Egypt doesn’t want Ethiopia to dam the Nile. See the data; pick a side.

To quote a recent Bloomberg article: “Ethiopia wants to flood the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam when the next rainy season begins in July [2020]. Egypt insists on having a say in how quickly it’s filled, because it will affect the flow of the Nile River, the nation’s main source of fresh water.”

This may conjure images of the Nile flowing from Ethiopia into Egypt; running free one moment, dammed up the next. But this isn’t the case.

Firstly, there are two Niles, the blue and the white, and they branch off into many other tributaries.

Secondly, no water flows directly from Ethiopia into Egypt, everything runs through a few thousand kilometres of Sudan on its way.

Thirdly, these rivers don’t exactly flow freely at the moment, because both Sudan and Egypt already have dams on the Nile. The water that flows through the part of the Nile that Ethiopia is planning to dam currently flows through four other dams before making its way to the good people of Egypt. Ethiopia’s new damn will be the fifth.

So yes, you could say that Ethiopia is ‘damming the Nile’. Or, if you wanted to be more informative, you could say that Ethiopia is ‘adding one more dam to one of the tributaries of the Nile’.

As you can see from the map, you can’t even see the river (the Blue Nile) that the new Ethiopia dam (the red pin) is blocking — it looks like it’s not even on the Nile.

If you’re getting the impression that the Blue Nile is just a little creek and the White Nile is where the money’s at, you have been mislead, on purpose, so I could make the point that quantifying flow rates and dam capacities is necessary for a proper understanding of the issue.

So, let’s quantify this. Here’s some of the Nile tributaries (widths to scale) and some dams (heights to scale). I’ve left out one of the little damns in Sudan. The river flows from left to right.

A few things to note. The part of the river that the dam in question plans to impound provides about 60% of the total flow. It’s seasonal of course and probably skewed in either direction based on the reporter’s agenda, so take the number with a pinch of salt, but you get the idea: it’s not 10% and it’s not 90%.

The new dam will valiantly hold back 74 km³, or as dam people like to say, 74 × 10⁹ m³ or 74 billion cubic metres or 74 teralitres, because god forbid we all use the same language. This dwarfs Sudan’s dams (13, 7, and 1 km³), but is dwarfed itself by Egypt’s Aswan Dam (132 km³).

To put these capacities in context, the amount of water that flows through the river each year is around 40–60 km³, depending on the point at which you count the droplets. So these dams hold anywhere from a few months’ to a few years’ worth of water.

Importantly, Egypt’s dam is right on the upstream border. Meaning that the Nile could completely cease flowing and Egypt could slowly release the contents of Aswan dam to their residents and no one would get thirsty. Curiously, it’s Sudan that seems to be at greater risk, yet they don’t seem too fussed. Partly because Ethiopia’s new dam will reduce flooding and also provide electricity to Sudan.

Right now, Egypt’s Aswan dam appears to be almost full (according to the Jason-3 satellite):

Presumably they need to let a bit of water out so that it can handle the incoming/upcoming flood waters. In my infinite wisdom, it seems like if Ethiopia will be taking on the role of flood wrangler for their part of the Nile, then Egypt will get a steadier flow. And they’ve got 2–3 years’ worth of water in that dam. And again, Ethiopia isn’t blocking off the whole Nile, just a tributary that makes up 60% of it.

It’s more complicated than this of course. Holding back water is also holding back the electricity that it would generate in the downstream dams. Then again, water is only held back temporarily — whether or not water is used up on crops is another matter altogether. And a tiny share of Egypt’s electricity comes from their dam.

Another complicating factor: holding back floodwaters in a dam in a climate where it evaporates less quickly (e.g., Ethiopia) means that there’s more water to release again after flood season, so this could result in more water flowing through Egypt’s dam once the Ethiopian dam has passed the filling stage.

It’s quite the sticky pickle, and tensions run high. You can follow the #itismydam hashtag for the latest, if this floats your reed raft.

On the topic of one country’s dam pissing off another country, here’s a nice hotel in Sudan that Egypt submerged when it built their big dam:

Just look at it now:

Still on the topic of one country’s dam affecting another… The USA has backed Egypt in this little spat, which is great news for Mexico.

For you see, there’s no way that the US could possibly tell Ethiopia that preventing the Nile from flowing into Egypt is uncool while doing that EXACT SAME THING by preventing the Colorado River from flowing into Mexico. Here’s the ‘Mighty Colorado’ as it ‘flows’ across the border into Mexico:

I bet they pay some border patrol people to splash about in the river within full view of the Mexicans. They almost certainly have a beachball with the American Flag on it. Actually I bet the border patrol people do it for free.

So there you have it. I’m clearly on team Ethiopia here. Right now, only 45% of Ethiopians have access to electricity (the number is 100% in Egypt). Imagine your life without electricity, and imagine how much it would improve by adding electricity to the mix. This is about to happen to thousands of Ethiopians (and Sudanese) and I’m really happy for them. To try and stand in the way of this without offering any real reason seems downright evil if you ask me.

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