The Nile River is under assault on two fronts – a massive dam under construction upstream in Ethiopia and rising sea levels leading to saltwater intrusion downstream. These dual threats now jeopardize the future of a river that is the lifeblood for millions.

By Richard Conniff (Yale 360) |

Though politicians and the press tend to downplay the idea, environmental degradation is often an underlying cause of international crises — from the deforestation, erosion, and reduced agricultural production that set the stage for the Rwandan genocide of the 1990s to the prolonged drought that pushed rural populations into the cities at the start of the current Syrian civil war. Egypt could become the latest example, its 95 million people the likely victims of a slow motion catastrophe brought on by grand-scale environmental mismanagement.

It’s happening now in the Nile River delta, a low-lying region fanning out from Cairo roughly a hundred miles to the sea. About 45 or 50 million people live in the delta, which represents just 2.5 percent of Egypt’s land area. The rest live in the Nile River valley itself, a ribbon of green winding through hundreds of miles of desert sand, representing another 1 percent of the nation’s total land area. Though the delta and the river together were long the source of Egypt’s wealth and greatness, they now face relentless assault from both land and sea.

The latest threat is a massive dam scheduled to be completed this year on the headwaters of the Blue Nile, which supplies 59 percent of Egypt’s water. Ethiopia’s national government has largely self-financed the $5 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), with the promise that it will generate 6,000 megawatts of power. That’s a big deal for Ethiopians, three-quarters of whom now lack access to electricity. The sale of excess electricity to other countries in the region could also bring in $1 billion a year in badly needed foreign exchange revenue.

GERD can only begin to meet these promised benefits, however, by holding back river water that would otherwise pass down the Nile to Sudan and then Egypt, and that’s obviously a big deal for both those countries — so much so that, according to Wikileaks, government officials in Cairo at one point talked about aerial bombing or a commando raid to destroy the dam.

The dam will create a reservoir more than twice the size of the Hoover Dam’s Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the United States. It will ultimately store 74 billion cubic meters of Blue Nile water. (That’s about 64 million acre feet, or the amount of water need to cover 100,000 square miles of land one foot deep.) Filling it could take anywhere from five to 15 years.

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