A simmering dispute over who owns the waters of the River Nile is heating up. From its headwaters in Ethiopia and the central African highlands to the downstream regional superpower Egypt, the Nile flows through 10 nations. But by a quirk of British colonial history, only Egypt and its neighbour Sudan have any rights to its water.
That is something the upstream African nations say they can no longer accept. Yet as the nations of the Nile bicker over its future, nobody is speaking up for the river itself - for the ecosystems that depend on it, or for the physical processes on which its future as a life-giving resource in the world’s largest desert depends. The danger is that efforts to stave off water wars may lead to engineers trying to squeeze yet more water from the river - and doing the Nile still more harm. What is at risk here is not only the Nile, but also the largest wetland in Africa and one of the largest tropical wetlands in the world - the wildlife-rich Sudd.
In May, five upstream Nile nations - Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda - signed a treaty declaring their rights to a share of the river’s flow. They said they would no longer be bound by a treaty drawn up by the British in 1959. That treaty had given Egypt 55.5 cubic kilometres of the river’s flow and Sudan 18.5 cubic kilometres, but no formal entitlements for any nation upstream.
In essence the five nations were calling Egypt’s bluff. Egypt entirely controls the river’s flow from the moment it crosses the border from Sudan and is captured by the High Aswan dam, built by Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser with Russian help in the 1960s. But Egypt’s control depends on what comes downstream, over which it has no control. In the past, Egypt has frequently said any attempt by upstream nations to take what it regarded as Egyptian water would result in war.
Egypt’s concern is understandable. Some 75 million of Egypt’s 80 million inhabitants live on the river’s delta and narrow river valley. The Nile is the lifeblood of Egypt. It irrigates the nation’s food and cash crops and generates its energy, and the river’s fish provide much of Egyptians’ protein.
Egypt’s leaders are prepared to countenance their neighbours building hydroelectric dams that hold back water, provided that water ultimately returns to the river to flow on downstream. But they are not prepared to allow countries to take water out of the river for consumptive uses like agriculture. Egypt’s biggest concern is Ethiopia, whose Lake Tana is the source of the largest of the river’s two main tributaries, the Blue Nile, and whose own 80 million inhabitants have heavy unmet water needs, especially for irrigation.
So, after the breakaway group of upstream nations declared their own water rights, Egypt reacted earlier this month by going on a high-level diplomatic offensive with offers of aid, backed up by threats of legal action if its current water “rights” are not upheld.
Thanks to the Nile, Egypt still has much more water per capita than many of its neighbours in the Middle East. Much of its farming is wasteful of water. But existing entitlements are a “red line” that the nation cannot allow to be crossed, says Egyptian foreign minister Ahmed Abul Gheit.
That’s the hydro-politics. But all current negotiations begin from the assumption that the river is a pipe carrying water to the sea - and that the only deal that needs to be done is who can take what from the pipe. Rivers are a bit more complicated than that, and yet nobody is talking about setting aside any of the Nile’s precious flow for nature.
The Nile, by some measures the world’s longest river, is also among its most beleaguered. Its entire annual flood is captured behind the High Aswan dam, shimmering in the Sahara Desert at the border between Egypt and Sudan. The water is then fed downstream to meet the needs of Egyptian farmers. Most years virtually no water reaches the sea.
These changes are already having damaging effects. While the dam releases the water, it does not release the river’s heavy silt loads - mostly the product of erosion of the friable hills of Ethiopia. Once, the silt maintained the fertility of Egyptian fields and prevented the river’s delta from being washed away by the waves of the Mediterranean. But now the silt stays behind the dam, gradually accumulating. Egyptian soils are kept fertile with artificial fertiliser (manufactured using energy generated by the dam’s turbines), while the delta, which contains two-thirds of Egypt’s farmland, is eroding - in some places by tens of metres per year. Once-thriving farming villages like Borg-el Borellos now lie submerged out to sea.
In the long run, current abuse of the river is not sustainable. But still politicians want to extract more from the river, not less. Since all the water is now taken most years, the most obvious option is to reduce nature’s own “wastage” of water through evaporation.
Fred Pearce is a freelance author and journalist based in the UK. He is environment consultant for New Scientist magazine and author of the recent books When The Rivers Run Dry and With Speed and Violence. His latest book is Confessions of an Eco-Sinner: Tracking Down the Sources of My Stuff (Beacon Press, 2008). Pearce has also written for Yale e360 on world population trends and green innovation in China.