water scarcity” — when supplies drop below 1,000 cubic meters of water per person per year. Egyptians currently have about 570 cubic meters, predicted to fall below 500 by 2025, even without taking into account the effect of the GERD.

And according to UN forecasts, by 2050 Egypt’s population will have grown more than 50 percent, to about 150 million.

Upstream, meanwhile, by 2050 Ethiopia’s population will also have increased, from about 120 million people to over 200 million, and a similar pattern of growth is predicted for all the Nile basin countries.

In its 10-year strategy, the NBI put it like this: “If countries develop as planned, we will need 1.5 Niles by 2050.”

The strategy offered what appeared to be a simple solution.

“Together,” pledged the NBI, “we will better monitor, manage and develop the Nile, use existing water sources more efficiently and explore new ones.” This way, it added, “we will have enough water for us all.”


Read our full interactive Deep Dive on the GERD Dam and its impact on Egypt here


Of course, there are savings that Egypt can make, ranging from preventing water loss through leaks and evaporation to giving up growing water-intensive crops, such as rice, transferring the water cost to other nations by importing them.

In an interview in June, Mohamed Ghanem, spokesman for Egypt’s water ministry, highlighted steps the government was already taking, including fixing leaky canals and drains, and modernizing irrigation systems.




The squabble over the dam could soon be overshadowed by an even darker cloud gathering over the headwaters of the Nile. (AFP)

However, all such initiatives require vast investment in time and money, to say nothing of politically dangerous job losses among the farming community.

Besides, even if, as researchers at Zagazig University have predicted, “adopting all or a combination of the suggested strategies could reduce or eliminate the impact of GERD on Egypt,” the dam could soon be the least of Egypt’s worries.

The clue to what is coming can be found in one of the NBI’s strategy goals. “Unlocking and optimising hydropower potential,” highlights a reality, symbolized by the GERD crisis, that will see nations pitted against each other in the scramble for their share of the Nile’s limited bounty.

As the populations of the basin’s 11 member states grow, notes the NBI, so “demand for energy in the Nile basin is expected to triple by 2035.”

The solution? “Together, we will build the right dams in the right places, connect our power grids and trade the harnessed energy — so that we all benefit from the Nile to light up our cities and energise our economies.”


Read our full interactive Deep Dive on the GERD Dam and its impact on Egypt here


Ethiopia and its downstream neighbors Egypt and Sudan are all members of the NBI. Yet despite the organization’s pledge to support collaboration between its members, the planning, building and now operation of the GERD has been the opposite of an exercise in cooperation.




There is simply not enough water to meet the rapidly growing needs of all 11 nations dependent on the Nile basin. (AFP)

As serious as it is, however, the squabble over the dam could soon be overshadowed by an even darker cloud gathering over the headwaters of the Nile. Last month South Sudan announced that it, too, had ambitions to build a hydroelectric dam — on the White Nile upstream of Sudan and Egypt.

About 80 percent of Egypt’s water comes from the Blue Nile and its tributaries, but reducing the flow of the remaining 20 percent would obviously create additional problems for the country.

And that could just be the start.

Even as it begins to fill the GERD reservoir, Ethiopia is working on plans for at least three more dams and, once the GERD starts successfully generating power and export income, Addis Ababa should have little difficulty persuading international investors to back new hydroelectric ventures.


Read our full interactive Deep Dive on the GERD Dam and its impact on Egypt here


Ethiopia’s success with GERD is also likely to generate interest in the construction of other dams throughout the Nile basin.

“Most countries in the Nile basin are undergoing rapid economic growth as indicated in the recent growing GDP (gross domestic product) trends, which, in turn, has increased demand for water, energy and food,” said the NBI.




Egypt is now faced with the reality that in the 21st century it no longer has exclusive rights to what is an international, transboundary resource. (AFP)

The Nile basin “offers huge potential for hydroelectric power generation, but largely remains untapped, with existing facilities representing about 26 percent of potential capacity.”

There seems little doubt that the other countries of the Nile basin will want to place their economies and societies on a similar footing to those of Egypt.

The row over the GERD is just the beginning of a far deeper crisis which, if not tackled now, could escalate dangerously.

The African Union, the Arab League and the NBI have all failed to break the deadlock over the dam. This week the UN Security Council will almost certainly go down the same path.

For the security of the entire region, what is needed now is a pre-emptive international diplomatic intervention on a scale to match the potential disaster looming over the Nile basin like the summer storm clouds now gathering over the Ethiopian Highlands.

Twitter: @JonathanGornall

 

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Updated 20 October 2021

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BEIRUT: Six members of a pro-government militia were killed Wednesday in an arms depot blast in the central Syrian province of Hama, a war monitor reported.
Seven other members of the National Defense Forces militia were wounded in the blast, the cause of which remains largely unclear, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.


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KUWAIT: Kuwait’s ruling emir on Wednesday paved the way for an amnesty pardoning dissidents that has been a major condition of opposition lawmakers to end a months-long standoff with the appointed government that has paralyzed legislative work.
Emir Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah tasked the parliament speaker, the prime minister and the head of the supreme judicial council to recommend the conditions and terms of the amnesty ahead of it being issued by decree, Sheikh Nawaf’s office said.


