Look at Egypt on Google Earth and you will see a green line snaking through a sand-colored landscape, fanning out into a triangle in the north.
This emerald ribbon is the vegetation that grows on either side of the Nile River and around its delta. It is Egypt’s only fertile land — and testament to the country’s reliance on this fabled waterway.
The Nile River Basin extends to 11 African countries, but Egypt — one of the oldest civilizations in the world — has controlled the river and used the lion’s share of its waters for millennia.
That could be about to change.
The Blue Nile River is the Nile’s largest tributary and supplies about 85% of the water entering Egypt. Ethiopia is building its $5 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile, near the border with Sudan. When completed, it will be the largest dam in Africa, generating around 6,000 megawatts of electricity for both domestic use and export.
Ethiopia’s ambitious project is designed to help lift its fast-growing population out of poverty. But the new dam also puts management of the flow of the Blue Nile in Ethiopia’s hands — and that has sparked a power shift in the region.
For the Egyptians, the Nile is, literally, a lifeline. The vast majority of the country’s 97 million people live along its banks.
“It’s like somebody has control over a tap. If the Ethiopian people for some reason want to reduce the amount of water coming to Egypt, it would be a great problem,” says Aly El-Bahrawy, professor of hydraulics at Cairo’s Ain Shams University.
Water scarcity is a serious issue in the north African nation, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). In 2014, Egypt had 637 cubic meters per capita, compared to 9,538 cubic meters per capita in the United States — nearly 15 times as much.
With its population predicted to reach 120 million by 2030, Egypt is on track to hit the threshold for “absolute water scarcity” — less than 500 cubic meters per capita — according to the FAO.
And that’s without factoring in any complications caused by the dam.
Although it is most strongly associated with Egypt, neither of the Nile’s two sources are situated in the country. The White Nile begins at Lake Victoria — Africa’s largest lake, which sits between Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda — while the Blue Nile originates at Lake Tana in the Ethiopian Highlands. The two rivers merge near the Sudanese capital Khartoum to form the main waterway, which flows north through Egypt to the Mediterranean.
Egypt’s claim on the Nile’s waters has, however, been enshrined in law for nearly 90 years, in the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1929, signed between Egypt and Great Britain, and the 1959 Bilateral Agreement between Egypt and Sudan. Collectively known as the Nile Waters Agreements, the treaties grant 18.5 billion cubic meters of water a year to Sudan and 55.5 billion cubic meters to Egypt.
The Nile Waters Agreements allocated no water to Ethiopia — even though it is home to a major source — or the other eight countries of the Nile Basin, whose rivers feed into Lake Victoria and contribute to the White Nile.
What’s more, the agreements granted Egypt veto power over construction projects on the Nile River and its tributaries anywhere upstream.
“It is generally believed that Egypt received such favorable terms (during colonial times) … because the country was very important to the United Kingdom’s agricultural interests, particularly its cotton fields,” says John Mukum Mbaku, professor of economics at Weber State University in Utah and co-author of “Governing the Nile River Basin.”
Egypt not only needs the Nile waters, it believes it has a legal and historical right to them. Other countries disagree.
“The Nile River Basin’s upstream riparian states argue that the Nile Waters Agreements are unfair, inequitable and unsustainable,” says Mbaku. Upstream countries, including Ethiopia, maintain that “they are not bound by these agreements, because they were never parties to them,” Mbaku says.
In 1999, the Nile River Basin States started negotiations to design a legal framework that would provide for a fairer allocation of the Nile’s waters, but Egypt and Sudan would not compromise on the “absolute protection of their prior rights” and no consensus was reached, says Mbaku.
However, unlike the other countries that share the Nile, Egypt has only one river, says El-Bahrawy, and as the most downstream nation, it is most vulnerable to development upstream. Egypt also only gets “a few millimeters of rain per year,” he says. “Compared to other countries, Egypt is very, very dry.”