How climate change could impact the Nile

 By Nicholas Newman

At 4,180 miles, the river Nile is the longest river in the world and lies at the heart of the cradle of civilization. Today, it is the main source of water for people of the lower Nile basin countries of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia…

A case in point is Egypt, which currently depends on the river Nile for 97 percent of its water. Because of the growth in demand for drinking water, outpacing Nile supplied water, the government is encouraging the construction of desalination plants to top up supplies of water.
Economic and agricultural development in the countries along its banks has increased the demand for its water, while hydro projects upstream, are leading to disputes between Nile states over water extraction. By 2050, around a billion people will live in the countries through which the Nile and its tributaries flow. That alone will put enormous stress on the water supply. Climate change and increasing human activity alongside the course of Africa’s longest river threatens this life-sustaining force.
This feature looks at the impact of climate change and construction of a mega dam on the river Nile.

Climate change impact

El Niño and La Niña weather events, occurring in the Pacific Ocean, affect the weather around the world and in particular, have a big impact on the annual rainfall patterns in the Ethiopian Highlands, the source of 80 percent of the Nile’s water. Global warming, the result of millions of metric tons of greenhouse emissions being released into the atmosphere each year, is likely to increase the intensity and the duration of the El Nino/La Nina cycles.

Semien Mountains in the Ethiopian Highlands (Hulivili, Wikimedia)

A new report by Professor Elfatih Eltahir and post-doc Mohamed Siam, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), predicts that as a result of climate change, the water levels of the river Nile will become increasingly unpredictable. They foresee that a year of devastating floods could be followed in the next by a severe drought. Indeed, this may already be happening. Drought conditions in the Nile basin in 2015 have been attributed to an intense El Niño event. The following year, La Nina is thought to have been responsible for intense flooding in many countries. The MIT report suggests that in the future, there are likely to be fewer normal Nile flow years.

Nile Delta

For centuries, the annual Nile floods carried silt from the Ethiopian mountains downstream to fertilize the fields along the riverbanks of the Nile Delta and Egypt’s breadbasket. However, the area is just one meter above sea level and sinking at between four millimeters and eight millimeters a year, due to a combination of seismic activity, compacting soil and the lack of sufficient new sediment reaching the delta. At the same time, due to climate change, the sea level is rising at three millimeters per year, allowing seawater to slowly seep into the delta’s aquifer. By the end of the century, 60 percent of the Nile delta region could be salt saturated and as much of 20 percent could be under water.

The Nile RIver Delta

Nile Dams

One of the first dams, to be built on the Nile for irrigation and navigation, was the Delta Barrage completed in 1862. Several dams or barrages have since been built, of which the most notable, is Egypt’s 2,100 MW Aswan Dam completed in 1970 and a major source of electricity.
Since then, Sudan has built the Merowe Dam in Northern Sudan, but it is the scale of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), now under construction, that is causing serious geopolitical and environmental concerns. The dam and 6,450 MW hydro-electricity plant will take at least five years to fill with water. The GERD is seen as integral to Ethiopia’s ambition to become the “battery of Africa” and export millions of dollars’ worth of electricity to its neighbors. Egypt claims that it is entitled to a certain proportion of the Nile’s water based on colonial-era treaties and fears that the GERD will diminish its access to water. Talks over such things as how fast to fill the reservoir and operate the dam have stumbled.

The Geopolitical Impact of the Nile


Construction of the GERD has raised serious political, financial and environmental concerns not only in Egypt but internationally. For a start, Asfaw Beyene, Professor of Mechanical Engineering at San Diego State University (California), concludes that the dam is three times as big as necessary, meaning that “more than half of the turbines will be rarely used.” The GERD has caused alarm and protests in Egypt, which fears that it will cause a 6 percent reduction in the High Aswan Dam’s electricity-generating capacity, if the reservoir is filled during years of average or high rainfall. However, if the reservoir were filled in a dry year, it would “significantly impact on water supply to Egypt as well as cause the loss of power generation capacity at the High Aswan Dam for extended periods.”
The anticipated effect of climate change on the levels of rainfall in the Ethiopian Highlands threatens the centuries-long life-sustaining role of the River Nile, while rapid population growth together with growing demands from industry, the power sector and agriculture, increase demand for water. One thing is clear — times are a changing along the entire length of the river Nile.

READ MORE: Mekong river dilemma by Nicholas Newman

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about the author
Nicholas Newman
Freelance energy journalist and copywriter who regularly writes for AFRELEC, Economist, Energy World, EER, Petroleum Review, PGJ, E&P, Oil Review Africa, Oil Review Middle East. Shale Gas Guide.