Why is the Nile such a coveted resource?

APA-Libya (Tripoli)

Why is the Nile, Africa's longest and one of its most majestic rivers such a coveted resource for Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan?

By S. Abdussalam

The Nile River's two main tributaries - the Blue and White Niles -  converge in the Sudanese capital Khartoum before flowing north through Egypt toward the Mediterranean Sea.

Like Egyptians, Ethiopians feel a sense of entitlement towards the Blue Nile locally called Abay, which originates from one of the highlands of north Ethiopia and contributes 85 percent of the water of this epic  river.

The stakes could not be higher as talks on the future management of a mega-dam being built on the river by Ethiopia failed for the umpteenth time earlier this month as Egypt and Sudan stuck to their guns over the filling and operations of its reservoir.

Since the feud over the controversial dam began nine years ago, Egypt and to some lesser extent Sudan had not disguised a determination to defend their share of the Nile even if it meant going to war over it.

In 2013, there were reports of a secret recording with Egyptian politicians heard proposing a range of hostile acts against Ethiopia over the building of the dam.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has also been quoted as saying that Egypt would take all necessary measures to protect their rights to the Nile waters.

In October last year, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed told MPs in his country that "no force" could stop Ethiopia from building the dam.

However, with time, the hard rhetoric from both sides of the debate has softened, lending themselves to the ambit of diplomacy.

Even the United States has been involved as an honest broker, weighing in on the talks severally but with little progress so far to reach an accommodation on the time it should take and the volume of water required to fill the dam.  

Libyan economic analyst Waheed Aljabu who is a keen observer of the diplomatic drama around the future of the Nile River tells the African Press Agency that, the reassuring things about the talks is that the three countries seem wary of resorting to other means other than diplomacy to resolve the issue.

"Balancing the disparate interests of these countries would be a huge task for those involved in the talks" says Aljabu.

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is a 145-metre-high, 1.8-kilometre-long concrete colossus being built in the country's Benishangul Gumuz region, 25 kilometer east of the Ethio-Sudanese border.

GERD will be Africa's largest hydro-power plant designed to light up Ethiopia and the wider Horn of Africa region, proponents of the project say.

Also read: US mediated GERD talks end in stalemate

Ethiopia envisages that its neighbours Sudan, South  Sudan, Kenya, Djibouti and Eritrea will benefit from power generated by the dam which is scheduled to be fully completed by 2025.

It is central to Ethiopia's striving for universal electricity access by 2025.

Currently only 35 percent of its 110 million people have access to electricity and across Ethiopia it is a source of hope for poor farmers who eagerly await the dam's completion with a power generation capacity of 6,000 megawatts. 

Even in Addis, power is patchy, and the city suffered weeks of blackouts during the most recent period of electricity rationing in May and June 2019.

Aljabu says it is not only an initiative by Ethiopia to boost its economy but also a "prestige project" to announce the country's grand emergence in Africa and on the world stage.  

However, he adds that it is a scheme which Ethiopia's neighbours will continue to view as a poisoned chalice despite a beneficial flipside for Ethiopians.


Literally as its lifeblood, the Nile is to Egypt as food is to the human body, one unable to do without the other for long.

Egypt depends on the Nile for about 90 percent of its irrigation and drinking water, and claims a "historic right" to it which Cairo feels was guaranteed by treaties from 1929 and 1959 with the British when they jointly administered Sundan in the condominium.

It fears the GERD will undermine supplies of already scarce Nile waters whose ebb and flow its population of 104 million people almost entirely depend on.

"A country like mine Libya receives most of its food needs from Egypt and Sudan and its relations with Ethiopia is almost the same so a peaceful resolution of the impasse will be good for the region's estimated 268 million people" says Libyan analyst Aljabu.

Of course the stakes will always be higher for the big population of Ethiopia (114, 963, 588million) Egypt (102, 334,404 million) and to a lesser extent Sudan (43, 849, 260 million) especially those eking out a living from agriculture, pastural and industrial activities.

Ethiopia's over $4bn dam is at the heart of her manufacturing and industrial dream which is to generate enough energy for its economy and surplus power to sell to its immediate neighbours.

National Pride

Ethiopians also see the dam as a matter of national sovereignty, relying not only on external funding, but also on government bonds and private outlays from inside Ethiopia to pay for the project. 

Public servants and private employees have been contributing a month of their salaries at a time since the project was launched in 2011 to finance it. 

Even farmers living in the north of the country are involved in soil conservation activities to reduce silt that may be accumulated on the GERD’s reservoir and potentially affect the power generation capacity of the dam.  

The main sticking point of the talks over the future of the dam is the filling of its reservoir, which can hold 74 billion cubic metres of water. 

Egypt is worried Ethiopia will fill the reservoir too quickly, reducing water flow downstream with "untold implications" for its population.

The current impasse is rooted in Cairo's fears that the dam could bring water and food insecurity for millions of Egyptians.

Ethiopia claims GERD will not cause any insignificant damage on  downstream countries but Egypt maintains the opposite position and casts doubts on the strength of the dam.

Thus the two states, which are incidentally US allies are poised for a protracted bickering outside negotiations while work on the dam goes on.


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