Nile River Disputes
The Nile is formed by three tributaries, the Blue Nile, the White Nile, and the Atbara. The White Nile begins in Burundi and flows through Lake Victoria into southern Sudan. Near the capital of Sudan, Khartoum, it meets the Blue Nile which begins in the highlands of Ethiopia. North of Khartoum the Atbara joins the river. The Nile flows north through Lake Nasser, the second largest human-made lake in the world, and the Aswan Dam, then splits into two distributaries north of Cairo, the Rosetta in the west and the Darneita to the east. The Nile has created a large delta into the Mediterranean Sea. The 11 riparian states are Burundi, D.R.Congo, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda.
Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt have been locked in a bitter dispute over the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which remains unresolved although the reservoir behind the dam began filling in July 2020. Ethiopia considers the hydropower dam essential for its electrification and development but downstream Egypt and Sudan view it as a serious threat to vital water supplies.
Ethiopia started generating power from its mega-dam on the Blue Nile on 20 February 2022, a major milestone for the controversial project. "Tomorrow will be the first energy generation of the dam," an Ethiopian government official told AFP news agency. Ethiopia began delivering power from a 375-MW turbine at its flagship 5.15-GW Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), marking a significant milestone for the project that could become Africa’s largest hydropower producer. Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed inaugurated the project in a celebration broadcast widely in the East African nation
The United States suspended a portion of its financial aid to Ethiopia over the lack of progress in talks with Egypt and Sudan about a massive dam Addis Ababa is constructing on the Blue Nile River. The US move came after the three countries failed on 28 August 2020 to reach an agreement on the management of the dam following 10 days of negotiations. The State Department said commencing the filling of the reservoir before necessary safety measures were implemented "created serious risks for the populations of the downstream countries", according to AFP news agency. It added that by continuing to fill the dam, Ethiopia was undermining confidence in the negotiations.
Donald Trump on 23 October 2020 voiced anger at Ethiopia over its construction of a huge dam on the Nile River and appeared to suggest that Egypt may destroy it. "It's a very dangerous situation because Egypt is not going to be able to live that way," Trump told reporters in the Oval Office. "They'll end up blowing up the dam. And I said it and I say it loud and clear -- they'll blow up that dam. And they have to do something," Trump said.
Ethiopia vowed 24 October 2020 not to "cave in to aggressions of any kind" after US President Donald Trump lashed out over the country's mega-dam on the Blue Nile. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's office defended the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, set to become Africa's largest hydropower plant, and said Ethiopia was working to resolve longstanding issues over the project with downstream neighbors Sudan and Egypt. "Nonetheless, occasional statements of belligerent threats to have Ethiopia succumb to unfair terms still abound. These threats and affronts to Ethiopian sovereignty are misguided, unproductive, and clear violations of international law," his office said in a statement.
The Nile is the longest river in the world at 6600 kilometers and is the main source of water for the nations that make up the Nile watershed. Currently, the water provided by the system barely meets the demands of the region. In the near future it is expected that many of the countries that share the Nile’s water will experience water stress. Access to the Nile’s waters has already been defined as a vital national priority by countries in the region. As more of the countries in the region develop their economies, the need for water will increase. Although the demand for resources increases, the supply is likely to remain unchanged, increasing the chances for conflict over a scarce resource.
Development projects that are aimed at increasing the flow of the Nile remain endangered by tension and instability in the region as well as environmental and financial concerns Water is a scarce commodity in northeastern Africa. Water is used for irrigated agriculture, industry, and human consumption. The Nile River is the main source of water for the nations through which it flows. The Nile does not provide sufficient quantities to meet current needs, let alone future needs as populations rise, industrial growth takes place, and more land is irrigated. When nations find themselves with less than 2000 cubic meters of renewable water supplies per person, they are water stressed. Water resources in the region have been affected by past human actions; natural factors such as evaporation present problems too. The interaction of population growth, water scarcity, and international conflict is apparent in this region. Governments in the region, particularly in Egypt, are building new irrigation projects to expand arable land.
Organizations like the Nile River Basin Initiative meet regularly to coordinate water policies, especially in relation to development needs. But there is a need for good reliable information about the entire water basin. This is especially true today as countries balance climate change, population growth, and development issues. The Nile and its tributaries are another example of where international cooperation is under stress. The waters that combine to form the Nile flow through ten different countries. Although the risks of climate change are unclear regarding direction, in terms of whether they are likely to cause floods or droughts in the Nile basin, the trends in population, unfortunately, are clearer and far more threatening.
Eleven countries share the Nile; five are among the 10 poorest countries in the world; four are landlocked; and seven are, or recently have been, involved in internal or international conflicts. All of the riparians rely to a greater or lesser extent on the waters of the Nile for their basic needs and economic growth. For some, the waters of the Nile are perceived as central to their very survival. It is not surprising, therefore, that for centuries the Nile nations have been concerned by the actions of other riparians. This has been the basis, supplemented by many other factors, for tensions between riparian states.
The United States has been actively supporting the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) as a means to promote economic growth, peace, and security in the Nile region. The U.S. position has been, and continues to be, that the nine participating riparian countries need to work together to establish a permanent regional institution that includes all the relevant countries.
A series of colonial-era agreements affect use of the Nile River. Two commonly cited agreements in terms of water allocation and the purported rights of riparians include a 1929 Exchange of Notes between His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom and the Egyptian Government in Regard to the Use of the Waters of the River Nile for Irrigation Purposes, and the 1959 Agreement between the Republic of Sudan and the United Arab Republic (of Egypt) for the Full Utilization of the Nile Waters. Egypt insists it has a historic legal right to 55.5 billion cubic metres of Nile water per annum, fixed under the 1929 and 1959 agreements that also guaranteed Sudan a total of 18.5 billion cubic metres. The agreements also give Egypt a veto on any projects built upstream.
Following Sudan’s independence from British and Egyptian rule in 1956, Sudan urged renegotiation of the terms of the 1929 Agreement. The 1959 Agreement governs the control of certain projects concerning the Nile, as well as water allocation between Sudan and Egypt. The allocation of BCM (billion cubic meters – a measurement unit for water allocation) was changed to 55.5 annually for Egypt and 18.5 annually for Sudan. Other riparian countries were still not allocated BCM. The 1959 Agreement also commits Egypt and Sudan to adopt a “united view” on the claims of upstream riparian states. The current status of these agreements is disputed among the Nile riparian states.
The main focus of current efforts centers around the Nile Basin Initiative (“NBI”), although other informal cooperation among riparian countries of the Nile River Basin existed earlier. The NBI was launched in February 1999 by the water ministers of the countries that share the river—Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Eritrea (which participates as an “observer”). The NBI “seeks to develop the river in a cooperative manner, share substantial socioeconomic benefits, and promote regional peace and security” and to “provide an institutional mechanism, a shared vision, and a set of agreed policy guidelines to provide a basinwide framework for cooperative action.”
Disputes between Egypt and Sudan on the one hand and the Nile upper riparians on the other hand have dominated the Nile Basin for the last half-century. Nevertheless, there have been attempts at cooperation, and they culminated in the establishment of the Nile Basin Initiative and negotiation of the Nile Basin Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA). Ironically, the CFA resulted in solidification of the areas of differences and the emergence of the upper riparians as a power to be reckoned with.
Egypt is especially proud of a project, the New Valley Project, to pipe 5 billion cubic meters of Nile water from Lake Nasser through the Western Desert to the New Valley. Seven million people will be persuaded to move away from the Nile to live in this new agricultural area. This project is very expensive, and the Nile may not provide enough water.
A typical visit to Egypt includes arrival in the capital city of Cairo, the largest city in Africa and the Middle East, with a population of 19 million. Considered the “Mother of the World” by Arabs, Cairo today is a modern, cosmopolitan mix of Arab, African, and European influences. Travelers generally spend at least a few days in Cairo seeing the Egyptian Antiquities Museum, Pyramids at Giza, Citadel and Mosque of Al-Azhar, and Khan al-Khalili bazaar.
Most travelers include an Upper Nile River cruise as part of their itineraries. Nile River cruises are usually 3–7 days, with embarkation in either Luxor or Aswan. Even before 2011, riverboats did not sail through Middle Egypt because of security concerns; therefore, most travelers take short domestic flights or trains from Cairo to Luxor or Aswan. Approximately 200 riverboats are based on the Nile, and the average boat accommodates 120 passengers. The largest boats accommodate upwards of 300 passengers; chartered yachts might have just a few cabins. Riverboats have a range of accommodations from basic to 5-star luxury, and nights aboard are generally spent cruising from one port to the next. Virtually all Nile cruises sail between Luxor and Aswan. There are 3 typical Nile cruise itineraries: a 3-night cruise from Aswan to Luxor (or the reverse), a 4-night cruise from Luxor to Aswan (or the reverse), and a 7-night cruise roundtrip from Luxor or Aswan.
