Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam Started to Threaten Agriculture in Egypt

On April 21, Egypt’s Parliament of Egypt passed legislation banning cultivation of crops that require high volumes of water, as concerns increase that the upstream Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam will negatively impact water flow for agriculture in Egypt.

Rice, bananas and other crops are included in the ban announced on Sunday, with violators facing prison time and fines of up to $3,000.  Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will have to approve the new legislation.

Rice farmers in Kafr Ziada village in the Nile River Delta have ignored planting restrictions aimed at conserving water for years, continuing to grow a medium-grain variety of the crop that is prized around the Arab world.

A decision thousands of kilometers to the south is about to change that, however, in another example of how concern about water, one of the world’s most valuable commodities, is forcing change in farming, laws and even international diplomacy.

Far upstream, close to one of the sources of the Nile, Ethiopia is preparing to fill the reservoir behind its new $4 billion Grand Renaissance Dam, possibly as soon as this year.

How fast it does so could have devastating consequences for farmers who have depended on the Nile for millennia to irrigate strategic crops for Egypt’s 96 million people, expected to grow to 128 million by 2030.

Safeguarding Egypt’s share of the Nile, on which the country relies for industry and drinking water as well as farming, is now at the top of the crises already on Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s agenda.

At the same time, authorities are finally tackling widespread illegal growing of the water-intensive rice crop, showing a sense of urgency that even climate change and rapid population growth has failed to foster.

The crackdown means Egypt will likely be a rice importer in 2019 after decades of being a major exporter, rice traders say.

Cairo has decreed that 724,000 feddans (750,000 acres) of rice can be planted this year, which grain traders estimate is less than half of the 1.8 million feddans actually cultivated in 2017 – far in excess of the officially allotted 1.1 million feddans.

In fact, police have started raiding farmers’ homes and jailing them until they pay outstanding fines from years back.

“The police came to my house at three in the morning and took me to the station to pay the fine,” said Mohamed Abdelkhaleq, head of the farming association in Kafr Ziada, some 125 km (80 miles) north of Cairo in Beheira governorate.

“Even if the fine is 1 Egyptian pound [5 US cents], they’ll come to your house.”

Three other farmers reported similar experiences and said this year they would not plant rice.

Reda Abdelaziz said some people have become afraid to leave the village.

“If you’re traveling and they take your ID card and see you have a fine on you, they’ll put you in jail,” he said.

Mr. Abdelkhaleq took to the local mosque’s loudspeaker last month to say the government was doubling the fine for unauthorized rice cultivation to 7,600 pounds (about $431) per feddan.

Mostafa al-Naggari, who heads the rice committee of Egypt’s agricultural export council, says if the government sticks to the new approach Egypt will likely have to import as much as 1 million tonnes of rice next year.

“The dam has opened the door for there to be more of an awareness of water scarcity issues, but Egypt has for a long time needed to review its water allocation policy,” he said.

A round of talks between Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan held in Khartoum, earlier this month resulted in an impasse, with failure to reach agreement on issues regarding sharing of water resources.

Egypt has long expressed concern that the dam, situated on the Blue Nile near the Ethiopian-Sudanese border, will reduce the river’s flows and jeopardize water supply. A Tripartite National Committee, comprising experts from Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan, was created in 2015 to address some of the concerns.