A recently published report by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee said there is a serious risk that parts of England will run out of water within 20 years. They highlighted that those responsible for water in the UK had “taken their eye off the ball” and the more than 3 billion litres a day leakage was “wholly unacceptable”. The water companies, privatised in 1989, are accused of being “ponderous” and have made no progress in reducing leaks for two decades.
The UK average precipitation in depth (mm per year) is 1,220 and only three other European countries have more rainfall – Norway, Switzerland and Iceland. Talking about lack of water in the UK just does not appear on the radar.
In Egypt water is not only top of mind but a topic that is potentially going to result in conflict. Egypt is the country with the least average precipitation with only 51mm per year. With so little rainfall, the 100 million Egyptians are totally reliant upon the Nile to survive.
The British 1929 agreement between Egypt and Anglo-Egyptian Sudan allowed the entire average annual flow of the Nile to be shared among Sudan and Egypt at 18.5 and 55.5bn cubic metres, respectively.
For the last few years there has been heated debates taking place due to the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam which is twice as high as the Statue of Liberty. Today, the Ethiopians are planning to start filling the dam with or without an agreement with Egypt.
In February the dispute reached a low point after a breakdown of negotiations when the Ethiopians refused to sign a US drafted agreement. The deal asked them to commit to draining the water level in the dam to unacceptably low levels in the event of a prolonged drought. Cairo and Washington argued that Ethiopia would breach its international obligations if it were to capture water in the reservoir without a deal.
Egypt is the most populous country in the entire Middle East and the second-most populous on the African continent. About 95 per cent of the population live along the banks of the Nile and in the Nile Delta, which fans out north of Cairo making these areas among the world’s most densely populated. We also need to consider the population of Egypt will be almost 130m in 2030.
Like the UK the Egyptians need to wake up and start to stop wasting water. The present government subsidies do not help with consumption reduction from the present 200 litres per capita per day. Compare this with the 20 litres per capita per day in Ethiopia.
Given decades of acrimony, domestic pressures and climate volatility, Nile issues will undoubtedly remain contentious for many years to come. We have a short window of opportunity for both parties to veer away from looming confrontation and build a foundation for future co-operation.
We have for a long time been told that we cannot continue to abuse water with senseless waste such as the 3bn litres each day the UK loses through leaky pipes. It is not in the interests of any of us to enter into conflicts over water when we continue to squander this vital resource needlessly.
We have only weeks to go before Ethiopia starts to fill the dam and we must not allow this to be the catalyst for a new outbreak of conflict.