Egypt’s Problem: The Nile Water Supply is in Danger

A dam being built at the source of the Nile threatens to seriously hurt the land of the Nile. On the future of Egypt and the connection to Israel.

The sun may be setting on the Egyptian Nile (Photo - Shaimaa Ahmed Saleh, flickr)

When the Egyptian singer Sherine sarcastically said during a recent concert, that it is preferable to drink Evian, a French brand of mineral water, than to drink from the Nile, which can cause the the parasitic disease Bilharzia (Schistosomiasis), she angered many Egyptians. For Egyptians the preoccupation with the Nile does not end in the social-cultural realm, but also occupies Egypt on the diplomatic and political levels. Egypt’s difficult economic situation is principally caused by its demographic situation and it is now facing a new crisis – water.

In order to understand the Nile’s significance, we must go back to 1902.  The Ethiopian Emperor at the time made a commitment to the British Empire that no dam would be built that would influence the flow of the Blue Nile to Egypt.

In 1929, an agreement was signed which gave Egypt, a British protectorate, the right to veto any change made to the Nile. The agreement stated that Egypt (which then included Sudan) would receive 55.5 billion cubic meters of water. The reason for the deal was that while the more southern countries had additional sources of water, the Sudan and Egypt’s only source of sweet water was the Nile.

In the 1950’s, Egyptian president Abdel Nasser also understood the problem and built the Aswan Dam in Southern Egypt for multiple purposes. Economically, it would produce electricity and existentially, it would secure water reserves in the form of a lake created by the dam.

The dam, which cost around one billion dollars, was thought of as a national project. From the beginning of the planning of Aswan Dam, the United States agreed to assist Egypt with the funding and construction in order to bring Nasser, who was thought of as the leader of the entire Arab world, to the Western side of the Cold War. Nasser, who was playing both sides, overplayed his hand and brought about the cancellation of American funding of the dam. Egypt’s dramatic response, the nationalization of the Suez Canal, helped to fund the dam, but also brought war upon Egypt in the form of the Suez Crisis in 1956.

After the geopolitical changes, the agreement was approved in 1959 by Nassar. However, Egypt claims today that it and Sudan only use a small amount of the Nile’s water and that it is not enough. The water problems are compounded by the fact that the population of Egypt has tripled since 1959 to about 95 million.

Ethiopia Closes the Faucet

Jumping forward to May 2010, the last months of the rule of Hosni Mubarak, the Entebbe Agreement was signed with the goal of a more just division of the river’s water, despite the fact that Egypt and Sudan refused to participate.

The story takes a dramatic turn when in 2013, Ethiopia declared that excavations had begun on a new dam, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). The dam is estimated to cost 5 billion dollars and it will be the largest hydro-electric plant in Africa. It will also significantly upgrade the electrical supply to Ethiopia, where more than half of citizens do not have electricity.

The government in Addis Ababa explained that their ultimate goal is to produce energy and electricity rather than drying out Egypt and Sudan as suspected. Despite their good intentions, the dam will reduce the ability of the Egyptian Aswan Dam to produce electricity and will significantly reduce Egypt’s water.

Diverting the Nile is not only a question of water or minerals. The Egyptians see it as an attack on the national security of the so called land of the Nile.

Water is not the only gift of the Nile. The minerals posses such valuables as silt and clay that absorb organic materials conducive for agriculture. The materials are sunk at the river’s estuary and the land around the estuary is considered fruitful. The new dam will serve as a new stopping point for the soil particles and organic materials and it seems that their absence will harm the quality of Egyptian soil.

From Egypt’s point of view, the Ethiopian decision creates a fait accompli and is more significant than any international declaration.

In a desire to prevent a bloody African war, the President of Egypt, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the President of Sudan Omar al-Bashir and the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Hailemariam Desalegn made a joint declaration of principles on March 23rd 2015 regarding their cooperation on the matter that essentially allowed the building of the dam. The desire to reach understandings between the countries led to a conclusion in September 2016 that two French companies will investigate the influence of building the dam on Sudan and Egypt and were supposed to publish a report on the topic in August 2017

And Now for Politics

Obviously, this all also connects to the internal Arab conflict between Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and its friends. The Egyptian press recently reported  that the Emir of Qatar, the enemy of the Egyptian government, invited the Ethiopian Prime Minister to discuss ways to strengthen and promote the relationship between the two countries, during which they discussed Qatari funding for the GERD.

“Sisi blames the government and the parliament for the failure to solve the Nile crisis” Alaa a-Lakta Hazati cartoonist, criticizing the person who he thinks is truly responsible. Sisi is holding Prime Minister Sharif Ismail like a puppet.

Looking at the Israeli connection, we recall that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Africa and even Ethiopia itself in July 2016, where he met business leaders and spoke in front of the local parliament.

The visit was criticized by the Egyptian press, which wondered whether Netanyahu’s visit to the Nile Basin countries was a provocation aimed at giving Israel’s blessing for the attempt to drain Egypt and whether Egypt was still an ally of Israel.

A few weeks ago, we saw an Egyptian attempt to demonstrate energy independence with a declaration that Egypt will supply itself with gas, meaning that they will no longer purchase gas from Israel. Last month, Israel marked the 40th anniversary since Anwar Sadat’s visit to Israel. Israel was disappointed that Egypt only sent the Egyptian ambassador to Israel as opposed to a more senior official.

At the same time, there are those in Egypt who are rejecting the criticism and are calling for the strengthening of cooperation with Israel on this topic. After the Israeli visit to Africa, Sameh Shoukry, the Egyptian Foreign Minister visited Israel. This was the first such visit in over decade, demonstrating his positive ties with Israel.

Last October 19th, the Egyptian, Sudanese and Ethiopian Ministers of Water met in Addis Ababa, but did not succeed in reaching an agreement on the introduction to the report and on the beginning of filling the reserve.

On November 12th, the same ministers met for discussions in Cairo regarding the Ethiopian desire to begin filling the water reserves of the GERD. The Ethiopians want to fill the reserves at twice the speed of the Egyptians.

Without an agreement, Egypt announced on November 15th that it will take the necessary steps to protect the water rights of the Egyptians. President Sisi is expected to meet with the Ethiopian Prime Minister in December to discuss the frozen negotiations as relates to the research on the influence of the dam.

In October, the Ethiopian Media and Information Technology Minister announced that 62% of the dam has been completed. The minister also announced that electrical production of the dam will begin during the current Ethiopian calendar, which ends on October 2018 and before the completion of the dam.

The question now is if the Ethiopians will start producing electricity before the three countries reach an agreement and if so, what the Egyptian response will be. The Ethiopian attempt to begin filling the GERD is likely to stop the momentum of the agreement with Egyptian and Sudan. With no agreement, Sudan and Egypt will weigh their next steps against Ethiopia.

Above is a political cartoon attacking the Egyptian president. The cartoon was published on the site, which is connected to Al Jazeera and therefore the Qatari Emirates, a known supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood and opponent of the Sisi government in Egypt. The title is “The failure of the Renaissance Dam Negotiations.” The Gazan illustrator Alaa a-Lakta Hazati draws the Egyptian president telling the poor man “Better to drink mineral water, this water will bring you Bilharzia,” comparing the lack of success in reaching an agreement to the insulting statement of the singer. The hose has a knot in it with the word Renaissance written on it as if to say that the Nile’s water is now coming from the Renaissance dam.

(Translated from Hebrew)


The writer is an expert on the Middle East and Islam and the editor of the page “A View on the Developing New Middle East

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