Genevieve Donnellon-May | Climate Fellow
At November’s COP27 climate conference in Egypt, water played a pivotal role in environmental negotiations. Alongside the inclusion of a water pavilion and references to water management in the final declaration for the first time, Cairo, the hosting government, launched two water-related initiatives: the Climate Responses and Sustaining Peace Initiative, and the Action for Water Adaptation and Resilience (AWARE).
These initiatives acknowledge that water insecurity is a potential threat to international peace and social stability, and that governments must encourage greater water adaptation to reduce these risks.
While the Egyptian government is worried by the regional geopolitical implications of climate change impacts, Cairo’s interest is also driven by the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and related intersectional domestic concerns.
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam
Despite being one of two downstream countries along with Sudan, Egypt has long been the hydro-hegemon of the Nile River Basin (NBR), one of the world’s longest rivers. Although 85% of Nile waters originate in Ethiopia, almost all consumptive use occurs downstream in Egypt and Sudan.
For thousands of years, Egypt’s hold over the NRB was due to cultural, historical, and socio-economic ties to the river reinforced by colonial-era treaties. However, the power dynamics shifted in Ethiopia’s favour in 2011, after it unilaterally began construction on the hydroelectric Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile River, a tributary of the NRB. With a storage capacity of 74 billion cubic metres, once completed it will become the largest hydroelectric dam in Africa.
According to engineers, the GERD will significantly change downstream flow patterns. As the dam is politically and physically reshaping the NRB in Ethiopia’s favour, the unilateral construction of the hydropower dam has raised alarm and anger in Egypt.
Egypt’s growing water and food insecurity concerns
Water and food security are essential to international peace and security. However, climate change-induced water disasters, increased water demand, and increasingly severe impacts on agricultural production put both at risk.
In the case of Egypt, Cairo is already facing a series of increasingly severe and inter-connected domestic challenges. Rising sea levels are affecting some parts of the country, while an increasingly hot and arid climate combined with prolonged droughts have affected the Nile. At the same time, the Egyptian government is under pressure to deal with rural poverty, rapid population growth, high population density, and unemployment. In this context, concerns about climate change-related water and food stresses are only worsened by the GERD’s construction.
Further complicating matters, Egypt relies on the NBR for agricultural production, including water-intensive crops. Estimates suggest that domestic agriculture is responsible for around 85% of Egypt’s freshwater consumption. In addition, the domestic agriculture sector supports a significant number of Egypt’s population of 104 million. The agricultural sector accounts for 28% of all jobs, and over 55% of employment in Upper Egypt is agriculture-related. According to the World Bank, agriculture, forestry, and fishing make up 11% of Egypt’s gross domestic product.
Increased water insecurity in Egypt would have a domino effect on the national economy, with further increases in unemployment, migration rates, and poverty. From this perspective, the country unsurprisingly views the GERD as a national threat which has the ability to restrict water supply from the Nile, potentially placing the country’s food and water security at risk. This could lead to further economic instability, political unrest, waves of migration from Egypt to Europe and elsewhere, and the increasing militarisation of the country.
Egypt’s strategic pact response to the GERD
Currently, there is no governing mechanism or basin-wide agreement over the Nile that has been ratified by all Nile basin countries. Given that Cairo is aware of its near total reliance on the Nile and desires to prevent the political unrest seen in previous years, it has responded accordingly to the GERD with various measures. These include threats to destroy the hydropower dam, a suggestion that former US President Donald Trump also made. Cairo has additionally sought external mediation with the US and taken the GERD dispute to the United Nations Security Council.
More recently, Cairo has increased its diplomatic outreach throughout Africa with a series of strategic agreements, as part of broader efforts to strengthen diplomatic and economic ties with other Nile Basin countries. By doing so, Cairo seeks to place Addis Abba under geopolitical and diplomatic pressure to solve the GERD dispute on Cairo’s terms. However, these efforts have not yet achieved their overarching goal.
As the GERD dispute demonstrates, climate change impacts could exacerbate existing water and food insecurity concerns in Egypt. Worst-case scenarios include a mass exodus of migration to the West, surging local violence and terrorism, and destabilising regional security. The absence of a governing mechanism ratified by all Nile basin countries is only making the situation worse.
However, Cairo’s fears also reflect the greater struggle countries face in dealing with climate-related stressors – and Egypt is not alone in this regard. Elsewhere, in Somalia for instance, the geopolitical consequences of climate change are already playing out. The recent drought is fuelling competition over natural resources, inflaming community tensions and vulnerabilities.
How then can governments best respond to these pressures, which are also linked to other domestic and regional challenges, without leading to regional conflict and instability? For governments, decision-makers, and other stakeholders, there is no easy fix to these complex and multi-sectoral concerns.
Nonetheless, governments can seek sustainable, effective, and equitable cooperation rather than conflict when it comes to the management of natural resources. Furthermore, governments should prioritise and work together to ensure peace and security at both a national and regional level. By doing so, this will reduce the geopolitical risks associated with worsening climate change and prevent significant repercussions for global security.
Genevieve Donnellon-May is the Climate Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.