Egypt depends on the Nile River to secure 95% of the water needed for different purposes as drinking, household uses, agriculture, fishing source, water transportation, tourism, electricity generation from the High Dam and industry.
Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam [GERD]
Ethiopia is executing a plan to construct the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam [GERD] across the Blue Nile. This dam will be the largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa when completed (6,450 Mega Watts) and a reservoir storage capacity 63 bcm (~2x Lake Powell). A colonial-era water sharing agreement gave the lion’s share to Egypt and Sudan.
Building work on the Renaissance Dam began in April 2011. The Ethiopian Government initially hoped to have the dam completed by 2017, but by 2019 the dam was scheduled to be completed in 2022. They hoped that with that accomplishment Ethiopia will become the largest energy exporting state in East Africa. Yet, Egypt had justifiable fears that the new dam will reduce the flow of water that it receives. In 2013, the rhetoric between Egypt and Ethiopia hit a new low point when then President Morsi stated in not so--it was not so veiled threat, that "All options are available." To respond to the building of the Renaissance Dam it was all of Egypt's options are available and that sounded like a veiled threat.
The Ethiopian Prime Minister has proposed the formation of a joint tripartite technical committee, including the water ministers of the three countries, to meet and examine the issue of the dams in all its aspects and to reach a common vision and an agreement that would be a satisfactory formula for all parties. Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation, a delegation of irrigation experts in the Nile water sector, representatives of Foreign Ministry and other concerned bodies, including Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs for the Nile Basin Countries represented Egypt at these meetings. The first meetings of the committee began on 28-29 November, 2011. Egypt entered in series of rounds of the Egyptian-Sudanese-Ethiopian talks characterized by Ethiopian stern attitude and intransigence which resulted in resorting to a global expert house to assess the dam and determine its effects and consequences. That stage ended in March 2015.
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is the main object of contention between Egypt and Ethiopia. Its reservoir will be able to hold 63 cubic kilometers of water — or about a year’s worth of the Ethiopian Blue Nile water contribution. The dam is located about 40 kilometers from the Sudanese border in the Benishangul-Gumuz Regional State. It is expected to have a generating capacity of about 5,250 megawatts. Ethiopia would like to use the dam primarily for power generation to rid itself of butane imports and as a catalyst for industrialization. It will also be used for irrigation.
The timetable for filling the reservoir is a critical issue for Egypt and has been the focus of recent negotiations. The quicker the fill, the less water will flow on to Sudan and Egypt. Ethiopia could theoretically fill the reservoir to full capacity within three years. Cairo wants a more extended timetable of up to 10 to 12 years.
There are uncertainties of changes in precipitation, temperature, potential evapotranspiration, and runoff across the sub-basin. This massive program of investment is, by and large, being designed on the basis of the historical climate. But a vast body of scientific evidence indicates that the climate of the future will be very different from that of the past, although climate models often disagree on whether the future in any specific location will be drier or wetter. In addition, the range of uncertainty in climate projections has tended to increase over time.
The lessons from the scenarios reviewed indicate that both hydropower generation and water-storage goals could be regulated in ways that do not affect downstream flow. In hydropower, dry scenarios lead to revenue losses on the order of 20–60 percent of baseline values. Wet scenarios result in potential revenue increases on the order of 40–50 percent. In some wetter climate futures, infrastructure could perform better than expected, because for a given installed capacity, more hydropower or more crops could be produced with the extra water. In irrigation, departures from the no-climate-change baseline are also significant, but less striking.
In June 2018, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed visited Egypt and reassured President Al-Sisi that Ethiopia was seeking only to promote its own development without harming the Egyptian people. “Egypt’s share of Nile water will be maintained... and even increased,” Ahmed told a news conference in Cairo after talks with President Al-Sisi. In return, Al-Sisi underlined Egypt’s willingness to promote investment in Ethiopia. Sudan has ambitious plans for the Nile; it is the country's chief resource. Sudan started a canal with money from the World Bank to increase supplies of Nile water in the 1970s; construction was halted in 1983 because of rebel action. This was a loss. Sudan is building a dam north of the capital, Khartoum, where the Blue Nile and White Nile converge.
