What happens when Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan cannot get to an agreement
With both the Nile and Egypt close to my heart, I’ve become increasingly anxious reading the past week’s news headlines regarding the failed talks between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan. For a second time, the reservoir behind the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) will be filled without an agreement between the countries on how it should be done. Sudan has repeatedly decried that the second filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam would negatively affect the Sudanese people, dams, and agriculture across the Nile. Meanwhile, Egypt has expressed its worries since the beginning of the dam’s construction.
The water resources available for Egypt’s economy and overall livelihood is extremely dependent on the Nile, with a ratio estimated at 97%. A fixed 55.5 billion cubic metres (BCM) passes through the High Aswan Dam (HAD) annually — Egypt’s quota according to the 1959 treaty between Egypt and Sudan. According to FAO Aquastat data, Egypt’s total water usage in 2017 was 77.5 BCM, of which 61.35 BCM was allocated to agriculture. With a whopping 79% of its total water usage, agriculture is therefore Egypt’s largest water consuming activity.
A recent study published by Nature illustrates how the HAD reservoir could fall to levels not seen in recent decades during filling of the GERD. Generally, the HAD reservoir is able to act as a buffer and this way can ensure Egypt with a minimal risk of water shortage. However, inadequate management of multi-year droughts would have severe impacts, as shortages for agriculture and human consumption are already looming due to the country’s high population. Such multi-year droughts have occurred from time to time in the past and with more extreme weather conditions due to climate change, a long lasting drought is not an unrealistic future scenario. According to the study, a 20-year cumulative deficit due to the combination of a ten-year drought and the GERD filling would reach 81 BCM, based on an annual release from the HAD of 55.5 BCM. Considering the fact that withdrawals of the HAD are higher today, the impact would be even greater.
Without doubt, most of the impacts will by far be felt in Egypt’s agricultural sector, which elevates the water scarcity problem into an additional threat to the country’s food security. Studies have shown that the productivity of two major crops in Egypt, wheat and maize, will be reduced by 15 to 19% due to the effects of climate change alone and that this percentage could be increased without sufficient climate adaptation measures. In addition, economic consequences will be significant as national income will be negatively affected and Egypt will have to increase its food import.
Further consequences can be felt in the energy sector, as less hydropower will be produced by the HAD due to a critically low water level. Finally, the environment will suffer. With less runoff from the Nile to the Mediterranean sea, soil salinity in the Delta will further increase.
It goes without saying that a major challenge for Egypt is to move toward an adaptive strategy, in order to close the gap between depleting water resources and increasing water demands. Such a challenge implies to identify the best pathway to sustainable water management. However, transboundary cooperation has proven to be as necessary to minimise the risk of harmful impacts for the downstream countries. Consensus on managing the filling and operation of the GERD is thus crucial.