DamsWater Dispute on the Nile River Could Destabilize the Region

By Gary Polakovic

Published 13 July 2021

The rapid filling of a giant dam at the source of the world’s longest river could reduce the water supplies going to Egypt and increase tensions with Ethiopia, a new study finds.

The rapid filling of a giant dam at the headwaters of the Nile River — the world’s biggest waterway, supporting millions of people — could reduce water supplies to downstream Egypt by more than one-third, new USC research shows.

A water deficit of that magnitude, if unmitigated, could potentially destabilize a politically volatile part of the world by reducing arable land in Egypt by up to 72 percent. The study projects that economic losses to agriculture would reach $51 billion. The gross domestic product loss would push unemployment to 24%, displacing people and disrupting economies.

“Our study forecasts dire water supply impacts downstream, causing what would be the largest water stress dispute in modern human history,” said Essam Heggy, a research scientist at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering and lead author of the study.

“Averaging losses from all of the announced filling scenarios, these water shortages could nearly double Egypt’s present water supply deficit and will have dire consequences for Egypt’s economy, employment, migration and food supply.”

The study was published July 1 in Environmental Research Letters.

Despite the risks, the study offers policy solutions for sustainability that could potentially minimize the downstream impacts and reduce tensions in the region. For example, the impacts could be partially offset by adjusting operations at the Aswan Dam downstream in southern Egypt, pumping more groundwater, cultivating different kinds of crops and improving irrigation systems.

Nile Water Dispute Stems from Filling of Ethiopian Dam, Decades of Rising Tensions
So far, despite international negotiations, there’s been little progress in the decadelong dispute.

The crux of the controversy is Ethiopia’s $5 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which is nearing completion at the Nile headwaters. Now in the second phase of filling, it will be the largest hydropower project in Africa and would create a reservoir containing 74 billion cubic meters of water — more than twice the operational capacity of Lake Mead on the Colorado River.

It’s so vast that it will take years to fill, and depending on how long it takes, the water diversions could have devastating impacts downstream. Egypt and Sudan have water rights to the Nile, while Ethiopia was not allocated a quantifiable share. But as water and energy demand grows in the Nile River basin, Ethiopia is asserting its needs for hydropower and irrigated agriculture to promote development.

Some 280 million people in 11 countries in the basin depend on the waterway — a primary source