Released 25 April 2022.
This article provides background and context for regional trends and historic agreements focused on the Nile River Basin, offers a comprehensive assessment of security challenges, and presents focus areas for future investment and cooperation. The policy recommendations will serve American interests better and improve agricultural practices in the region. Without a marked alteration of existing aid from Western countries, the water scarcity situation will continue without producing the required infrastructure improvements.
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Keywords: diplomatic history, water management, sub-Saharan Africa, Nile River Basin, Egypt
Stephanie Crider (Host)
Welcome to Decisive Point, a US Army War College Press production featuring distinguished authors and contributors who get to the heart of the matter in national security affairs.
The guests in speaking order on this episode are:
(Guest 1 Gerald J. Krieger)
Decisive Point welcomes Colonel Gerald J. Krieger, author of “Water Wars of the Future: Myth or Reality?,” featured in Parameters’ Spring 2022 issue. Krieger works at US Army Forces Command. Previously, he served as an associate dean of strategic studies at the National Defense University of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. He has published several articles on wide-ranging topics and is primarily interested in international relations, with a focus on the greater Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and the South China Sea and US foreign policy in these regions.
The views and opinions expressed in this podcast are those of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Department of the Army, the US Army War College, or any other agency of the US government.
First, I really just want to thank you for joining me today. I’m glad you’re here, and I’m excited to talk about your article, “Water Wars of the Future: Myth or Reality?” It dials in on the Nile River basin and the security challenges there. It offers policy recommendations that will serve American interests better and improve agricultural practices in that region. Can you lay the groundwork for us? How do things like population growth and climate change affect this topic?
Well, when most people think of the Nile River basin, or NRB, water scarcity is not something that comes to mind. It almost seems counterintuitive that there would be areas . . . and water is going to be an issue in the basin because it’s the second-longest river in the world. However, that’s not quite true.
Egypt, for example, is one of the most arid countries. And some around the region get very little—up to 10 millimeters a year—of rainfall. So, climate change is exacerbating water access issues in already-arid regions. In addition, population growth around the planet is going to approach nine billion by 2050, based on UN estimates. That Nile River basin is expected to double and approach nearly one billion people in that region alone. Egypt’s population, with 100 million people, is expected by 2030 to hit 128 million.
So all of these things are contributing factors. Just seven years ago, for instance, in sub-Sahara (sub-Saharan) Africa, not necessarily just the Nile River basin, there were 783 million people without access to clean drinking water, which adds to health and nutrition issues and things like that. And climate change, irregular rainfall patterns, can cause floods, which, obviously—loss of life and devastating consequences.
So then droughts, multiyear droughts in particular, in the Nile River basin alone, there’s 300 million people living on less than a dollar a day. So, they’re on that cusp of existence, you know, where little things kind of add up and make a huge difference over time. And, in particular, if you look at climate change and projected patterns and different models, temperature in Egypt . . . expected to increase about two degrees Celsius over the next century.
So there are patterns where people are living right now that it’s going to be more challenging in the future. And then, millions of tons of carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases in the atmosphere only contribute to these patterns, making things less predictable, impacting the level of the Nile River. These variability water levels impact the livelihoods of people. People up and down the river for generations have relied on fishing, for instance, and that’s gone away. If you look just from a holistic standpoint, there are rivers that are drying up.
And Africa, as things are changing . . . we’re talking about dams in this. And that’s one thing that impacts the water levels—sediment, things like that. We’ll talk about that. But these annual cycles and, you know, rainfall patterns that originate in Ethiopian Highlands—they generate about 80 percent of the Nile’s total flow.
The White Nile originates in Lake Victoria, and the Blue Nile, in Ethiopia. And both meet in Khartoum. And 97 to 98 percent of Egypt’s water supplies come from the Nile. And we haven’t done enough studies about the silt that has come down for centuries that have kind of provided some fertilizers and things for some of the farming areas that’s been changed, right, because there are a number of dams.
So there are some other things that kind of come into play here, maybe some historic agreements that play a part and shape what’s going on in the Nile River basin. Can you walk us through the most relevant of those?
In 1929, they guaranteed a certain amount of water from the Nile for Egypt to use for cotton because cotton was a huge industry when the British controlled the region, and they fed the textile mills in London.
