At first glance it may seem that the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) will help to solve the issue of water scarcity in the countries within the Nile Basin. However, it will in fact push those in the lower Nile Basin – which rely heavily upon the Nile as their main (and sometimes sole) source of freshwater – further into environmental and humanitarian crisis.
The MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region, which includes Egypt – and often Ethiopia and Sudan too – is the most ‘water-stressed’ area in the world, containing 12 of the 17 countries considered to be most at risk of water scarcity. Not only are these countries known for their arid landscapes, but a rise in global temperatures will increase the frequency and intensity of extremely hot and dry weather fronts, meaning that finding sufficient water will become an even more arduous task.
Focusing on the Nile Basin itself, Egypt is ranked at number 43 by the World Resources Institute, placing it within the bracket of countries with high baseline water stress. Meanwhile Ethiopia lies within the low-medium bracket and Sudan the medium-high bracket. This is not a full reflection of the situation however, as even those counties deemed to have relatively free access to water may have areas which are threatened by drought conditions.
Already, Egypt has had to cope with an increase in climate refugees migrating from agricultural areas to cities because farming no longer provides sufficient income. Areas of land which were formerly lush and well-suited to the growing of crops such as cotton and wheat are now barren due to economic corruption and irrigation failure. With just 550m3 of water per capita annually – one of the lowest rates in the world – and uncertainty surrounding the volume of water accessible whilst the GERD reservoir is being filled, water scarcity in many Egyptian regions will only be exacerbated.
Indeed, countries located in the lower Nile Basin – including Sudan and Egypt – are already dependent upon the rainfall which feeds into the upper Nile Basin to continue to provide them with water, and it has been suggested that the 5 to 7 years required to fill up the reservoir behind the dam will create a 25% freshwater loss for Egypt.
Climate scientists predict an increase in average rainfall in the MENA region – with up to 20% more in the upper Nile Basin alone – and the freak floods which ravaged Cairo earlier in the year prove just how ill-adapted the country’s infrastructure is to a projected increase in heavy rainfalls. However, in an article addressing this issue, Coffel and Mankin explained that their studies forecast longer and more frequent periods of extremely hot, dry weather set to occur at least twice as often as they do currently which will counteract this increase in rainfall. These periods will be much harsher, with temperatures expected to rise by 2-6°C, meaning that if more is not done to curb this trend, there could be up to 110 million people facing water scarcity in the region by 2040.
Given the current and projected situations for Egypt and its neighbouring countries, the construction of the GERD will remain a source of tension between Sudan, Ethiopia and Egypt. The population of Egypt is set to hit 110 million by 2025, which will put further stress upon a country which already faces water shortages. Not only could the dam have a profound effect upon the water available to countries in the lower Nile Basin, but its construction will exacerbate the already growing tension between Egypt and neighbouring Sudan. Although Ethiopia will benefit from the increased availability of electricity generated by the dam, this is unlikely to counterbalance the project’s dire implications for its many neighbouring countries.
Image: Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, source: Flickr
Read Part I by the World Affairs co-editor here to find out more about the political implications of the conflict.