Climate change and increasing human activity alongside the River Nile threatens this life-sustaining resource.
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.
Governments are faced with challenges in food resources in the region where the economy and the lives of people depend on agriculture, livestock keeping, fishing, not to mention hydraulic power as the main resource for development.
Uganda, for instance, is richly endowed with natural water bodies, and fisheries play a very important role as a basis for subsistence and commercial livelihood.
Lake Victoria is by far the largest, and economically most significant, of the national fisheries.
However, other large lakes, including George, Edward, Albert, and Kyoga, along with the River Nile and a great variety of swamps and streams, also contribute substantially to the annual national catch, constituting a significant part of the country’s GDP.
In South Sudan, the Nile is a primary medium of transportation for goods and passengers in the Bahr-al-Jabal and Bahr-al-Ghazal rivers.
In Ethiopia, the country which has the largest number of tributaries, the Blue Nile remains the biggest source of hydroelectric power.
In Egypt, everyday life and development are fundamentally shaped by the Nile, the vein which gives life to the country.
Climate warming models provide diverging pictures of future river flows in the Nile.
Scientists agree that the Nile is about to become more unpredictable. Climate change, as a consequence of global warming driven by carbon dioxide build-up in the atmosphere, will overall mean that more rain will fall and flow down the water courses that feed the Nile system.
Computer simulations, reported in Nature Climate Change, also predict that under the notorious “business as usual scenario” in which humans go on exploiting fossil fuels, there will be substantially fewer “normal” years and more years of either devastating flood or withering drought.
The consequences would differ in magnitude from one country to another, according to the size of its water-dependent economic activities, such as power generation, agriculture, breeding livestock and fishing. The more diverse such activities are in a country, the lesser the implications of climatic changes are.
The Nile Basin traverses the largest number of countries of any basin in Africa and changes in the timing and availability of water under climate change may lead to tension, insecurity and management problems.
Climate warming models provide diverging pictures of future river flows in the Nile from a 30 per cent increase to a 78 per cent decrease.
The Nile Delta is the final stretch of the Nile, a landscape of fertile soil, farms and a constellation of towns and cities where the river fans out and drains into the Mediterranean. It is one of the largest river deltas in the world and is home to almost half of Egypt’s population.
In the delta region, saltwater intrusion into coastal fresh-water resources (including aquifers) is likely to increase as a result of sea-level rise due to climate warming and would further reduce the availability of freshwater, according to the World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF).
“Climate change may make Egypt drier and warmer, intensifying its dependency on irrigation. In light of the high and growing human demands for water and water-intensive agriculture on the banks of the Nile, reduced water flows under climate change would be catastrophic,” a WWF report states.
Egypt is already one of the largest grain importers in the world, considering total imports of wheat, maize and oilseeds last year “amounted to more than 24 million tons”, according to Hussein Gadain, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) Representative in Egypt. “Imports are expected to rise due to the population increase and the limited arable land and water resources.”
Ahmed Abdel-Monem and others from Beheira and Kafr el-Sheikh in the Nile Delta say that they have noticed and felt the effects of the water shortage in recent years.
According to them, it became evident when the government enforced the recycling of agricultural run-off waters, as well as the government’s law to minimise fish farms in the north of Egypt.
But the amount of water is not the only problem. Egypt’s available water is increasingly becoming contaminated with untreated agricultural and residential waste. With these factors combined, the United Nations estimates critical water shortages in Egypt by 2025.
Improving basin resilience
The Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) was established on February 22, 1999, to provide a forum for consultation and coordination among the Basin states for the sustainable management and development of the shared Nile Basin water and related resources for win-win benefits.
NBI today is an intergovernmental partnership of ten Nile Basin countries, namely Burundi, DR Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda. Eritrea participates as an observer.
The “NBI 10 year Strategy” for the period 2017-2027 provides the long-term direction for NBI, defines the goals the institution will work towards and expounds on its contribution. It also elaborates how NBI will be strengthened to efficiently and effectively deliver on its mandate.
The strategy highlights six goals, which contribute to addressing key development challenges in the Nile Basin. One of the goals is “improving basin resilience to climate change impact”.
Nile Basin countries recognise the urgent need to implement effective adaptation measures.”
“Nile Basin countries recognise the urgent need to implement effective adaptation measures that take into consideration a basin-wide context; given that impacts of climate change are transboundary in nature and solutions to impacts in one country could lie in another country,” the strategy paper reads.
To strengthen the search for transboundary solutions to the impacts of climate change, the NBI, for example, plans to establish and maintain a climate information service; support joint analysis, planning and implementation of climate resilient interventions; and improve and promote regional policy and planning frameworks for effective climate change adaptation at regional and national levels.
Climate change is only one of many challenges which require more basin-wide cooperation. Nile Basin countries need to prepare for the likely adverse climate change impacts, by building common strategies to prepare for and cope with climate change – towards which the countries hardly contributed.