The dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia over the Grand Renaissance Dam offers a unique opportunity to create a local authority that benefits all of the 12 countries that depend on the river.
The Nile is the longest river in the world, but also the source of water for two great civilizations. Egypt is the center of the oldest civilization, with a current population of 98 million people. It is dependent on the Nile for 97% of all water on exogenous streams – water that comes outside its territorial boundaries – making it extremely vulnerable to upstream activities.
Ethiopia is home to the Orthodox Church in Africa, with a civilization that is at least 2,000 years old and a current population of 105 million. The Blue Nile is the largest contributor to water on the Lower Nile on which Egypt depends, but its origin is entirely within the geographical boundaries of Ethiopia.
Historically, Egypt has long been opposed to any development on the Nile upstream that could curtail the amount of water it receives. At the heart of the current issue are two massive dams, one in a desert where stored water is lost due to evaporation and seepage, and the other in the highlands where geology and topography provide storage with lower losses. In terms of the energy aspects of these two dams, both offer a massive hydropower potential, although the Great Renaissance dam can provide three times more energy in a more reliable way than the Aswan high dam can.
In essence, therefore, the conflict is over the effectiveness of water storage and use versus fear of national security due to the inherent vulnerability associated with exogenous water.
At the heart of the dispute is the strategic importance of water, energy and food security. It is dominated by four critical issues – national security, energy needed for industrialization, evaporation loss management and tensions over optimizing system yields at national and regional levels. To understand the dispute, it is necessary to appreciate the way in which each of these issues plays out in the rhetoric and attitude of Egypt and Ethiopia as the two main actors.
In water-restricted economies, all economic development is limited. It eventually has an effect on social stability, so it becomes a national security issue. This is certainly the case for Egypt, where concerns about national security arose when the French and British colonial rivalry saw an expeditionary force attempt in 1898 to gain control of the river waters of the Nile. This fear is made clearer during the first Arab-Israeli war. in 1948 the Egyptian Revolutionary Command Board under Gamal Nasser appealed to the ‘High Dam Covenant’. At the heart of this covenant is that Egypt always has direct control over the Nile, especially by storing more than double the annual flow of the river into the Aswan High Dam. This covenant was so powerful that any person who doubted the impact of the dam was considered unpatriotic and wiped out. At the heart of the national security issue is the strategic storage of water, which must become in Egyptian hands, regardless of the implication. In other words, Egypt has chosen to achieve national security by retaining direct control over water, energy and food production within its sovereign sphere.
Almost all countries choose to modernize their economies in response to the growing population. This is certainly the case for Egypt and Ethiopia, with a combined population of 203 million. The early industrialization in Egypt was opposed by Britain, which produced cotton production in favor of their own textile industry. This meant a compromise when the High Dam of Aswan was built because water was needed for agriculture, which meant that the emissions would fit on agricultural production. This is contrary to energy production because the depth of the water determines the amount of energy that can be generated.
Although Egypt has an installed capacity of 2100 MW of power, it is only feasible if water is not released for crop production. This is not the case for Ethiopia, with 6,450 MW of installed capacity that is not limited by the alternating need to release water for irrigation. It brings the strategic issue of water, energy and food security into focus, by revealing the potential benefit of optimizing the system at a level higher than that of the independent sovereign state.
In other words, the energy needed to create an industrial economy is not compatible with the water storage needs for pure agricultural production, so Egypt has a clear choice. If he wants to maintain sovereign control over water and food security, it cannot generate enough energy to diversify his economy. Ethiopia, on the other hand, can generate energy for exports to other countries in the region, thereby diversifying the economy and creating food security through imports rather than domestic production.
There are two universal and inevitable realities for all dams in dry climates. The first is that the larger the area of the dam, the greater the losses of water to evaporation. The second is that the area of the dam, expressed as a function of the total volume stored, means that a deep dam built in a steep valley will always have lower evaporation losses compared to a shallower dam covering a wider floodplain. This is a critical issue, because the more a river is dammed up in a desert, the greater the loss of evaporation, and the lower the yield of the system of economic activity.
This brings us to the core of the dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia. This is not a dispute over the environmental impact of hydro-powered energy, because basic energy requires a constant flow of water through the turbines, with a limited fluctuation to take into account the highest demand. Rather, it is a dispute that stems from the clash between water, energy and food security at national level versus regional level. Egypt can still get water from the Blue Nile once the Grand Renaissance dam is filled, hence the issue of filling, and not energy production. More importantly, Egypt will guarantee a base flow in the Blue Nile, which currently contributes about 2/3 of the total flow, simply because Ethiopia cannot close the floodgates once the energy flows into a regional grid. The argument that Ethiopia can turn off the current is illogical because it would undermine the purpose of the Grand Renaissance Dam, which is to generate energy for exports to the region.
To reformulate the debate, the obstacle is the assurance that Egypt would gain greater benefits by relinquishing control of strategic storage to a place upstream in the basin. To find an answer to this national safety problem, we need to look at the Lesotho Highlands Water Scheme. South African national security elites, built during apartheid, feared that Lesotho could block the supply of water to the Witwatersrand goldfields and the cities of Johannesburg and Pretoria. This was overcome by clever engineering and design, because the Muela hydropower plant was located downstream of the Katse Dam, but upstream of the water delivery point in Liebenbergsvlei in South Africa. The whole idea was that if Lesotho chose to stop the supply of water, their own energy supply would fail. It was a form of mutually insured destruction, a security concept that is central to nuclear deterrence.
The dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia over the Grand Renaissance dam offers a unique opportunity to re-create the dilemma over water, energy and food security that governments face with growing populations in a dry environment. While it is desirable to create security in all three areas by monopolizing control at the national level, the harsh reality is that this is simply not possible. Countries are locked up in relations with other sovereign states based on their shared dependence on a river. The Nile includes 12 countries, some of the poorest in Africa, and the flow of the river is such that by sharing water in any way that meets the needs of the downstream bank – Egypt and Sudan – then food can – and energy security is also not guaranteed for other states.
Sharing water is a recipe for long-term conflict because there is not enough in the river, and the zero-sum nature of the allocation implies a growing conflict potential. A viable alternative should be considered, and it is best defined in a framework to share benefits. Realistically, water can be used more than once in each system, so a plus amount is possible. The generation of electricity in the main water does not reduce the supply of water available for downstream.
This implies the need to work together on a multilateral level, to negotiate international agreements that are legally enforceable and even guaranteed by external agencies where necessary. Such an agreement determines the rate at which the Ethiopian dam can be filled, as well as the minimum and maximum discharges required to satisfy the legitimate concerns about Egypt. In fact, water, energy and food security would be shifted from national level to regional level, managed within the context of a river basin authority representing all riparian states. Water and food security for Egypt are set off against the creation of energy security in Ethiopia, which serves as the source of power for regional integration and the sustained creation of an emerging industrial economy that benefits all riparian states.
ANTHONY TURTON is a professor at the Center for Environmental Management, University of the Free State. His work on water as a risk and opportunity arose from his role as senior intelligence officer in the South African Secret Service (SASS). He serves on the editorial boards of various international publications, including Water Policy, the official journal of the World Water Board. He previously served as executive director, and later vice president of the International Water Resource Association (IWRA), as well as deputy governor of the WWC. His current work focuses on the water crisis in South Africa. He receives the Royal Bank of Canada Visiting Scholarship from the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada for 2017/18.