The Nile Basin Initiative
March 12, 2004 5:59 PM   Subscribe

A precious, limited resource. 10 African countries want more water from the Nile. The Nile just doesn't have enough to satisfy their wants and needs. Can there be a solution to this problem short of war?
posted by kablam (23 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

Why not buy bottled water?
posted by Postroad at 6:14 PM on March 12, 2004

posted by destro at 6:21 PM on March 12, 2004

Cut down on the number of people. What you want is a contraceptive that can be spread by crop duster aircraft. (Make 'em drones, in case of ground fire.)
posted by jfuller at 6:39 PM on March 12, 2004

That came off as too flip, sorry. The 21st century was widely predicted to be the century of war over natural resources, especially water. It's interesting, in a ghoulish sort of way, to see these conflicts forming and heading for critical mass. Heaven help the people in the way of the war, which will (if regional history is any guide) take on a vampirish life of its own, totally divorced from whatever events precipitated it.

The same sort of thing is also happening in other arid areas.
posted by jfuller at 7:14 PM on March 12, 2004

I think Egypt has to stop being an ass about it (but then again I can see that they wouldn't care about other countries' use of the water).

Can the UN do anything?
How have we dealt with it re: Canada and Mexico?
Are there other models besides the Europeans to follow?
posted by amberglow at 7:20 PM on March 12, 2004

Can there be a solution to this problem short of war?

Uhhm, No. Not because anyone wants war or anything, but it appears that no one wants peace more than water. War isn't inevitable, but it is a really cheap alternative to diplomatic give and take.
posted by Wulfgar! at 8:02 PM on March 12, 2004

Yeah, they're all pretty much screwed. Egypt won't bend in any significant way, so the other countries will just start stealing water. Then, depending on how badly they need Egyptian trade (or not) they'll either cave to Egyptian pressure (and extract some concessions at that later date) or they'll tell Egypt to shove it and there'll be a war.

Countries in SE Asia are going to have the same problem with China one day, only in reverse (as they're the ones downriver, relying on China to not use it all)
posted by aramaic at 8:11 PM on March 12, 2004

"Can there be a solution to this problem short of war?"

I certainly hope so, considering all the Western states that will be fighting over the water from the Colorado River shortly. I'd hate to have to nuke California. (OK, I wouldn't really hate it.)
posted by mr_crash_davis at 8:34 PM on March 12, 2004

Some numbers.

Water consumption of Egypt (for 1996) [1]:
- 66 billion cubic meters / year

Egypt's total internal renewable water resources (rain/groundwater) [1]:
- 2 billion cubic meters / year

Average output of the Nile (varies widely by season) [2]:
- 110 billion cubic meters / year

Egypt has practically no water coming from anywhere but the Nile. It already uses at least 60% of the entire output of the Nile (no doubt more since 1996). If I were them, I'd be pretty uptight about it, too.

Okay, what about desalinization? Egypt clearly has plenty of seawater to tap, right? One scenario might have Egypt use desalinization for 25% of its water, leaving more of the Nile for other countries:

Energy required for desalinization [3]:
- 3 kilowatt hours per cubic meter

25% of Egypt's hourly water consumption [1]:
- 1.88 million cubic meters / hour

Power required for desalinization of 25% of Egypt's water consumption:
- 5.65 GigaWatts

Egypt's projected 2010 electricity generation capacity [4]:
- 28.3 GigaWatts

That scenario would require 20% of the entire country's electricity generation. So either water gets really really expensive or Egypt bombs Sudan and Ethiopia.

(All numbers completely unverified and may be off by 10,000%)

[1] EarthTrends Country Profile: Egypt
[2] A Fact File About the Nile
[3] HOH-USA & Carib Ltd. (claim 3 kWh/m3 is industry-low)
[4] Electricx 2003: Egypt

Bonus: All the maps about water you could ever want, including Where else will water be a problem? (link to larger image and pdf on right side of page)
posted by whatnotever at 8:59 PM on March 12, 2004

whatnotever - energy to power desalinization can be generated cheaply from the strong sun Egypt receives - and without solar panels. Egypt is not flush with cash, certainly. But the real bottleneck here lies in the human imagination.
posted by troutfishing at 9:52 PM on March 12, 2004

there was a pretty good article in the journal a while back on this! and the cia also sponsored a nice dicussion on the potential for 'water wars' :D
By 2015 nearly half the world's population—more than 3 billion people—will live in countries that are "water-stressed"—have less than 1,700 cubic meters of water per capita per year—mostly in Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and northern China.
drip, drip, drip...
posted by kliuless at 10:12 PM on March 12, 2004

Very interesting: Water Conflict Chronology, 3000 BC-2003.

