The drying Nile and the surprising mitigation offered by the Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam

Analysis in brief: Water insecurity is a continent-wide crisis throughout Africa. The Nile River exemplifies what happens when climate change and population growth stress even a massive body of water on which millions of people depend.

Africa’s insufficient water resources

All of Africa’s most notable water crises, including the shrinkage of Lake Victoria and the disappearance of Lake Chad, are part of a larger scenario involving African nations’ water security. It may come as a surprise that Africa’s most water-secure country is Egypt, which is 90% desert and where 90% of the people are forced by their country’s environment to live within 50 km of the great Nile River – the historic source of the people’s lives and livelihoods. This is due to water-use planning that has been practiced for millennia to ensure the survival of the population.

In any country, water planning is the main requirement to achieve water security. The measure of a nation’s water capacity is annual per capita share of available water. By this measure, the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville) is Africa’s most water-rich country. Congo offers more than 31,000 cubic metres per capita. However, because so few Congolese have access to potable water, it is one of Africa’s least water secure nations. Neighbouring Central African Republic has Africa’s highest annual per capita share of available water, however only 37% of Central Africans having access to clean water. The statistical measure of per capita water capacity of an individual’s actual water security is analogous to gross domestic product (GDP): A country may have a high GDP but has its wealth concentrated in the hands of an elite, while the country’s majority are impoverished.

Africa’s water ‘elite’ are Egyptians, 99% of whom are connected to a water supply. Madagascar is another country where the supply of available water is high, but the number of Madagascans accessing that water is small. For all other African countries, water security is achieved solely through water planning. Thus, the countries with the best water delivery infrastructures are the most water secure: Botswana, Egypt, Gabon, Mauritius and Tunisia. Three of these five countries are desert nations, and the island of Mauritius has very limited local water resources. Only careful planning has allowed these countries to achieve levels of water security that have alluded countries with ample rainfall and whose landscapes contain many lakes and rivers.

Water security in Africa has many impacts beyond whether people have enough to drink and provide for their crops. Water security means political security because governments are not faced with a life-threatening crisis that a water shortage presents. Water security means health security because water is essential to human hygiene. The concept of water security also encompasses the environment and includes the preservation of watersheds and wetlands, which are necessary for human and indeed all life. Finally, economies collapse without water security meeting the needs of businesses and industries.

The life-giving quality of the Nile River is vividly seen in this space view of Egypt that shows a blue ribbon
surrounded by green, northward from Aswan Dam
Image courtesy: NASA

Africa, including countries considered water secure, is in a water crisis. This can be measured by the UN’s standard measurement for water security: 1,000 cubic metres of water per person per year. Following this benchmark, it is the responsibility of a country’s government to undertake water resource management by ensuring individual water security by building water purification and delivery systems for all its citizens. By the UN measure, even water secure countries like Egypt are in a dangerously precarious position. Egypt’s annual per capita share of water is 550 cubic metres per person per year – half of the UN minimum – placing Africa’s most water secure country statistically in the category of experiencing a ‘scarcity’ of water. Should the per capita share fall below 500 cubic metres, the country will find itself in the ‘absolute scarcity’ category.

Africa’s largest countries fall well short of the 1,000 cubic metres of water per person per year that defines water security. In Kenya, the figure is 647 cubic metres of water per person per year; in South Africa it is 765 cubic metres, and in Morocco, it is 600 cubic metres. Lesotho illustrates how population growth impacts the national water supply. Although Lesotho achieved a substantial 1,421 cubic metres per year in 2019, this is also down significantly from 2,460 cubic metres recorded 40 years earlier in 1977.

Geography is to blame for some nations’ water insecurity, such as the volcanic island of Cabo Verde that has historically struggled with its water supply, which today only has 49 cubic metres of water per person per year. In desert Algeria and Libya it is 271 cubic metres and 193 cubic metres respectively. Among Africa’s 54 countries, only 13 have achieved some level of water security in the 21st century – and this is mid-level water security rather than an elevated level of security. Three countries that are primarily desert – Chad, Niger and Somalia – are Africa’s most water insecure. With combined populations of about half a billion people, 19 African countries are listed as water insecure and cannot offer their people basic access to drinking water, sanitation and hygiene.

River of life is now a river of worry

Conflict has yet to erupt between three north-east African countries over the Nile River, but war talk has been raised since one of those, Ethiopia, commenced construction of the Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam (GERD). Historically, Egypt and Sudan have claimed exclusive control over Nile water. But what can be done if an upriver country chooses to dam or divert the flow of the Blue Nile, the larger of the two Niles (the other is the White Nile that converges with the Blue Nile at Khartoum)? As the place where the Nile begins, Uganda might also do so in theory.

The Nile, that mighty supplier of potable and irrigation water for millions and vital transportation artery, is shrinking. The agent responsible for the river’s diminishment is climate change. Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan alone cannot stop global warming, and each country nervously watches its effect on the Nile. The 6,500-km long river is drying up. In the half century since the 1970s, the Nile’s flow has decreased from 3,000 cubic metres to 2,830 cubic metres per second. Egypt has long held the policy that no outside force may interfere with its supply of Nile water. Thus, Egypt is apprehensive at the potential of Ethiopia’s giant dam to do just that.

Around the globe, conflicts are already being fought over water supplies. The African Union is concerned that conflict might result from GERD, for whose massive lake reservoir Ethiopia has unilaterally tapped the Nile. When the dam lake is filled, Ethiopia plans to present GERD to its downstream neighbours as a fait accompli. However, any threat Ethiopia presents to Nile water security for Egypt and Sudan is hypothetical. Climate change is factual. Mitigation actions are required against the effects of global warming. In actuality, these are already underway, especially in Egypt.

The Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam

Just as Egypt refuses any other country determining the Nile water it receives, Ethiopia has been adamant in its rejection of other governments or international bodies having a say in the management of GERD. Ethiopia needs GERD to generate power to electrify vast areas now unconnected to the national grid and to provide the means to achieve its economic expansion agenda. Yet while Ethiopia has no immediate water worries, Egypt seeks to boost agricultural production to feed its huge population by expanding agricultural land through irrigation – increasing such land by 9% in the past seven years – and fears outside interference with its water supply. Ethiopia meets the threshold of 1,000 cubic metres of water per person per year (The figure is 1,089 cubic metres to be precise); while like Egypt, Sudan is concerned about GERD’s effect on the Nile with its similar figure to Egypt’s 629 cubic meters.

Initially, Egypt’s argument against GERD was that Egyptian agriculture would be devastated and electricity generation would suffer when the Nile’s flow was disrupted while the GERD reservoir was filling up. Ethiopia has been filling the dam’s lake in phases, minimising disruptions. GERD’s electricity generation began in February 2022, 11 years after the dam’s US$ 5 billion construction began. Ethiopia plans to continue filling the reservoir, present the project to the world as finished and, thereby, make moot any further negotiations. However, Egypt will not be satisfied without a treaty to secure its water rights and has shifted the focus of negotiations. Climate change’s impact on the Nile is the new theme. Egypt is reportedly seeking agreements that would be enforced through international bodies like the African Union and which will require Ethiopia to release water from the dam at such times as Egypt or Sudan formally declare they are experiencing drought. Advocates of such an agreement cite the evidence of global warming’s demonstrable effects on the Nile’s flow, on rising temperatures and higher incidents of drought.

Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam
Photo: The reservoir of the Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam, on the left in high-altitude photos, fills with water from the Blue Nile
Image courtesy: NASA

Mitigations include conservation and solar power

Because climate change is beyond the ability of the Nile River countries to influence, they must adapt to the impact of global warming on the river’s water capacity. Egypt is already doing so, and the country’s mitigation efforts are harbingers of the initiatives and policies to come. Ironically, these mitigations, along with some surprising discoveries about the functioning of GERD itself, undercut Egypt’s conservation claims against the dam.

Climate change will continue to raise temperatures. This means greater loss of stored water through evaporation. Today, Lake Nasser behind the Aswan Dam loses 12% of its volume annually to evaporation, which means that 16 billion cubic metres of water a year disappear into the sky. This is because the dam was built in a hot desert – a matter that seemed problematic even when the project was underway in the 1960s. However, GERD is built not in the desert but in the cool highlands of Ethiopia. The dam when completed will lose 1.7 billion cubic metres of water a year to evaporation. On the basis of this, hydrologists estimate that GERD through its water conservation capability can actually increase the water supply of both Egypt and Sudan by up to 5%.

The Aswan Dam’s electricity generation capacity is likely to diminish. However, hydropower comprises 12% of Egypt’s electricity production, and an estimated 25% cut of Aswan’s output would reduce Egypt’s electricity capacity by only 3%. Already, because drought unrelated to GERD has reduced hydrogenation around Suez, farmers have deployed solar power generation to run their operations. Their initiative is being hailed as a template for the expanded use of solar power in Egypt and likely for other areas in the region where climate change is affecting hydropower generation.

GERD will help water conservation in downstream countries in another way. The massive dam retains Nile River silt. With less silt build-up, the lifetime of use will increase for Egypt’s Aswan Dam and Sudan’s large Nile dams the Merowe, the Roseires and the Sennar. Water will no longer be wasted in seasonal flooding in Sudan and in Ethiopia downriver from GERD because the GERD reservoir will retain storm water. Costly flood damage will also be eliminated. The reservoirs of Sudan’s Kashm el-Girba, Roseires and Tekeze dams, commonly flood; however, with waters held behind GERD, this will no longer happen, even at a time when climate change is bringing more powerful storms and more extensive flooding worldwide.

Finally, the treatment of wastewater will become even more essential as a means to achieve water security. Treating wastewater has been a perpetual challenge in Africa, where two-thirds of countries treat less than 5% of their wastewater and not a single country treats more than 75%. Wastewater treatment will reduce diseases like cholera and boost the water supply. One reason climatologists predict a rise in diseases concomitant with global warming is the issue of untreated wastewater.

The Nile as a symbol of Africa’s water security challenge

The recorded shrinkage of the Nile River’s flow is but another indicator of the impact of climate change on the water supply of a continent that has never achieved water security for its people. Human calamity is assured if the only known remedy is not put in place through policy and action: water management. For the Nile, this means Egypt and Sudan must recognise the water conservation benefits of the Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam, and Ethiopia must accept a negotiated agreement to ensure availability of that conserved water.

Another important conservation measures the use of solar power to replace hydroelectricity generation when dam levels are compromised by drought. Finally, the treatment of waste water must be vastly accelerated. Egypt treats only 20% of its wastewater; Ethiopia and Sudan treat even less.

The critical points:

  • The drop in the flow of the Great Nile River is real-time evidence of climate change’s reduction of Africa’s already inadequate water security
  • The controversial Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam, criticised by Egypt and Sudan for threatening their water security, offers surprising water conservation advantages and can boost Egypt’s and Sudan’s water security by 5% – if a tri-national agreement is put in place
  • Wastewater treatment and solar power are also necessary to boost water security, but water management policy and practices are the most essential elements to fortify water security