Egyptian farmers fearful as Ethiopia goes for 2nd Blue Nile dam filling

Mohammed El-Said
11 Min Read
GERD dam talks resume after Egypt issues stark warning against Ethiopia over stalled Nile dam talks

On the banks of the Nile River, more than 5,000 years ago, the Ancient Egyptian farmer began sowing wheat seeds after the river’s annual flood.

The sowing of these seeds heralded the flood and the abundant water and fertile soil that it brought to Egypt, allowing for crops to sprout to revive the country and the people. 

This situation has almost changed with the threat posed by the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on Egypt’s water supply.

The dam has left millions of Egyptian farmers feeling threatened, especially after the recent government measures that forced them to reduce the cultivation of some crops that they were accustomed to. 

The first filling of the 145-metre-tall dam’s reservoir began last July. At the time, Addis Ababa claimed the filling was accidental due to the heavy rains that tend to occur around this time every year. Despite Egypt and Sudan’s objections, Ethiopia insists on commencing with the second filling this coming July.

With an expected capacity of 6,000 MW, the main and saddle dams will create reservoirs with a capacity of 74 billion cbm. This ensures that the GERD, located on the Blue Nile River, is set to become Africa’s largest hydroelectric power plant. 

Fear of thirst

Anwar Abdel Hakim, a 47-year-old farmer from Daqahleya governorate, expressed these fears clearly when he vented his anger at the Egyptian Government’s reduction of the areas allocated for rice cultivation.

The move prompted him to describe the Ethiopian dam as the cause of the destruction of millions of Egyptians’ livelihoods, that the Egyptian Government must confront this matter and prevent it from happening.

Abdel Hakim has a broad understanding of the Ethiopian dam issue, and knows many of the details from following the news published on this subject via news sites or broadcast on television.

He grows rice and vegetables, and believes that Ethiopia’s move to undertake the second filling of the massive dam’s reservoir is a sign that Egyptian agriculture will be eliminated.

This is particularly given that domestic agriculture already suffers from many chronic problems, especially with the unprecedented doubling of production costs.

“As farmers, we are already marginalised, no one cares about us, and we suffer from production costs problems, especially the high prices of fuels that are used in the irrigation process,” Abdel Hakim said, “This is in addition to high fertiliser prices, which are not available sometimes and are bought on the black market at higher prices, and in return for all of this you find that crop prices do not increase by the same, but may go in the opposite direction. Now, Ethiopia is threatening us of thirst also.”

The Egyptian farmer believes that the Egyptian government should resort to all possible measures to prevent Ethiopia from implementing its “plan aimed at destroying agriculture in Egypt,” which means wiping out the Egyptian economy, even if it comes to resorting to war and bombing the Ethiopian dam with Egyptian warplanes.

Ready to defend water rights

Subhi Al-Sawy, a 50-year-old farmer from Kafr El-Sheikh governorate, agrees with Abdel Hakim that Egypt should not abandon the River Nile waters. He insists on the need to prevent Ethiopia from completing the dam without an agreement, which could harm Egyptian interests. 

“We say, as the Egyptian Government says, we are not against development in Ethiopia, and we feel the suffering of the Ethiopian farmer because we are also farmers and we are suffering,” Al-Sawy said, “But Ethiopia should not achieve economic gains at the expense of the Egyptian farmer, whose suffering increases every day.”

He fears that Ethiopia’s seizure of water will deprive Egyptian lands of the means for irrigation, which he says has become a difficult matter today and that the water has actually become scarce and infrequent.

Regarding the possibility of resorting to war to defend the Egyptian water security, Al-Sawy says that all Egyptians will be ready to defend the waters of the Nile and preserve Egypt’s historic rights.

Essam Abdel Halim, a 45-year-old farmer from Beheira governorate, does not know much about the issue of the Renaissance Dam, but he does feel threatened. This is particularly as the water reaching his village in the far north of the delta is already scarce.

This is what pushed him and many others to abandon the cultivation of rice as well as cotton, because it is no longer rewarding for them, despite being one of the strategic crops for Egypt.

