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Crisis on the Nile: Egypt’s water security under threat


Crisis on the Nile: Egypt’s water security under threat


Egypt’s water shortages are likely to worsen with the upstream construction of the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).


– The cost of desalination plants and dams is likely to increase Egypt’s dependence on the Gulf states
– To fund these projects, Cairo may also look to increase its involvement in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)
– Although an overt military conflict between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia is unlikely, GERD has the potential to markedly increase regional tensions


Egypt has been highly dependent on the Nile River since ancient times. The river provides 90% of its water needs and the Nile River Basin is home to half of the country’s 101 million people. However, population growth, weaker flows because of climate change and general mismanagement means that Egypt faces an annual water deficit of more than 20 billion cubic metres.

The shortage is having economic and social impacts. The government’s 2018 decision to reduce the amount of land devoted to rice growing from 1.1 million acres to 750,000 acres in an attempt to save water caused much economic disruption. The viability of Egyptian agriculture – responsible for 12% of the country’s GDP – is clearly under threat as rural masses head to growing slums in already overcrowded cities.

Egypt’s wild fish catch has plummeted due to less water and increasing salinity, forcing fishermen to turn towards water-intensive fish farming. Dropping water levels are also imperilling tourism. Ancient Nile sites like Luxor and Aswan have become sporadically inaccessible by boat, costing tour operators up to $5,000 per day. In response, the government has launched a twenty-year National Water Resource Plan, which aims to promote water conservation, invest in desalination plants and upgrade the country’s irrigation infrastructure.


Egypt has long enjoyed hegemony over the Nile. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus remarked that ‘Egypt is the Nile and the Nile is Egypt,’ and a series of colonial-era treaties further perpetuated this hegemony. The 1929 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty allocated Egypt 50 billion cubic metres to colonial Sudan’s 4 billion cubic metres and gave Egypt veto power over any future upstream developments, while a 1959 bilateral treaty with newly independent Sudan granted each country an extra 5 and 14 billion cubic metres, respectively.

Population and policy changes threaten to upend this fragile status quo. Egypt’s population has increased by around 80 million since 1959, meaning that its mid-century allocation is meant to suffice for a population that has grown fivefold. Egypt is not alone in having experienced such changes. The populations of Ethiopia and Sudan have also quintupled; Ethiopia’s water demand has almost doubled in the last decade alone.


Photo: NASA/GSFC/Jeff Schmaltz/MODIS Land Rapid Response Team

Despite attempts by upstream nations to challenge Egypt’s Nile domination, little was gained through diplomacy. Consequently, Ethiopia decided to take matters into its own hands and began constructing GERD in 2011 against Egyptian opposition. At least 40% of construction work remains to be done and the process of actually filling up the dam could take up to fifteen years. The speed of this process will determine how acute Egypt’s water crisis will be and how much time it will have to adapt.

GERD is key to Ethiopia’s development and regional power ambitions. Addis Ababa expects GERD to provide electricity for approximately 86 million Ethiopians living in the dark and produce surplus hydro-power for export. GERD is a key issue in Ethiopian politics and the country’s ruling class cannot afford to be perceived to be unreasonably kowtowing to Egypt.

Although downstream from GERD and initially siding with Egypt, Sudan now supports the dam. Khartoum hopes that GERD will ease seasonal flooding, which only allows the country to utilise around 20% of its arable land. If realised, Sudan aims to become a breadbasket for the wealthy Gulf countries.

Despite an ostensible breakthrough in 2015, negotiations on the issue have not been fruitful from an Egyptian perspective. The 2015 Declaration of Principles on GERD — signed by Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia — contained ten clauses and committed Ethiopia to undertake technical studies examining GERD’s downstream impact. As of 2019, none of the clauses have been implemented and Ethiopia has rejected Egypt’s request to delay filling the dam until negotiations are complete.

Regional politics has added a further layer of complexity. Intra-Gulf tensions exemplified by the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar have travelled to the Horn of Africa. Qatar and its ally Turkey have significantly increased their ties with Sudan, with both countries recently signing deals worth more than $5 billion and upgrading security ties. Saudi Arabia maintains close ties with the Egyptians, while the UAE has preferred to play both sides, recently pledging $3 billion in aid and investments to Ethiopia — possibly to ward of Turkish and Qatari influence.

The potential for intra-Gulf tensions to exacerbate the GERD dispute was on full display when Egypt Today accused Doha of ‘funding and inciting’ Ethiopia’s building of GERD. These accusations were strenuously denied by Qatar and Ethiopia and have not been independently verified. However, perceptions matter when it comes to the potential for these sorts of disputes to escalate. Some analysts have also speculated that Qatar and Turkey helped induce Sudan to switch sides in supporting GERD.

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Photo: AlsisiOfficial / Twitter

Filling GERD could cause Egypt’s share of the Nile to decline by up to 25% over the next seven years. To have a chance of averting significant social unrest, Egypt will have to embark on a building spree. Egypt’s ability to raise funds for the building of dams, canals and desalination plants will be made more difficult by Cairo’s worsening human right’s record, evidenced recently by the death-in-custody of Egypt’s first ever democratically-elected president, Mohamed Morsi. Saudi Arabia and the UAE — two traditional donors to Cairo — will likely fund a significant proportion of these projects, drawing Egypt ever closer to the two Gulf states.

Another potential donor is China, which has a proven track record in building large-scale infrastructure. Beijing views Egypt as an important partner because of the strategic significance of the Suez Canal; a Belt and Road Cooperation Research Centre was recently inaugurated in Cairo. Therefore, there is a significant chance that Egypt will increase its participation in BRI, which in turn could dampen Washington–Cairo ties.

Although Egypt has not ruled out using military force if Ethiopia rapidly fills GERD, war remains unlikely. Historically, water wars have been rare, both because alternative means of securing supplies can often be found and because sharing waterways involves a certain degree of mutual interdependence. Egypt’s military probably lacks the capacity to carry out a direct strike on the dam and it is unlikely that Cairo would receive backing from such an operation from Washington, Riyadh or Abu Dhabi. Some sources within the UAE have also suggested that they will attempt to use their $3 billion aid pledge to Ethiopia as leverage in order to ensure the dam is filled slowly.

In the meantime, expect Egypt to use the downfall of former president Omar al-Bashir in Sudan to try and sway the country away from Ethiopia. The ruling military coalition — currently in tense negotiations with the civilian demonstration leaders — are dependent on Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which granted the leaders a $3 billion economic lifeline, a fact that Egypt will use to its advantage.

If this strategy fails or if Ethiopia proceeds to rapidly fill GERD regardless of Sudan’s support, Egypt has a number of escalatory options. Cairo reportedly has been in talks with Somalia and Djibouti to establish military bases that could be used to exert pressure on Khartoum and Addis Ababa. Egypt has continuously been accused by Sudan of supporting insurgent groups in Sudan and could also employ the same tactic in Ethiopia, where ethnic tensions are currently on the rise.

Given the UAE’s leverage over both Sudan and Ethiopia, the most likely situation is that a face-saving compromise will be reached as negotiations continue, even if in the form of a tacit understanding. Ethiopia’s current Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has styled himself as a regional peace-broker and he recently visited Cairo and pledged to create a joint-vision for the Nile. Yet under pressure from domestic constituencies and emboldened by foreign backers, it is still possible that filling GERD will see the region tumble into further cycles of tension.

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