Egyptian President Anwar Sadat once stated that water was “the only matter that could take Egypt to war again.” Currently, Egypt is facing an unprecedented water crisis, exacerbated by both its own domestic failings and Ethiopia’s building of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Construction is intermittent as Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia continue to negotiate over the GERD’s and other dams’ futures; however, the dam is due to be initially filled this month (July 2020). Unless Egypt reckons with the water crisis both domestically and internationally, it faces an uncertain and unstable future.
Egypt is considered one of the most water-stressed countries in the world. Only 2.8% of the country’s territory is arable, and Egypt’s average rainfall ranges from 200mm per year in coastal areas to just 2mm per year in most of the interior. The vast majority—approximately 85%— of Egypt’s limited water supply comes from the Nile River. However, Egypt is withdrawing 126.6% of the river’s total renewable water supply. That is, Egypt is taking more water than it can sustain; eventually, there will not be enough water. The Nile is literally the lifeblood of Egypt; without it, Egypt would not have enough water to sustain life. Egypt faces a dark future of water insecurity unless it implements domestic water reform and seeks interstate cooperation on water sharing.
Because the Nile is the sole source of water for Egypt, it has been considered off-limits to damming. In several agreements made in the early 20th century, Egypt negotiated with other Nile countries, such as Sudan and Ethiopia, regarding the water flow of the Nile. However, as Egypt as steadily lost power and prestige in the region and has been preoccupied by its own domestic affairs over the years, other Nile countries, primarily Ethiopia, are attempting to supplant Egypt as the Nile Basin’s hegemon through preeminent control over the Nile’s water. Ethiopia began building the GERD in 2011, and Egypt immediately protested the dam’s creation. If the GERD was constructed, Egypt would potentially lose up to 20-30% of its water supply. In light of this threat, Egypt pressured Ethiopia and Sudan to establish a committee to review the dam and the potential collateral damage it may have on the nations downstream from it.
While it is unlikely that the current crisis will erupt in violence, it should be noted that Egypt has been bellicose in its negotiations. Both the Egyptian government and the media have painted the international crisis as an attack upon Egyptian security. Cairo has gone so far as to have allegedly planned military operations against Ethiopia over the issue; these alleged plans include the Egyptian air force and commando units performing bombing raids on the GERD and other Ethiopian dams on the Nile. Internal dispatches from diplomatic sources stated that in 2010, Egypt and Sudan discussed military action against Ethiopia in light of the building of the GERD and other dams along the Nile, escalating tensions between Cairo and Addis Ababa.
Ethiopia has been adamant that it has the right to build the GERD and other dams on the Ethiopian portion of the Nile. The GERD itself would provide a cheap source of electricity in addition to potentially providing power to 55.7% of the population that currently lacks it. Ethiopia knows that Egypt is unlikely to attack these dams, as Egypt has been bogged down in fighting in the Sinai Peninsula and is now embroiled in Libya’s civil war.
For Egypt to gain water security, it must be willing to compromise on the GERD and implement domestic reforms. Egypt has already begun negotiating with Ethiopia and Sudan over the GERD and the Nile. In May 2018, Egypt signed treaties with Sudan and Ethiopia establishing a basis for cooperation and calling for a regional infrastructure investment fund system. However, negotiations have recently hit a snag, and both sides are posturing, issuing warnings of military combat if negotiations fail. To date, these warnings have been empty bluster.
If Egypt wants to create a sustainable solution, it must work to establish a regional body to manage Nile water sharing and other environmental security issues; this regional body would provide a forum to resolve water use issues and improve other environmental security issues facing the Nile Basin, such as increasing the availability of arable land and controlling the annual Nile flooding. Additionally, Egypt must look inward; it must introduce domestic reforms to stymie wasteful water usage and find new potential sources of water, as stated in the National Water Resources Plan 2017. The government needs to reduce endemic water pollution and create a culture of water conservation within society. Furthermore, it should heavily invest in desalination plants so that it is not completely reliant upon the Nile for water. Successful models include Israel, which receives 55% of its domestic water from desalination plants as of 2016. There is no easy solution to Egypt’s water crisis, but it must introduce serious domestic reforms and diplomatic efforts in order to maintain and develop healthy, viable, and long-term water sources.
Ethan Trucker is pursuing a MA in Security Policy Studies, specializing in U.S. National Security, at George Washington University. He received his BA in International Studies with a concentration in Peace & Conflict from Washington College. He wrote his Senior Thesis on the financial and political power of the Egyptian military. He can be contacted at email@example.com.