So the Nile water agreement of 1929, British-Egyptian treaty, stipulated no project would take water away from the Nile to prejudice the interests or reduce the quantity of water arriving into Egypt. And that’s key. However, when Sudan gained independence in 1956, it was concerned that Egypt’s second dam, the Aswan High Dam, wouldn’t abide by the agreement. So tensions between Egypt and Sudan escalated. In 1959, they resolved it, signing a full utilization of the Nile agreement, and they specified that Egypt would receive 5.5 billion cubic meters a year, and Sudan, 18.5.
More recently, in 1999, all of the riparian communities came together—Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo (the Congo), Egypt, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, and Kenya—and they created a Nile Basin Initiative to promote constructive dialogue, training, education for farmers, sustainable water practices, and they wanted to cooperate. But this is built on trust, and this broke down very quickly.
Egypt and Sudan never signed the agreement because they wanted a special veto to make sure international law was enforced. They want that veto power because they’re trying to protect their historic rights and things like that. So, they’re not going to sign. Although they still participate. But the key in all of this is trust. And I think that underpins both the NBI and then the use of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
Sustainable practices impact the entire community. It’s not just one country. So the community does recognize that. They just get bogged down in some of these details and control. They do recognize the need for better water agricultural practices, but I think if we push the NBI, getting that foundation or springboard—and, again, Egypt and Sudan are kind of key—it can help us as we negotiate with Ethiopia. Sudan is kind of caught in the middle, but between Ethiopia and Egypt on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam about coordinating discharges during droughts because there are multiple dams.
And then, once you recover from a drought, obviously, you’ve got to fill, so you’re going to have to retain some of those waters, which is going to impact everyone else downstream.
So you’ve mentioned the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam a couple times now. Explain it to us.
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, or GERD, was completed in July of 2020. It is significant for a couple reasons. It’s the tenth-largest dam in the world. Thirteen turbines can produce five gigawatts of electricity, which is 2.5 times larger than the US Hoover Dam, just by scale.
It’s a big project, it’s got a big impact. Egypt currently operates the Aswan Dam and the High Aswan Dam, and Sudan has six other dams on the Nile River basin. By far, obviously, this one is the largest. And one question that keeps coming up is: Will Ethiopia be willing to release enough water downstream to mitigate droughts in long term?
But on the other side of it, it’s going to be when they’re recovering after a multiyear drought, and they’ve got to get their water levels back up in the dams to produce electricity and things. You know, who’s going to have priority, and how is that process going to go? They’ve got to coordinate this, and now is the time to get the agreement before it’s too late, because it’s going to cause friction.
The future and regional, strategic implications here: Is there anything else significant that we need to address about that?
There are probably three key areas that could be instrumental for the next century. The first is the effective use of dams to control water during floods and provide electricity, but, more importantly, serve as an insurance policy against drought in times of climatic stress. The second is better agricultural practices. And the last includes stewardship policies and infrastructure to manage water as a resource.
Along with these changes, the US can encourage the riparian states to sign the Nile Basin Initiative to work on better use of, and management of, the water in the future. This can provide a springboard of trust between Egypt and Ethiopia that can help get an agreement between the GERD and, you know, establish a framework that can be used in the future.
Dams can provide water and security for people in the Nile River basin. It’s clean. We don’t have to worry about contributing to the environmental impact. Two hundred fifty-seven million people in 2016 didn’t have access to electricity, you know, and it’s going to grow to 650 million by 2030. Ninety percent of these are going to be in sub-Sahara (Sub-Saharan) Africa. So, we’ve got opportunities for green solutions. And I do think dams can be one way that they do that, but it’s just got to be part of a comprehensive system, coordinated among everyone impacted, which, in the Nile River basin, there are a number of countries.
Do you have any final thoughts to wrap this up?
I think that Africa has got so much land that’s not being utilized. They require rain, you know, to sustain so many of their crops. If we just flip that—I don’t remember off the top of my head, but I think probably 80 to 90 percent of their agriculture is all rain-fed, and if we can switch that and get some irrigation systems, I think we can get their yields up.
Once you have the yields up, you can produce more. But they have more land, agricultural land, that’s untapped, and it just could provide a number of countries with food sources. And you do know that there are different regions and countries, you know, you’ve got the (United Arab Emirates or) UAE and Saudi Arabia that are getting crops imported from there. But we’ve just got to look at the overall practice and make sure that we don’t use water-intensive crops in regions that can’t, where it’s not sustainable long-term. So, when we look at whatever we’re introducing, we’ve got to look at the next 10 to 20 years down the road as we introduce different agricultural products.
We just really scratched the surface of such a broad and important topic. Thank you again for your time. Thanks for your contribution to Parameters. Listeners, if this topic interests you, I encourage you to check out the article.
Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.
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