A New Climate for Peace: The Nile River basin
Climate change, overconsumption, and upstream development
The Nile River basin’s richest and most powerful riparian, Egypt, is also its most downstream country. Egypt’s current water demands exceed its sustainable supplies by 25 percent, while its population is slated to grow from 87 million to 113.6 million by 2030. Egypt’s high levels of consumption have already contributed to salinization, as too little water reaches the Mediterranean Sea to flush out salts.
Historically, Egypt’s relative power, as well as the upstream countries’ lack of access to finance, prevented the other riparians from constructing large dams that could have decreased Egypt’s supply. Yet demographic and economic developments are increasing the pressure on upstream countries to develop their water resources. Demand for water in the Nile basin states is slated to grow as the population increases from 424 million in 2010 to 648 million in 2030 (medium projection). Harnessing the potential of the Nile’s water is seen by many poorer upstream countries as essential to overcoming their current economic weakness.
Today, the balance of power is shifting upstream due to population and economic growth, state consolidation, and development progress. Upstream countries have also profited from geopolitical changes and alternative sources of capital for major infrastructure investments, breaking Egypt’s de facto veto power. This shift became palpable when the Ethiopian president announced the construction of a huge new dam, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, on the Blue Nile in February 2011 at the peak of Egypt’s political instability. The filling of the Renaissance Dam will accelerate the gradual process of salinization, producing a significant shock when millions of Egyptians lose access to the water on which their livelihoods depend and there is less water to counter catastrophic salinization in the Nile Delta. The Morsi government directed belligerent rhetoric towards Ethiopia, presumably to foster internal political support. The subsequent regime has refrained from threatening war.
Climate change’s contribution to the current conflict in the Nile basin is still limited. However, the current pressures demonstrate how the impacts of climate change might play out in the future, since the disruption caused by dam building is similar to the predicted disruptions from climate change. Climate change is likely to result in greater variability in seasonal flows. Increased consumption is likely to lead to reduced flows downstream, with several consequences, including relatively less available water and increasing salinization.
These changes will significantly increase both the pressure on Egypt’s food and water security and the risks of fragility. Given past blame games between upstream riparians and Egypt, there is a real risk that the Egyptian government may take refuge in nationalism and seek to prevent further upstream water infrastructure development by force, such as supporting rebel groups or fostering political destabilization. Many upstream riparians are vulnerable to pressure from Egypt and already face fragility challenges of their own. Alternatively, Egypt may succeed in enticing the South Sudanese government to build canals on parts of the White Nile or its tributaries to increase flow downstream. Work on such a project in the 1980s contributed to the renewed outbreak of civil war in today’s South Sudan. Finally, Egypt could leverage different upstream riparians (e.g., Eritrea and Ethiopia) against each other, contributing to fragility in the region.
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