The Nile River has been a crucial source of life for Egypt for thousands of years, earning the country the nickname “gift of the Nile.” However, climate change, population growth, and a regional struggle for water resources are putting Egypt’s water supply at risk, with experts warning that the country could reach a state of “absolute” water scarcity in the next two years.
Egypt’s dependence on the Nile is profound, with about 90% of the population living along the river and relying on it for drinking water. However, the United Nations predicts that the country will face an annual water deficit and be categorized as water scarce by 2025. Rising sea levels are causing saltwater intrusion, which not only affects water supply but also damages agricultural land.
According to Karim Elgendy, an associate fellow at the Chatham Institute think tank, the Nile delta is the second most vulnerable place in the world to climate change impacts due to sea level rise, as the sea is rising in the Mediterranean while the land is sinking in the Nile Delta. This scenario poses a significant threat to the country’s water security.
Egypt is not the only country that depends on the Nile, as it is shared by 11 African nations. The completion of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the river is another major threat to the water supply in the region, according to critics of the project. The GERD, a hydro-electricity dam, has been the subject of a contentious dispute between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia for the past decade. The dam is almost finished and has begun to fill, providing much-needed energy supply to Ethiopia and potentially making it a major power exporter in the region.
The dam’s impact on the water supply will depend on how fast it is filled, according to Elgendy. “It will determine the impact of this disruption and the reduction to the volumes of water that goes to Egypt,” he said. In 2019, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said his country should be prepared for a war with Egypt over the dispute. In 2021, Egypt and Sudan held joint military exercises to demonstrate their security ties in response to the ongoing conflict.
Ethiopian officials have stated that the dam will not interfere with Sudan and Egypt’s water supply, but negotiations over an agreement on the filling of the dam have recently stalled. “I believe there will come a point where some level of cooperation has to happen because there is no other alternative,” said Mohammed Mahmoud, director of the Climate and Water Program at the Middle East Institute.
Egypt’s population of 109 million is expected to grow significantly in the coming decades, further exacerbating the demand for water in the region. Mahmoud warns of an imbalance in terms of less water supply and increased demand, driven by both climate change and socio-economic conditions.
The GERD poses a significant threat to Egypt’s economy as well. The country’s economy heavily relies on the Nile River for irrigation and agriculture, and any significant reduction in water supply could lead to a decline in agricultural production, food security, and economic growth. Egypt’s tourism industry could also be impacted by the water scarcity, as the Nile is a popular tourist attraction.
On the other hand, the GERD offers Ethiopia the opportunity to generate electricity and become a major power exporter in the region, potentially boosting the country’s economic growth. However, Ethiopia’s reliance on the Nile River for water and the ongoing dispute with Egypt and Sudan over the GERD could pose a risk to the country’s economy as well.
The dispute over the GERD and the water supply in the Nile River poses a significant threat to both Egypt and Ethiopia’s economies. As the demand for water continues to grow due to population growth and climate change, the two countries will have to find a way to cooperate and manage their water resources better – together.