Environmental scientists representing Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan are at the heart of an increasingly bitter dispute over Africa’s largest hydroelectric dam, which Ethiopia is building on the Nile.
At play are questions about scarce resources, responding to climate change — and the intractable nature of disputes over water.
The countries’ researchers met this week in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, ahead of a conference of water ministers on 4–5 October. The dam’s overall environmental impacts, especially on water supplies in Egypt, were top of the agenda. The ministers’ meeting ended without resolution and Egypt is now calling for the United States to become involved. Earlier government talks in Cairo also ended without agreement, on 16 September.
Egypt is concerned that Ethiopia is moving too fast to complete the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and that its timetable will create water and food scarcity, and put millions of Egypt’s farmers out of work. Ninety per cent of Egypt’s fresh water comes from the Nile, which runs south to north from Ethiopia’s highlands, the main source of the tributary called the Blue Nile (see ‘A river runs through it’).
Ethiopia counters that the project, which is 60% complete, is essential for its electricity needs and a matter of national sovereignty — not something Egypt can interfere with. According to the World Bank, 66% of Ethiopia’s population is without electricity, the third highest proportion in the world. At its peak, the dam is expected to produce 6.45 gigawatts of electricity.
Ethiopia’s government also says that its plan will enable countries to its north cope more effectively with the effects of climate change. At present, unpredictable dry and wet weather in the Nile Basin — caused in part by climate change — is contributing to intermittent floods and water shortages. Ethiopia’s plan will even out Nile water flow, making such events less likely, says Seleshi Bekele, Ethiopia’s minister of water, irrigation and energy.
The three countries involved have established an independent expert panel, the National Independent Scientific Research Group, to help find a way forward.
When the dam will start operating depends on how quickly its main reservoir can be filled from Nile water and this is at the heart of the dispute. The reservoir provides the store of water, which is used to drive turbines that generate electricity. Ethiopia wants the reservoir to be filled over 5 years, with 35 billion cubic metres of water being released to downstream countries each year while the dam is being filled. Egypt says that its water supplies will be reduced during this period. It is calling for the reservoir to be filled more slowly, over 7 years, and wants more water to be released — 40 billion cubic metres per year.
Egypt and Ethiopia do not have a formal water-sharing agreement. Under the 1959 Nile Waters Agreement between Egypt and Sudan, Egypt takes 55.5 billion cubic metres of water from the Nile each year, and Sudan takes 18.5 billion. The agreement was reached shortly before Egypt began constructing its own megadam, the Aswan High Dam.
Ethiopia, however, was not part of this agreement and therefore does not recognize it. Ethiopian foreign-ministry spokesperson Nebiyat Getachew said at a press conference on 20 September that any proposal that did not respect “Ethiopia’s sovereignty and its right to use the Nile dam” wouldn’t be accepted.
“Ethiopia expects discussions and progress on our talks without the imposition of any one of the countries,” Bekele told Nature. “The issues are solvable technically and we can place the right framework on long-term operation, based on science and best practices.”
Water-resources researcher Kevin Wheeler of the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford, UK, says that in a year with average rainfall, Egypt should experience little or no additional water scarcity if the reservoir is filled over 5–7 years, with at least 35 billion cubic metres of water released downstream.
But Egypt is right to be concerned about extra water scarcity in dry years and those with low rainfall, adds Wheeler, who co-wrote a 2016 paper1 on approaches to filling the dam.
Harry Verhoeven, a Nile Basin researcher based in Qatar, says that ultimately there is little Egypt can do, and policymakers in Cairo will have to adjust to having less Nile water during the dam’s filling period. “Reduced water flows over several years mean tough choices, not only of who gets the water but what crops you grow and whether domestic food supply or export markets are prioritized,” he says.
Verhoeven says that Egypt could take the dispute to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, the Netherlands, but that would require both sides to agree to such arbitration. Even if they did agree, he predicts, the court would be unlikely to find in Egypt's favour. “Ethiopia has a right to develop the water resources in its territory,” he says.
Egypt’s ministry of water and irrigation did not respond to Nature’s repeated requests for comment. But in a statement issued earlier this month, the ministry said that it considered “it important for the Ethiopian side to engage in serious technical negotiations”, and find an agreement that would be in “the common interests of the three countries”.
Although neither side has been willing to budge so far, the countries are likely to find a compromise, says Ismail Serageldin, a former vice-president of the World Bank who predicted in 1995 that twenty-first-century wars would be fought over water. “Ethiopia wants as short a period as possible, Egypt wants as long a period as possible, they will negotiate and meet somewhere in the middle — I think it’s good that people are talking.”
“There’s still time for wars,” adds Serageldin, who later became a science adviser to Egypt’s prime minister. “But who knows, we may turn out to be wise; wiser than I thought possible at the time that I said that.”
Nature 574, 159-160 (2019)