Water Dispute on the Nile River Could Destabilize the Region

of irrigation for more than 5,000 years. Egypt relies on the Nile for more than 90% of its water. The region’s population could increase by 25% in 30 years, increasing demand at a time when Egypt would expect less water from the Nile. Water rights along the Nile have been in dispute since 1959; today, the conflict threatens to escalate into a war.

The USC study examined various dam filling scenarios and water shortage impacts for Egypt. Based on the short-term filling strategies of three to five years, presently favored by Ethiopia, the water deficit downstream in Egypt could almost double; 83% of the additional water loss would be due to dam restraining flow and evaporation and 17% lost due to seepage into rocks and sand.

The study helps fill a gap in the dispute by reducing ambiguities about how dam filling scenarios would impact the water budget deficit in Egypt, as well as offering a feasibility index to the different potential solutions. As both global warming and aridification accelerate, it underscores the need for more water research in arid lands, which is the core mission of the Arid Climates and Water Research Center at USC Viterbi.

“There is a real need for sound science to resolve the ambiguity surrounding this controversy,” Heggy said. “Our analysis doesn’t point fingers yet it shows a dire water situation that will result downstream, which is forecasted as the largest water stress dispute in human history. It can be avoided if proper support is made to the water, energy and environment research in the Nile basin.”

Water Scarcity Will Increase as the Climate Continues to Change
The study comes amidst a 10-year dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia over water supply on the Nile River. The parties seek an international solution, yet talks led by the U.S. State Department — and joined by the European Union and the United Nations — have resulted in little agreement after four years.

Meanwhile, tensions run high as negotiators try to avert armed conflict. Egypt has vowed not to allow the dam to impede its water supply, and it held joint military maneuvers with Sudan in May. Sudan has since petitioned the United Nations Security Council to hold an emergency session as soon as possible.

The dispute is emblematic of wider disputes over water scarcity as climate change affects developing countries experiencing rapid growth. Disputes along the Mekong, Zambezi and Euphrates-Tigris rivers, among others, show the potential for political instability and conflict.

Heggy said it’s possible a win-win solution may yet be found for the Nile River, based on policy options the study identifies. Progress has been impeded, however, due to a lack of credible information about downstream water supply and economic impacts. Getting an agreement will likely require better data and forecasts on impacts to human society as well as ecological effects along the Nile.

Gary Polakovic is manager of research communications at USC University Communications.