Global Policy Forum

The Big Challenge for a New Egypt: Water

Egypt relies on the Nile for 90 percent of its water supply and uses 1/3 of the river’s water annually. Among Egyptians, there is little sympathy for the 9 upstream countries that also rely on the world’s longest river for water security. Following the overthrow of Mubarak, upstream nations threaten to boost their share of the Nile’s water, which may mean that Egypt will lose its “hegemonic” control over the river.

By Jonno Evans


December 7, 2011

Egypt is almost entirely dependent on the River Nile, which provides around 95% of its drinking and irrigation water. Protecting this supply has long been regarded as a matter of national security but the new political situation inside Egypt raises questions about its future.

Egypt's historical dominance of the Nile waters dates back to colonial era agreements made when Britain controlled much of east Africa and the Nile basin. The accords grant Egypt 55.5bn of the 74bn cubic metres a year of the Nile's usable flow.

Ethiopia and others have long been calling for a new order based on a developmental discourse and their right to the Nile waters, but Hosni Mubarak's regime used its political and military dominance in the region to stifle any tangible change in the hegemonic status quo.

Momentum for change had undoubtedly been building prior to Mubarak's fall: the Nile Basin Initiative was established in 1999; the co-operative framework agreement recently gained support by a two-thirds majority; and therefore, theoretically, a process of progression to the Nile Basin Commission could begin. This momentum is likely to intensify now that Mubarak is gone, and three emerging factors are transforming water dynamics in the Nile basin and bringing further challenges for Egypt.

First, the instability of the revolution has arguably diminished Egypt's regional presence and diplomatic strength in the basin. Incorporated in the Mubarak regime was a regional dominance, with significant support from the United States. This gave Egypt both a diplomatic and military advantage, which appeared insurmountable to the less powerful upstream states. For example, Egypt had consistently put pressure on the Arab League not to supply loans to Ethiopia for Nile water development.

With Mubarak's overthrow, a new optimism surfaced in the upstream countries. This is symbolised by Ethiopian prime minister Meles Zenawi's announcement of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance dam at the end of March – just one month after Mubarak was ousted from power. The proposed dam, the largest in Africa, is forecast to generate 5250 megawatts of hydroelectric power, and has significant implications for Ethiopia and neighbouring countries that may also benefit from the energy produced.

Second, the newly independent South Sudan now has voting power as the 10th riparian state in the basin. With its own energy, infrastructure and resource needs, South Sudan is a relative unknown in its position on the Nile water agreements. However, its plan to build a dam in Wau, on a tributary to the White Nile, highlights its own independent needs, and is a further factor for Egypt to consider.

Finally, the increasing demand for agricultural land across eastern Africa, often described as "land grabbing", has significant implications for water use, as noted by a recent post on the Guardian's Poverty Matters blog. Often, water rights are incorporated into land deals or leases, which is clearly outside the confines of traditional water use patterns.

External support for dam building, particularly with Chinese finance and expertise, as was the case with the Kekezze dam in Ethiopia, is a further important dimension. The impacts of such dams are not always clear, but their existence, and with foreign support, is a worrying development for Egypt.

These different factors present a fundamental challenge to Egyptian hegemonic control over the Nile. Democracy will not alter the importance of the Nile for Egypt but may reduce its capability to control it. New water strategies are one possible avenue, but can be only part of the solution. Greater co-operation with upstream states will have to become a key factor in the Egyptian Nile policy.

There are, of course, ethical questions about Egyptian hegemony over the Nile and the rights of upstream states to its waters. This is not to ignore their importance or validity, but to emphasise the implications for Egypt and its new political environment.

Water security is set to change in the Nile basin and the new democratic government in Egypt will have to act decisively and forcefully in a period of shifting power dynamics to maintain its supply at current levels. No one should be under any illusions – the stakes are high.


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