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Updated 20 October 2021

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AMMAN: At least 11 civilians died on Wednesday in a Syrian army shelling of residential areas of rebel-held Ariha city, witnesses and rescue workers said.
The shelling from Syrian army outposts, which came shortly after a roadside bomb killed at least 13 military personnel in Damascus, fell on residential areas in the city in Idlib province.
Among the casualties were several school children, witnesses and medical workers in the opposition enclave said.


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DAMASCUS: A bomb attack on an army bus in Damascus killed at least 13 people Wednesday in the bloodiest such attack in years, the SANA state news agency reported.
“A terrorist bombing using two explosive devices targeted a passing bus” on a key bridge in the capital, the news agency said, reporting an initial casualty toll of 13 dead and three wounded.
Images released by SANA showed a burning bus and what it said was a bomb squad defusing a third device that had been planted in the same area.
Damascus had been mostly spared such violence in recent years, especially since troops and allied militia retook the last significant rebel bastion near the capital in 2018.


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  • Civil society members stage a sit-in outside the Justice Palace to show ‘solidarity with the judiciary’

BEIRUT: Tarek Bitar, the judge leading the investigation into the August 2020 port explosion, resumed investigations on Tuesday after being notified by the Lebanese Civil Court of Cassation of its second decision to reject the request submitted by the defendant in the case of MP Ali Hassan Khalil.

Normal service resumed at the Justice Palace in Beirut after a long vacation. The Lebanese army guarding roads leading to the palace and Ain Remaneh, which was the arena of bloody events on Thursday, over protests to dismiss Bitar from the case. The repercussions of these events have affected the political scene, its parties and the people.

Civil society activists under the auspices of the “Lebanese Opposition Front” staged a sit-in outside the Justice Palace to show “solidarity with the Judiciary carrying out its national duties and support for Judge Bitar to face the threats.”

Speaking on behalf of the protestors, activist Dr. Ziad Abdel Samad said: “A free and sovereign state cannot exist without a legitimate authority, judiciary and justice.”

Abdel Samad urged “the defendants to appear before Judge Bitar, because the innocent normally show up and defend themselves instead of resorting to threats.”

“We have reached this low point today because of a ruling elite allied with the Hezbollah statelet, protected by illegal arms.

“They want to dismiss Judge Bitar in all arbitrary ways and threats because he has come so close to the truth after they managed to dismiss the former judge, hiding behind their immunities because they know they are involved in the crime.”

Abdel Samad claimed that “those making threats are involved in the crime.”

Regarding the Tayouneh events that took place last week, he said: “They took to the streets to demonstrate peacefully, as they claimed, but they almost got us into a new civil war as a result of the hatred and conspiracies against Lebanon.”

Lawyer May Al-Khansa, known for her affiliation with Hezbollah, submitted a report at the Lebanese Civil Court of Cassation against the leader of the Lebanese Forces party, Samir Geagea, Judge Bitar and “all those who appear in the investigation to be involved, accomplices or partners in crimes of terrorism and terrorism funding, undermining the state’s authority, inciting a strife, and other crimes against the law and the Lebanese Constitution.”

Hezbollah Leader Hassan Nasrallah on Monday night waged an unprecedented campaign of accusations and incitement against the Lebanese Forces party and its leader.    

Nasrallah accused them of being “the biggest threat for the presence of Christians in Lebanon” and said they were “forming alliances with Daesh.”

In a clear threat to Geagea and his party, Nasrallah bragged in his speech of having “100,000 trained fighters,” calling on Christians to “stand against this murderer.”

Nasrallah accused Bitar of “carrying out a foreign agenda targeting Hezbollah in the Beirut port crime” and of “being supported by embassies and authorities, turning him into a dictator.”

During the parliamentary session on Tuesday, no contact was made between Hezbollah and the Lebanese Forces. However, a handshake was spotted between the Lebanese Forces’ MP Pierre Abu Assi and the Amal Movement’s MP Hani Kobeissi.

Minister of Culture Mohammed Mortada, who represents Hezbollah, said “Hezbollah’s ministers will attend the ministerial session if Prime Minister Najib Mikati calls for one, but the justice minister and the judiciary must find a solution to the issue of lack of trust in Bitar.”

Several calls were made on Monday night between different political groups to prevent escalation and calm the situation.

Efforts are being made to reach a settlement that allows Bitar to keep his position and for defendants in the Beirut port case — who are former ministers and MPs — to be referred to the Supreme Judicial Council for prosecution.

Elsewhere, parliament dropped the proposal of a women’s quota ensuring female participation through  a minimum of 26 seats.

It passed a move to allow expats to vote for the 128 MPs and dropped the decision to allocate six additional seats representing them.

The parliament’s decision angered Gebran Bassil, who heads the Strong Lebanon parliamentary bloc. Following the parliamentary session, Bassil referred to “a political game in the matter of expats’ right to vote, which we will not allow to happen.”