The First Water War

The River Nile has long been recognised as the longest river in the world, stretching a massive 6,695 km! The river supplies water and electricity to 10 countries and is an invaluable source of life for Egyptians to this day. More than 95% of the country’s population depend on its water and live within a few miles of the river banks. It’s no wonder that the Egyptian people are concerned and worried about the threat of a vanishing river...

Who owns the River Nile?

There has been a dispute for several decades over who the River Nile actually belongs to. Why? The reason behind the dispute is that, 300 million people live on the Nile in 10 countries, two of which are former British colonies, Egypt and Sudan. In 1929 and 1959 the decision was made to share the rights to the river, under a treaty that was not recognized by the other countries. That treaty had given Egypt 55.5 cubic kilometers of the river’s flow and Sudan 18.5 cubic kilometers, but no formal entitlements for any nation upstream.

Holding back the water

In Ethiopia, a project is currently underway that further heats the disputes: The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, the most powerful structure in Africa. The dam is almost two-kilometer-wide and is being used to hold back the Nile, this has caused protests in other countries of the Continent, which fear that the gigantic structure will cause droughts in their countries. Does this mean that the world could be threatened by the first water war?

The controversial dam

The mega construction is almost ready and the completion of works is planned for 2022, after 11 years of construction and a cost of $4.8 billion. 16,153 gigawatt-hours of electricity annually are to be generated by 16 turbines, which are split between two power plants on the banks of the river. The dam would therefore have the same capacity as the three largest hydropower plants in Africa put together.

Even though the project is not yet completed, Ethiopia began to fill the reservoir at the end of July, so that the first two turbines can be put into operation next year. The reservoir will hold 74 billion cubic meters of water behind the 155-meter-high dam that is to cover an area of 1,874 km2, and in places will be over one hundred meters deep. According to the plan, the reservoir should be full in 2029. Egypt, however, demands a much longer filling period, ranging from 12 to 21 years.

The river of life

To Egypt, the dam threatens one of its most precious resources. The country has already lodged a protest with the UN Security Council due to the fear that the river level may drop so much that the country will struggle with water scarcity. It is thought that even a 2% drop in Nile water would lead to the loss of 200,000 acres of farmland and 1 million jobs on Egypt. But the exact impact of the dam on downstream flows remains unknown and will depend on how quickly Ethiopia fills the reservoir, the faster this happens, the less water will reach downstream. As a result, fields in the Nile valley may become barren and drinking water wells will dry up. The progress of construction works is monitored on a daily basis by satellite photos with an increasing amount of anxiety. Egypt gets 97% of its water needs from the river. The banks of the river are covered with lush green vegetation, while only a few meters away, dust rises above the dry, desert terrain. Everything depends on the Nile and what happens to the Nile is a matter of life and death.

About modern Egypt

A possible war in the Horn of Africa

Although Ethiopia continues to insist that it does not want to harm Egypt, Cairo has long been sounding the alarm. Desperate Egypt has already turned to the UN Security Council, the African Union and even US President Donald Trump as a mediator for help. The talks went well, but in the end they were still about the same issues. In addition to the length of the filling process, the main issue is how much water Ethiopia will let in during periods of drought, where Cairo demands that a specific amount is channelled down the Nile, the Addis Ababa government flatly refuses to agree. The tone of the talks has taken a more negative turn. "Prepare yourself for any possible missions within our borders and beyond if needed," Egyptian President Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi recently said to combat pilots. To add weight to this veiled threat, he ordered 24 French multi-role fighters. Ethiopia responded by deploying anti-aircraft missile launchers near the dam.

Concerns have been raised among international observers that a war will soon break out, the repercussions of which could be felt across the whole of Africa. The only chance to prevent this scenario is to return to the negotiating table. "The parties must overcome their mutual distrust and come to a compromise," says William Davison of the International Crisis Group. Otherwise, the dam, which is to lift Ethiopia out of poverty, may bring the whole region down in chaos...

Naguib Sawiris (Egyptian businessman & multi-millionaire) said, “We will never allow a country to starve us. If Ethiopia does not come to its senses, we, the Egyptian people, will be the first to call for war”.


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