The Nile – lifeblood and source of conflict

The construction of a dam in Ethiopia could solve many problems for the growing population along the Nile. However, when the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam began, it was met with warmongering from countries downstream. Egypt in particular felt threatened by the dam, which would regulate the Nile, the artery that runs through the heart of the country.
“From a scientific perspective, all water problems can be solved”, says Ronny Berndtsson from Water Resources Engineering. “But it takes collaboration and trust.”

Renaissance dam

Ethiopia is continuing with the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, despite strong protests from Egypt. With greater trust between the countries, the dam could solve both countries’ problems. Photo: IPS Inter Press Service

When peace and conflict researcher Karin Aggestam and Ronny Berndtsson found themselves next to each other on a plane to the Middle East, they realised that they could benefit greatly from one another’s expertise.

The result of their meeting was first the project Hydropolitics and Peacemaking in the Middle East and then a few years later an even more interdisciplinary project at the Pufendorf Institute on hydrosolidarity along the Nile. The latter also involved human rights researcher Dan-Erik Andersson and six other Lund researchers from four different faculties.

“The Nile is particularly interesting because several densely populated countries have to cooperate over it”, says Dan-Erik Andersson. “A large part of the river is already being used, and only a small proportion of the original river water reaches the Mediterranean.”

Explosive population growth is expected along the Nile and it is therefore necessary to increase irrigation capacity to make sure the water goes around. For instance, drip irrigation should be introduced in place of the current method which involves flooding the fields. Waste water must also be purified and used in irrigation.

“For cultural reasons, people in many countries don’t want waste water on the fields, which is frustrating because it is an important element in solving the water shortages”, says Ronny Berndtsson, explaining that Tunisia is the only country in the Middle East and North Africa that systematically uses waste water.

Ronny Berndtsson, Dan-Erik Andersson o Karin Aggestam

Ronny Berndtsson, Dan-Erik Andersson and Karin Aggestam have been part of an interdisciplinary project on hydrosolidarity along the Nile. Photo: Gunnar Menander

Another key project for future water supply for the population along the Nile is the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam that is being constructed in the Ethiopian uplands. It would provide Ethiopia with the water power that the country so dearly needs in order to attract foreign investors, but the other countries on the Nile would also benefit from the dam. Because it is cooler in the Ethiopian uplands, 10 cubic kilometres of water could be saved that would otherwise evaporate if the dam were further down the Nile. This corresponds to 20 per cent of the annual flow of the entire river.

“From an engineering perspective, there are no drawbacks to the dam”, asserts Ronny Berndtsson.

On paper, building a dam on the upper Nile would be a good way to economise the Nile’s resources. However, Egypt feels threatened, and this is perhaps understandable. The dam is so large that it would take the entire annual flow of the Nile to fill it. It must therefore be filled slowly and only in years when there is a large surplus of water. However, the Egyptians do not trust Ethiopia to fill the dam slowly enough. Moreover, Egypt is satisfied with an old and very advantageous agreement it has with Sudan and the UK. It states that Egypt receives 75 per cent of the water of the Nile and Sudan the remaining 25 per cent. No consideration was given in the agreement to the fact that a large part of the river is generated from Ethiopian territory. So, despite the dam being the most beneficial and loyal way to economise the water resources, it is such a sensitive issue that Egypt has even threatened Ethiopia with military intervention if it starts to fill the dam.

The construction of the dam continues nonetheless. A while ago, the interdisciplinary group of water researchers conducted joint fieldwork along the Nile.

“It was a great privilege to be able to take that trip together. We complement each other and got the dialogue going that is needed to be able to work across disciplines”, says Karin Aggestam.

As a political scientist, she studied power relations, whereas Dan-Erik Andersson was interested in the religious situation and how religious leaders could be used to encourage greater solidarity in the use of the water of the Nile.

They invited both Egyptian and Ethiopian researchers to attend the presentation of the final reports from the project. However, the invited researchers ended up at each other’s throats.

“It was so clear that technology is not sufficient to solve the problems surrounding the division of the water of the Nile”, says Dan-Erik Andersson.

The group have submitted applications for further funding and hope to be able to continue their interdisciplinary work and develop a research environment on greater solidarity in the use of the water of the Nile.

Text: Ulrika Oredsson