Egypt’s water crisis to worsen, intensifying tensions with Ethiopia over Nile Dam
Al-Monitor Pro Members
Freelance journalist covering Egypt and Sudan
Dec. 2, 2022
Egypt’s demographic and economic expansion since the mid-20th century brought about a severe water deficit. This position made the country all the more vulnerable to external shocks caused by climate change and regional disputes. But poor water governance also adds additional pressure to a crisis that threatens to strain the nation on multiple fronts.
For thousands of years, Nile water was more than sufficient to meet Egypt’s needs. But its demographic and economic boom ended up breaking the balance.
Since mid-20th century, Egypt’s population has grown from over 20 million people to just over 100 million, increasing direct and indirect water consumption.
The country’s parallel economic growth and improved quality of life have also led to increased water demand for agricultural, industrial, and municipal purposes.
At the same time, water from the Nile, which accounts for about 98% of Egypt’s renewable water resources, has remained largely constant, pushing the country into water deficit already in the late 1970s.
Traditionally, Egypt has tried to handle this fragile balance in five major ways: improving its water infrastructure; expanding water reuse; reducing population growth; expanding and improving the efficiencyof its agricultural production; and importing virtual water through the purchase of commodities such as wheat.
Between 1970 and 2018, Egypt’s annual freshwater resources available per capita declined from 1,972 cubic meters to 570 cubic meters. And Cairo expects it to fall to 390 cubic meters per year by 2050, below the absolute water scarcity threshold.
In this context, Egypt is growing increasingly concerned about external pressures, as almost all of its renewable water sources come from outside its territory.
A particularly sensitive point is the management of Nile water. And in particular, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) that Addis Ababa is completing on the Blue Nile, which provides the vast majority of the water that reaches Egypt.
Despite Cairo’s concern and belligerent language, Addis Ababa has completed three fillings without affecting Egypt’s water budget, backed by the Aswan dam.
Climate change is also beginning to have significant negative effects on Egypt’s water resources, for reasons ranging from increased variability of the water cycle, more extreme heat and drought, and rising sea levels.
Still, Egypt has not suffered any major catastrophe associated with climate change like those that have devastated other parts of the planet, including a major drought.
During its presidency of the UN climate conference COP27, Egypt sought to devote special attention to the issue of water and its links to climate change.
The International Cooperation Ministry was also able to secure some $10 billion during COP27 for its Nexus on Water, Food & Energy (NWFE) flagship program.
Egyptian officials also leveraged the high profile of the summit to engage in water diplomacy with political leaders from several Western countries including the US.
Cairo’s current efforts to maximize the use of water are focused on five main lines of action: the improvement of water conservation in its supply; the development of non-conventional water resources; the improvement of irrigation techniques; the expansion of water reuse; and the expansion of strategic crops and livestock.
These translate into projects such as the rehabilitation of thousands of kilometers of irrigation canals, the construction of dozens of desalination facilities, and the installation of hundreds of wastewater treatment plants.
But another factor that contributes to water scarcity is the mismanagement of the state and its poor water governance. The most sensitive areas are land reclamation plans, especially water-intensive ones, and wastage in urban megaprojects.
Limited inclusivity of water users in decision-making processes, and an unequal distribution of water by the authorities, also hinder a more efficient management.
Egypt also has much room for improvement in scientific research and access to information and data, which are often managed in a very non-transparent manner.
The lack of a more effective bridge between researchers and decision-making circles constitutes another important gap.
Scenario 1: External shock forces Egypt to change course
So far, the start-up and first three fillings of the GERD, which is almost completed, have not led to significant changes in the amount of water reaching Egypt. The country has also avoided any major catastrophe linked to climate change.
However, Egypt’s delicate water balance makes it highly vulnerable to any external shock or variation, over which Cairo has little to no control. Such a scenario would be troubling because it would add a lot of pressure on the authorities to adopt a more aggressive stance and would provide them with a pretext to neglect their own share of responsibility in the crisis. GERD offers a good hint in this regard. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has stated that the country’s waters are a “red line” and has warned of an “instability that no one can imagine” if its water security is compromised. Still, despite his assertiveness, it is unclear what tools Cairo has to make good on its threat.
Scenario 2: Internal pressure pushes Cairo to reconsider priorities
Although this is a less likely scenario in the short term because of the very limited space in Egypt to raise objections, in some sectors of the country, particularly agriculture, which absorbs 80% of the national water budget, shortages are already reaching alarming levels.
If water insecurity, which is compounded by climate change, continues to worsen, it will increase competition and unease primarily in the countryside, which has shown clear signs of feeling neglected and being on the edge. The authorities’ response would depend on the extent of the unrest, but increasing tension and instability cannot be ruled out.
Conclusion - Most Likely Scenario:
A combination of internal and increasingly external factors means that Egypt’s renewable water sources, which are essentially limited to the Nile, now barely cover half of its needs. The authorities are aware of the challenge this critical balance poses, and have drawn up ambitious plans to keep covering the ever-widening gap. At the same time, their top-down response to the crisis and the prioritization of megaprojects of dubious sustainability are pulling in the opposite direction — but these are two non-negotiable hallmarks. With virtually all of its water coming from outside its territory, Egypt is also highly exposed to external challenges such as that posed by Ethiopia’s GERD. Cairo has gone so far as to threaten military action to protect its water security, although it is far from clear that it has the capabilities to directly impose its will by force. Although the balance is fragile, authorities will therefore stick to the strategy they have followed up to now, including at the diplomatic level, in the hope that results and the absence of external shocks will outweigh other pressures.
Marc Español has been reporting on Egypt since 2017, with a focus on the economy and the human rights situation in the country. He has been a contributor to Al-Monitor since 2018 and his work has appeared in other publications such as El País and the think tanks Fundación Alternativas and the European Institute of the Mediterranean (IEMed).
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