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                                                                                                     Egypt's Hydropolitics: A Perilous Course
On August 25, 2014, it was reported that:
"Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia opened talks Monday to try to resolve a dispute over a hydro-electric dam being built by Addis Ababa on the Nile.
Cairo fears that Ethiopia's Grand Renaissance dam project could diminish its water supply..Despite two previous tripartite meetings late last year ending without agreement, Ethiopian Water Minister Alemayehu Tegenu said Monday the dam project would not have major consequences for Egypt and Sudan downstream.
His Egyptian counterpart, Hussein Mohamed al-Mughazi, stressed his country's "special situation because it depends totally on the waters of the Nile", a river that it also vital to Sudan.
Egypt has constantly expressed its opposition to any project that might disrupt the flow of the Nile."
What are the causes behind Egypt's unease over the Renaissance dam, designed to generate electricity (not irrigation) and what might Egypt do to reduce its desperate dependency on the Nile River's waters?
To set the stage:
First, foodstuffs are an encapsulation of water, virtual water. Generally, 1,000 tons of water (1,000 cubic meters (m3)) are needed to produce a ton of wheat, and 16,000 m3 of water is needed to produce a ton of red meat.[i] Further, a ton of rice requires 3,400 m3 of water to grow; a slice of bread, 40 liters (kilograms); a cup of tea, 30 liters; an apple, 70 liters; and a glass of beer, 75 liters. It follows that the composition of one's diet determines the volume of water embedded in the food consumed. The more meat in a diet, especially red meat, the more water an individual consumes. The term virtual water and food are interchangeable.

Second, an individual requires one cubic meter of drinking water annually, between 50 and 100 m3 for other domestic uses, and about 1,000 m3 of water to raise the food requirement of that individual.[ii] At the national level, over 90 per cent of the water needed by an economy provides for food needs.[iii] This water can either be local or "imported" in the form of virtual water; meaning, foodstuffs.


Egypt’s water challenge

With a per capita income of $3,300 in 2013, Egypt is poor. At 87 million, Egypt’s population tripled during the past 50 years. By 2050, Egypt's population is expected to grow to 150 million, according Egypt's National Planning Institute.
The Nile is critical for Egypt, a matter of life and death. The Nile supplies most of Egypt's fresh water. Of Egypt's total annual water use of almost 63 billion m3, just under 52 billion m3 come from the River Nile, or 83%.
A 1959 agreement between Egypt and Sudan allocated the Nile's annual flow of 84 billion m3, minus 10 billion m3 for evaporation from Lake Nasser, on the basis of 75 percent for Egypt--or 55.5 billion m3 per annum--and 25 percent for Sudan--or, 18.5 billion m3 per annum. The agreement was reached without acquiescence or involvement of the other eight riparian countries.
Like other Arab countries, except Iraq, complete food independence is impossible. With a population of 87 million, Egypt needs about 87 billion m3 of water to grow the food it needs to make itself self-sufficient in food. The difference of some 35 billion m3 (87 billion m3 – 52 billion m3), or 40%, is "imported", quietly in the form of foodstuffs. As Egypt's population grows, more virtual water "trade" will become necessary. By 2050, Egypt's Nile waters, if maintained at the current level, will not be able to feed more than 35% of the population, with the remaining 65% of the country's food needs to be imported. It should be noted that Egypt ceased being self-sufficient in foodstuffs when its population size reached 52 million.
A major challenge for Egypt to feed its rapidly growing population is the availability (or lack of availability) of foreign currencies. To meet the challenge, Egypt must implement economic development plans that would generate the necessary foreign currencies from the export of goods and services in order to import the additional foodstuffs to feed its rapidly growing population.

Egypt's difficult economic circumstances expose its national security to the irrigation actions of its upstream riparian countries. Consequently, the government of Egypt has threatened its upstream riparians with war if the Nile waters were to decline as a result of irrigation projects in those countries. Such a threat is synonymous with Egypt decreeing that upstream countries in the Nile Basin must not engage in irrigation projects to feed their hungry populations so that Egypt's water allotment is maintained. Former President Mohammad Morsi said in a speech in June 2013 that if Egypt’s share of Nile water decreases, “Egyptians’ blood will be the alternative.”
Egypt's successive governments have collectively failed to reduce the nation's dependence on the River Nile. In their failure, they exposed the nation to security threats arising from the fact that Egypt's entire freshwater supply originates outside its borders. The Nile waters flow into Egypt via Sudan from Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, and Eritrea.
Ethiopia provides around 55 billion m3 of the Nile's annual flow, or some two thirds of the flow to Sudan and Egypt. Ethiopia has 200,000 irrigated hectares out of a potential 3.7 million hectares of irrigable land. With a population larger than that of Egypt, 97 million, and facing problems in sustaining, Ethiopia will need to develop a large portion of this land for agricultural use. At an average of 10,000 m3 of water per hectare per annum, if Ethiopia irrigates only 600,000 hectares, for example, the flow of the Nile to Sudan and Egypt will drop by 6 billion m3 per annum.
Egypt's water woes could be exacerbated by the possible effects of global warming on the flow of the Nile from less rain and increased evaporation. Abject poverty and hunger/famine, which afflict Egypt's nine upstream riparian countries, combined with Egypt's own poverty and economic plight make it reasonable to predict that it is only a matter of time before violent conflict erupts over the Nile's waters, unless economic development in these countries will make it possible for them to earn from exports of goods and services sufficient foreign currencies to import their need for foodstuffs from the international market.
A way forward

To avert conflict with its riparian neighbours, Egypt has little choice but to reduce its water use and to focus on growing and diversifying its GDP. Especially important is the development of industries that produce low water using goods for export and provide employment alternatives to farming in rural areas. Such industries would generate the foreign currencies needed to import high water using foodstuffs instead of growing the food at home.
A number of measures can grow per capita GDP and diversify its sources, including, reducing the rate of population growth, adopting water conservation targets, reducing the red meat content in people's diet, and allocating the country's scarce economic resources efficiently according to rate of return on investment criterion.


[i] Tony Allan, "Virtual Water--Economically Invisible and Politically Silent--A Way to Solve Strategic Water Problems," International Water & Irrigation, Vol. 21, No. 4 (2001), p. 39.

[ii] Tony Allan, The Middle East Water Question Hydropolitics and the Global Economy (London: I.B. Tauris, 2000), p. 6.

[iii] Ibid.