He explains that over time, with the increase in production costs and the state’s tendency to rely on importing agricultural crops, the price of its cotton production decreased to the point that it sometimes did not cover the costs.

So he turned to rice cultivation, but was in turn surprised by the government decisions to reduce the cultivated area due to the lack of availability of irrigation water. It got to the point that the authorities imposed a “water waste fine”, for those who grow rice without a permit.

Abdel Halim believes that, after many years in the agricultural profession and one that he inherited from his father and grandfather, he must sell the land and leave it if the situation deteriorates further with the establishment of the Ethiopian dam.

Devastating effects

Egypt is one of the most arid countries in the world and currently suffers from a 90% gap in its water resources. The country receives about 70% of its water flow from the Blue Nile and Atbara Rivers, both stemming in the Ethiopian plateau, and which merge to become the main River Nile in northern Sudan.

The River Nile is Egypt’s lifeblood, with its waters providing the country with about 97% of its present water needs. This amount of water equals only 660 cbm per person, one of the world’s lowest annual per capita water shares (1,000 cbm/year). Egypt’s Nile water share equals 55 bn cbm.

But Egypt’s population is expected to double in the next 50 years, and is concurrently projected to have critical countrywide fresh water and food shortages by 2025, according to a study by the Geological Society of America (GSA).

Previous research suggested that agriculture lands in Upper Egypt will decrease by 29.47% and by 23.03% in the Nile Delta, as a result of the Ethiopian dam’s construction. It will also reduce Egypt’s water share by up to 5%, whilst producing a small effect on safe navigation. 

Hydropower losses from the Aswan High Dam will be between 20–30%. Meanwhile, evaporation losses will increase by 5.9%, which will affect the quantity and quality of River Nile waters downstream of GERD by increasing salinity.

The Consequences

Egypt’s Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation Mohamed Abdel Atty said that despite Ethiopia not being ready for any agreement, war is not an easy decision to make. He noted that it is also a decision that Egypt should not have to resort to.

The minister said that reaching an agreement on the filling and operation of the GERD would be in the interests of Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan. He added that Egypt is not against Ethiopian ambitions for development, but that Addis Ababa is wasting time.

The minister explained that the expected harm due to the Ethiopian dam would occur at the time of drought, but that Egypt is ready to deal with this.

“We have a plan that has been in place for five years, including decreasing rice, cane and banana cultivated areas, and lining canals,” he said.

Abdel Atty noted that water is assumed to run normally after filling, but the problem lies in managing the drought. He indicated that it is possible that drought may occur after 30 years, “and if that happens, it will be a disaster”. 

Ragab Abdel Azeem, Deputy Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation, said that, in order to meet the country’s water needs, the ministry has set a strategy using four directives. These will develop water resources, preserve water when used, purify it, and protect it from pollution. Meanwhile, it is also creating the appropriate environment for implementing these aspects.

Abdel Azeem noted that the ministry is working on implementing a modern irrigation system as an alternative to flood irrigation. The Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation has also implemented programmes and campaigns to educate farmers and citizens about the importance of balanced water consumption.

In addition to this, the ministry is undertaking several studies to estimate Egypt’s underground reservoir, and its potential uses in development without depleting this non-renewable natural resource. 

“We have, in the past two years, started to implement the use of solar energy for irrigation in underground wells instead of diesel,” Abdel Azeem said.

The project started in New Valley governorate, with a three-year plan to make all wells across the governorate solar-powered. The project was also implemented in the Nile Delta area, to operate irrigation systems using solar energy. A number of government buildings nationwide are also being converted to using solar energy.

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Mohammed El-Said is the Science Editor for the Daily News Egypt with over 8 years of experience as a journalist. His work appeared in the Science Magazine, Nature Middle East, Scientific American Arabic Edition, SciDev and other regional and international media outlets. El-Said graduated with a bachelor's degree and MSc in Human Geography, and he is a PhD candidate in Human Geography at Cairo University. He also had a diploma in media translation from the American University in Cairo.