Hydropower politics: The struggle for control of the world’s longest river

Elissa Jobson is a freelance journalist based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. She can be contacted at twitter.

Elissa Jobson

Elissa Jobson

Strong emotions rise to the surface when discussions turn to the Nile, the world’s longest river. Most debate swirls around control of its basin which is shared by 11 African nations. Politicians and others have pondered the chances of a war over its life-giving waters: slim but increasing given the escalating tensions over Ethiopia’s plan to build a massive hydropower dam on the river.

“For Egypt the Nile equals life,” affirms Mohamed Edrees, Egypt’s ambassador to Ethiopia. “It is almost the only source of water for Egypt and that means that it is the only source of life. So it’s obvious that this issue, for Egyptians, is of vital importance and of high sensitivity. It is an issue of existence.”

The Nile basin covers almost 10% of Africa’s landmass (3.1m km2) and supports over 200m people, more than half living below the poverty line and dependent on rainfed agriculture for their survival.

The twin pressures of energy and food security—through hydroelectric generation and irrigation schemes—are placing ever-greater demands on the Nile. In addition, land degradation, rising temperatures and possible changes in rainfall patterns, as a result of climate change, are threatening to alter the river’s flow.

Egypt is implementing large new irrigation projects that will draw additional water from the Nile. It is especially anxious about increased usage by the other ten Nile basin states south of its border: Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda.

Course and Watershed of the Nile with topography shading and political boundaries.

Course and Watershed of the Nile with topography shading and political boundaries.

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a massive hydroelectric installation 40km east of Sudan, is one of the new projects worrying the downstream nations of Egypt and Sudan. Standing at 145m high and 1,800m long with a reservoir holding 63 billion cubic metres of water, this dam will be one of Africa’s largest. It has the potential to generate 6,000 megawatts of electricity—three times Ethiopia’s existing capacity—and is expected to turn the country into a regional power hub.

Hostility has been building since Ethiopia diverted the course of the river on May 28th to begin vital civil engineering work. Although Egypt’s former President Mohammed Morsi emphasised that he was not “calling for war”, he said, “Egypt’s water security cannot be violated at all,” and added that “all options are open,” according to a BBC report. A few days earlier, Egyptian politicians were unwittingly heard proposing military action over the dam on live TV. The Ethiopian government, for its part, says that the project will go ahead come what may.

The Nile has two main tributaries, the Blue Nile and the White Nile, named after their colour where they meet at Khartoum, Sudan’s capital. The Blue Nile, which rises in the Ethiopian highlands, is by far the greatest contributor to the river’s overall flow, supplying around 85% of the 84 billion cubic metres of water measured in Egypt’s Aswan dam.

Egypt’s main concern is disruption to the river’s flow and the detrimental impact this will have on agricultural irrigation, the waterway’s salinity, its navigability and the country’s power generation, according to a European engineer based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, who asked to remain anonymous.

The Nile’s flow into Egypt could be reduced by as much as 25% during the seven years it could take to fill the Renaissance dam’s reservoir, according to International Rivers, an environmental rights group. There is also unease about the seismic activity in the area near the dam.

“Both parties are exaggerating. Ethiopia puts its focus on the possible benefits—the management of siltation, cheap energy and the control of floods during periods of peak flow—while Egypt puts an accent on the negative,” he says. Experts from Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan are expected to release research on the dam’s effect on the Nile’s flow in coming weeks.

The Renaissance dam’s construction began in April 2011 after the Arab spring uprising that destabilised and distracted Egypt. The debate boils down to a dispute over the Nile’s governance. Ethiopia adheres to the Harmon Doctrine, an international resources law that holds that a country has absolute sovereignty over the water that flows through its territory regardless of this impact on other riparian states. Egypt, on the other hand, clings to its historical usage rights and treaties that the majority of Nile basin nations never signed.

The River Nile rises in the Great Lakes in Central Africa and 11 countries share its basin. Though Egypt is at the mouth of this 6,700km watercourse, it is the principal consumer of the river’s water. For much of the 20th century it was the main beneficiary of a series of accords concluded under colonialism and in the immediate post-independence period. A treaty signed in 1959 that apportioned specific volumes of water for use annually by Egypt and Sudan (55.5 and 18.5 billion cubic metres respectively) but not the remaining riparian states, was until recently the main way of deciding control over the Nile.

Strong power asymmetries have given Egypt the edge over the upstream countries, according to Ana Cascão of the Stockholm International Water Institution, a policy group. Egypt surpasses the other riparian states in GDP, economic diversification and external political support, giving it an advantage in legal negotiations and a greater capacity to influence the regional and global political agenda. However, “the centres of power are definitely changing,” she adds.

During the late 1990s, the establishment of the Nile Basin Initiative, an intergovernmental organisation that fosters cooperation and promotes the river’s sustainable development, led to the drafting of the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA). “It defines the rights [of the riparian states], the protection of the environment, [the principles of] equitable utilisation and no harm—which means that Egypt would have its own position protected,” Ms Cascão says.

Map showing the White Nile and the Blue Nile

Six of the 11 Nile basin countries have signed the CFA (Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda). Newly-independent South Sudan has indicated that it will do the same. The treaty now has enough signatories to come into force as soon as it is ratified in the various parliaments—Ethiopia is not far off becoming the first to do so.

Unsurprisingly, Egypt and Sudan have refused to sign the CFA. They maintain that all Nile countries must recognise the 1959 treaty before any new agreements are implemented. The key stumbling block is deciding which principle takes precedence: equitable utilisation or no-harm, which obliges upstream countries to prevent significant harm to other basin states. The two factions have failed to reach a compromise.

While these countries tack and trim their political sails, Ms Cascão maintains that it is difficult to say who governs the Nile because so many people use it, especially farmers. No one knows how much water is pumped out or diverted illegally, she explains.

Internationally-supported, multilateral political processes like the Nile Basin Initiative and the CFA are important, but everyday users of the Nile’s waters and national level officials will determine the river’s future protection.

Simon Langan, head of the International Water Management Institute, a nonprofit research group in Addis Ababa, believes that land management is key. “Quite often we talk about rivers or lakes but actually it’s the land—most rain falls on the land and then is routed into the river. And the biggest issue for the Nile is making sure that land-use management decisions are right,” he says.

In the catchment areas of the Blue Nile, for example, the fast-growing population living in the rugged, hilly landscape of the Ethiopia highlands is cutting down trees for firewood and cooking. No longer held in place by trees, the soil is eroding, impoverishing these agricultural fields and blocking up and reducing the efficiency of irrigation systems downstream.

The Ethiopian government has a sustainable land management project, which promotes soil water conservation such as planting trees and other practices that slow down erosion. This programme has been very effective in areas like Tigray in northern Ethiopia, Mr Langan says.

Mr Langan and Ms Cascão say they believe that there is enough water for everybody so long as it is managed effectively and efficiently. But this requires building trust and cooperation, locally, nationally and internationally.

* This article was first published by Africa in Fact