Deputy Foreign Minister for African Affairs, Ambassador Hamdi Sanad Loza, held a meeting on October 13, 2019, with the ambassadors of Germany, Italy and China - all countries with companies working in the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) - whereby the Deputy Foreign Minister expressed Egypt's discontent at the fact that these companies continue their work in the GERD despite the lack of studies on the economic, social and environmental effects of it on Egypt, and despite their awareness that negotiations have stalled due to the intransigence of the Ethiopian side. Ambassador Loza added that necessary studies not being conducted and an agreement not being reached on the filling and operation of the GERD contravenes Ethiopia's obligations under the Declaration of Principles and under the rules of international law. In this regard, he stressed the need for the international community to assume its responsibilities in affirming Ethiopia's commitment to the principle of not causing significant harm to Egypt and working towards reaching an agreement that takes into account Egypt's water interests.
In a statement issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on October 22, 2019, "the Arab Republic of Egypt expressed its shock, great concern and deep regret over the statements circulated by the media and attributed to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed before the Ethiopian Parliament, which, if accurate, included negative signals and unacceptable insinuations pertaining to the manner in which the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) issue is being dealt with. Egypt is bewildered by such statements as it is not appropriate to engage in such propositions entailing military options."
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on 2 January 2020 said he had asked South African President Cyril Ramaphosa to intervene in an ongoing dispute with Egypt and Sudan over Ethiopia's Renaissance Dam. The filling of the dam has been a source of tension between the Nile countries. Egypt and Sudan argue that Ethiopia has not provided sufficient guarantees to their water supply, which is highly dependent on the Nile River. All three countries were expected to have finished negotiations ahead of signing a deal. But negotiators say significant issues remain. "As (Ramaphosa) is a good friend for both Ethiopia and Egypt and also as incoming AU chair, he can make a discussion between both parties to solve the issue peacefully," Abiy said at a press conference in the South African capital Pretoria.
One sticking point was the rate at which Ethiopia will draw water out of the Nile to fill the dam’s reservoir. Cairo feared Ethiopia’s plans to rapidly fill the reservoir could threaten Egypt’s source of fresh water. In the round of Washington talks 31 January 2020, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan agreed on a schedule for staged filling of the dam and mitigation mechanisms to adjust its filling and operation during dry periods and drought. The United States facilitated the preparation of an agreement on the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) based on provisions proposed by the legal and technical teams of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan and with the technical input of the World Bank.
Ethiopia's Water, Irrigation and Energy Ministry said on 26 February 2020 that Ethiopia would not attend talks in Washington because consultations with stakeholders at home were still incomplete. On February 27-28, 2020, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin participated in separate bilateral meetings with the Ministers of Foreign Affairs and the Ministers of Water Resources of Egypt and Sudan. This process has built on the prior seven years of technical studies and consultations between the three countries, and the resulting agreement. Egypt initialed the agreement on 29 February 2020, the first of the three involved countries to do so.
The last round of negotiations between Sudan, Ethiopia, and Egypt on the GERD, which began on July 3 under the supervision of the African Union and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, concluded without an agreement. In reaction to the reports, underpinned by pictures of the swelling reservoir, captured in imagery on July 9 by the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-1 satellite, Sudan’s Ministry of Irrigation and Water Resources issued a press statement reiterating its “firm rejection of any unilateral actions taken by any party”, especially at a time when the African Union and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa continues to seek an agreement between the three countries on the pending issues that could be resolved with robust political will.
Ethiopia is on schedule for impoundment to begin in mid-July, when the rainy season floods the Blue Nile. New satellite imagery in July 2020 showed the reservoir behind Ethiopia's disputed hydroelectric dam beginning to fill, but analysts said it's likely due to seasonal rains instead of government action. The swelling reservoir, is likely a natural backing-up of water behind the dam during this rainy season. There had been no official announcement from Ethiopia that all of the pieces of construction that are needed to be completed to close off all of the outlets and to begin impoundment of water into the reservoir have occurred.
Ethiopia completed the filling of the controversial dam on the Blue Nile river for a second year, state media said 19 July 2021, a move that is likely to anger Egypt and Sudan who have long opposed the project. “The second filling of the Renaissance dam has been completed and the water is overflowing,” Seleshi Bekele, Ethiopia’s minister for water, irrigation and energy said. “It means we have now the needed volume of the water to run the two turbines,” he said.
Reservoir-filling began in 2020, with Ethiopia announcing in July 2020 it had hit its target of 4.9 billion cubic meters. The goal for the 2021 rainy season was to add 13.5 billion cubic meters.
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