But of course not all water wars are between countries. Witness the shameful behavior of Bechtel Corp. in Bolivia:

"In 1999, following World Bank advice, Bolivia granted a 40 year privatization lease to a subsidiary of the Bechtel Corporation, giving it control over the water on which more than half a million people survive. Immediately the company doubled and tripled water rates for some of South America's poorest families."

This is the same Bechtel that has received a $680 million contract for rebuilding Iraq. In the blood for water paradigm, it would be wise to follow the money and keep an eye on the Water Barons.
posted by taz at 10:47 PM on March 12, 2004

troutfishing, good point. I had done some more back of the envelope calculations and figured it would take tens of square kilometers of solar panels to desalinize that much water. Solar stills are much less efficient (in terms of water output per square meter of solar collection).

Going with some yield numbers I found in an academic paper (there are quite a few papers on solar desalinization, many written in the middle east, now that I look), solar stills (as of 2002) output around 5 liters per day per square meter of exposure to the sun. It also noted that this was around 40% of the theoretical maximum efficiency of evaporative solar distillation. Even at the maximum efficiency, then, it would take several thousand square kilometers of solar stills to desalinize 25% of Egypt's water use. The papers I saw only talked about stills as a way to get water in remote areas with low demand.

But you're right. Engineering/ingenuity/imagintation is probably one of the best things to throw at the problem. We need more people like Amy Smith. I went to a talk she gave recently in which she joked about all the other people at MIT with their "latest microprocessor-controlled whatevers" - makes me kind of regret being in EE/CS.
posted by whatnotever at 12:07 AM on March 13, 2004

What struck me about the articles is how much Egypt has relied in the past on threatening to go to war to stop Ethiopia from using more water from the Nile. Comparing Egypt's to Ethiopia's irrigated land area and their populations (Ethiopia vs Egypt) it looks like conflict is inevitable. Ethiopia has no choice but to increase its use of the Nile.
posted by miguelbar at 5:04 AM on March 13, 2004

I once knew a history professor to say that the next world war would be fought over water.
posted by alumshubby at 5:15 AM on March 13, 2004

Wasn't that quote supposed to be something like, "if there is a third world war, the fourth will be fought with water balloons."

Or sticks and rocks. One or the other.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 6:49 AM on March 13, 2004

> with water balloons."

"...between cockroaches."
posted by jfuller at 10:21 AM on March 13, 2004

Actually, when you consider that the wars of the nineteenth century were fought for greedy empire or mindless nationalism, World War One was fought out of pure love of killing, and the wars of the mid and late 20th century were fought over grotesque quasi-religious ideologies, a war fought for something as simple and necessary as water would be -- dare I say it -- refreshing.
posted by Faze at 3:12 PM on March 13, 2004

hey, never fear the economist is on the case :D or more precisely ... [watch this space]!
posted by kliuless at 10:30 PM on March 13, 2004

fighting over the water from the Colorado River shortly. I'd hate to have to nuke California. (OK, I wouldn't really hate it.)

I'm actually totally with you on this one. I live in Berkeley, but when I went to San Diego and learned that all of the pretty traffic islands, which are absolutely lush with flowers and vegetation, are kept green with Colorado River water, I just about puked. I mean... there's a water-saver in my toilet tank *why* again?

I can't speak for Egypt, but we have a lot of headroom here just in conversvation. If it comes to war, I say outlaw golf.
posted by scarabic at 9:04 AM on March 14, 2004

all of the pretty traffic islands, which are absolutely lush with flowers and vegetation, are kept green with Colorado River water

As annoying as that is, and the golf courses, and the lawns, they're all trivial compared with the immense stupidity of planting zillions of acres of water-sucking plants like alfalfa in what is by nature a desert. "Making the desert bloom" is great if you've got an infinite supply of fresh water; if not, not.
posted by languagehat at 11:42 AM on March 14, 2004

fighting over the water from the Colorado River shortly. I'd hate to have to nuke California.

While you're at it, could you do something about the Nevadans who have been dumping rocket fuel into the river?
posted by homunculus at 12:42 PM on March 14, 2004

« Older Ricky Jay Online   |   Confuse-a-cat Ltd. Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments