Vicken Cheterian

From the Nile to the Euphrates, Water Conflicts

The Nile is not the only source of “water conflicts” in the Middle East. On social networks videos circulate of a near dry riverbed of Euphrates.

Egypt and Ethiopia are in conflict over regulating Nile River waters. The construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in is near completion and Ethiopia was supposed to start filling it, a 4.8 billion USD project. Although negotiations around the Nile waters between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan started four years ago, it did not lead to any results. Egyptian leaders cautioned Ethiopia in what they qualify as “unilateral moves” before an agreement is reached. For the moment, filling the dam has been postponed, but for how long?

According to international law, a treaty signed in 1929 that is during the colonial period under British control, and amended in 1959 between Egypt and Sudan, regulates the sharing of Nile River. According to this Nile Waters Agreement, from the 84 cubic meters of annual flow is to be divided between Egypt with 55.5 billion cc, and Sudan with 18.5 billion cc. (with evaporation estimated at 10 billion cc). This agreement did not foresee the shares of other upstream countries. Economic development coupled with demographic explosion in sub-Saharan Africa had to pose the question of sharing the Nile waters. This happened in 2010, when five upstream countries initiated cooperation to get bigger share of the Nile for irrigation. 
The big shock was a year later when Ethiopia started building the massive Renaissance Dam, near the border with Sudan. Once realized, the reservoir would cover a surface area of 1’800 square km, to produce 16’000 GWh of electricity. It will provide Ethiopia with enough electricity and even make it export electricity, while currently 50 million Ethiopians are without electricity. For Ethiopia, one of the poorest countries with per capita income at 772 USD in 2018 (according to the World Bank), the Renaissance Dam promises no less than powering its economic development.

The filling of the reservoir was initially planned for July 2020. It has a capacity of 74 billion cubic meters. It will take a full year and a half of the full Nile flow to fill the reservoire - the flow at the Ethiopian-Sudanese border being 49 billion cubic meters. The filling of this gigantic dam was going to take six years according to Ethiopia, but Egypt was pushing for longer period of up to twelve years, in order not to have sudden and long-term fall in the levels of the Nile downstream.
Since the start Egypt opposed the project, and demanded a stop of the works before starting negotiations. Egyptian fears are evident: “Egypt is the gift of the Nile” Herodotus once said famously. Without the water of the Nile that flows down from the depth of African highlands, there would be no Egyptian civilization, which was based on the control of the Nile waters for irrigation. For many centuries, the source of the Nile remained mysterious, and Egyptians thought that the source of the Nile were from “Moon Mountains”. Only in the 19th century, in 1855 – that is four centuries after the discovery of the Americas – that it was possible to discover the sources of the Nile. They are two, the White Nile, which originates from Lake Victoria in Kenya, the waters of which disperse in the huge marshes of Sudan. The 85% of the waters of the Nile passing through Khartoum, and continues its journey to Egypt originate from Ethiopian highlands. Egypt is afraid that on the short-run the filling of the reservoir will cause water shortages, as well as on the long run due to evaporation from the lake that will be formed at the Renaissance dam. 

Both Ethiopia and Egypt have growing need of water and electricity. In 1980 Ethiopian population was at 35 million; today is over 109 million. In 2011, when the Egyptian revolution happened, it had a population of 82 million; today it is over 100 million. 

Euphrates riverbed is dry
The Nile is not the only source of “water conflicts” in the Middle East. On social networks videos circulate of a near dry riverbed of Euphrates. Commentators in northern Syria and Iraq attribute this lack of water to Turkish policies of “punishing” Kurdish inhabited regions of those countries. According to some sources in Syria, Turkey reduced the release of Euphrates waters from 55 cubic meters per second to only 150cm/s. This is the worst situation since 2017, when Euphrates levels downstream was dramatically low. In Syria it posed problems for irrigation as well as electricity generation. The consequences on Iraq, a country that witnessed continuous decline in river levels, is even more than dramatic.

Since the 1980’s the question of Euphrates and Tigris waters posed problems between upstream Turkey and downstream Syria and Iraq. Turkey built 22 dams over those rivers, baptized as Southeastern Anatolia Project, for electricity production and development in its south-east, enabling Turkey to hold 90% of Euphrates and 46% of Tigris river flows. The drop of the recent downstream river levels is largely due to the filling if the Ilisu Reservoir. This is not the end of Turkish water ambitions, there is an additional Cizre Dam that is planned for construction.

This evidently poses existential problems to Turkey’s southern Arab neighbours: since the 1980’s, it reduced water flow to Syria by some 40% and even more for Iraq. Already a decade earlier, before the eruption of the Syria war, water shortage was a major problem for Syria’s northern provinces. Dry seasons in Syria between 2006 and 2009, due to the Turkish water policies and because of drop in rainfall, caused failure in agriculture, the death of animal herds, and internal migration of some half a million Syrians from the northern agricultural belt to suburbs of urban centres. This water problem and the social difficulties it caused, was seen as one of the background causes, next to a rigid and dictatorial regime, for the Syria conflict. 

More to the east, Iran is also facing a dramatic water problem, the most visible example being the disappearance of Urmia Lake due to diversion of rivers flowing to the it, for irrigation. Urmia has lost 90% of its surface area, and its current water volume is only 1/60th of what it was in the 1990’s.

The Middle East has an acute water problem, which will only get worst. The region has dramatic increase in population- Iraq had 25 million population at the time of the US invasion, has over 38 million today – while rainfall is decreasing due to deregulation of the climate. In other words, the region will increasingly depend on food imports at a time the region’s strategic product (oil) has lost its market value and on the medium term will lose its strategic importance. 
This time Middle Eastern countries cannot attribute those failures to foreign imperialism and colonialism. It is regional political failures that are the cause of the current problems, which will only be amplified in the coming years: irrational water policies, lack of coordination between upstream and downstream countries, disregard to environment. Whether in the case of the Nile or that of Euphrates-Tigris the only logic is that of power. While Middle East North Africa region is facing dramatic problems in population and resources management, there is no regional organization capable of regulating those difficult issues.