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Egypt threatens to beat war drums for the Nile

by Gwynne Dyer

Beware the open mike. Last week Egypt’s President Mohammed Morsi summoned senior politicians of all parties to discuss Ethiopia’s plan to dam the main tributary of the Nile river. One proposed sending special forces to destroy the dam. Another thought buzzing the dam site with jet fighters might scare the Ethiopians off.

Ayman Nour, a former presidential candidate and a more sophisticated player, suggested that Egypt support rebel groups fighting the Ethiopian regime.

“This could yield results in the diplomatic arena,” he said. None of them realized that their discussion was being broadcast live by Egyptian state television.

All students of geopolitics are familiar with the legend that Egypt has privately warned the governments upstream on the Nile that it will start bombing if they build dams on the river without its permission. The truth of that story is about to be tested.

Last month Ethiopia started diverting the waters of the Blue Nile in order to build the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a $4.7 billion, 6,000-megawatt hydroelectric project that is the centerpiece of the country’s plan to become Africa’s largest exporter of power. Egypt instantly objected, for it depends utterly on irrigation water from the Nile to grow its food.

Even now Egypt must import almost 40 percent of its food, and the population is still growing fast. If the amount of water coming down the Nile diminishes appreciably, Egyptians will go hungry.

A treaty signed in 1929 gave 90 percent of the Nile’s water to the downstream countries, Egypt and Sudan, even though all the water in the river starts as rain in the upstream countries: Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi. That caused no problems at the time, but now Egypt is using all of its share of the water — and the upstream countries are starting to use the water for irrigation too.

The Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is the first real test of Egypt’s tolerance for upstream dam-building. The reservoir will take 63 million cubic meters of water to fill; Egypt’s annual share of the Nile’s water is 55.5 million cubic meters. So even if Ethiopia takes five years to fill the reservoir, that will mean 20 percent cuts in the water Egypt receives from the Nile for five years. And even after that there will be a large annual loss to evaporation.

The dam that was getting the Egyptian politicians worked up is just the start. Ethiopia plans to spend a total of $12 billion on dams on the Blue Nile for electricity and irrigation, and Uganda is negotiating with China for financing for a 600-megawatt dam on the White Nile. More dams and irrigation projects will follow — and the upstream states are in no mood to let Egypt exercise its veto under the 1929 treaty.

That treaty was imposed when all the countries involved except Ethiopia were under British rule, and it reflected Britain’s big investment in Egypt.

In 2010 the upstream countries signed a Cooperative Framework Agreement to seek more water from the River Nile, effectively rejecting the colonial-era treaty and demanding that Egypt relinquish its veto and accept a lower water quota.

That’s not going to happen. Mohammed Allam, Egypt’s minister of water resources under President Hosni Mubarak when the upstream states signed their agreement three years ago, warned that “Egypt reserves the right to take whatever course it sees suitable to safeguard its share.”

The post-revolutionary Egyptian government cannot afford to be less firm in defending Egypt’s interests.

The issue will probably be kicked down the road for a couple of years, because the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam will not be completed until 2015 at the earliest. But there is big trouble for Egypt (and Sudan) further down the road.

By 2025, a dozen years from now, Egypt will be trying to feed 96 million people, which would be very hard even with its existing giant’s share of the Nile’s water and all its current food imports. The countries that signed the Cooperative Framework Agreement will have 300 million people, so by then they will also be extracting very large amounts of water from the Nile Basin for irrigation.

Without that water, Egypt’s only options are beggaring itself with massive food imports (until the foreign exchange runs out), or famine. Unless, of course, it decides on war — but its options are not very good on that front either.

Not only are the upstream countries a very long way from Egypt (the Nile is the world’s longest river), but they will have strong support from China, which is financing most of the dams they are now building or planning.

Egypt, by contrast, has repudiated its former American ally, and may find that the United States is reluctant to re-engage even if the government in Cairo can overcome its own distaste for Washington. Why would the U.S. want a confrontation with China over Egypt?

So there probably won’t be a war. And Egypt will probably face an apocalyptic food shortage in 10 or 15 years.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

  • Abraham

    I think this is the only true story I come across.
    For Egypt the best strategy will be to be positive and participate in wider economic link to Ethiopia and other sub-saharan countries. Cooperation is the modern and clever language.
    Ethiopia with its geographical location can defend itself and it can also divert the stream to other regions of the country to cultivate its vast virgin land. We know the price of food would go high and Ethiopia can only get richer in the next 20 yrs.
    Everybody knows Egypt was supporting Eritrea, Somlia extremists and some Ethiopian opposition party.

  • Markose Yehune

    Egyptians are just trying to divert their people’s attention from their serious internal problems. They know very well that the Dam in not going to harm Egypt. Besides, the river belongs to Africa and all African should share the water equally. Egypt CAN NOT have 85% of the water while Ethiopia and other African countries are given zero.

    • 013090

      You are right on one account, but wrong on another.

      Yes, it is absolutely ridiculous that Egypt is somehow entitled to such an overwhelming share of the water from the Nile.

      But this is not just a distraction. This is a very serious issue for Egypt. Food prices are already skyrocketing in the nation, which is one of the primary causes of the internal unrest. This dam is just the first of several, which will significantly decrease Egypt’s water supply. This will mean that the amount of food domestically produced will significantly decrease, and with a quickly growing population, they will need to import massive amounts of food at much higher prices. The average Egyptian will have to put so much income into necessities, that this will heavily hinder their economic development for a long time to come. They are getting sucked into a trap that much of the developing world with high birthrates is already in. The problem for Egypt is that birthrates are a long term issue, but food and water are short term issues.

      This is about realpolitik for all the nations involved.

  • yanew

    who gives the water ONLY for Egypt?. it is a natural gift for all people living by it. Ethiopia can not be frustrated by dream based bragging. Egypt knows that it had twice been pushed back by Ethiopia in the mid 18 century by brave emperor yohannis. now, if egypt tries to bomb the dam, aswan dam can get the same fate

  • Tatek Gher

    is this the so called Egypt of 21the century. open your eyes, don’t you think every option is also open with Ethiopians too. but am sorry to see a president comparing one drop of water with one drop of blood in our times. my advise is, you should cover your internal problem with some thing else not this way the whole world is laughing on you mister president and your Islamist fellow.

  • portle44

    Sooner or later it will become the fault of the Israelis. It always does.

  • donqpublic

    How quaint: the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s selective appreciation of British Colonialism when it comes to their Nile River water supply. Well, when they end up starving they can blame it on anthropomorphic global climate change instead of the Nile.

  • Roger Wren

    Egypt’s major problem is its rapid population growth. As the article points out at present it must import 40 percent of its food. It exports almost nothing. In the past the difference between imports and exports has been financed by tourism and “loans” from other countries which are likely to never be repaid.

    Leaving aside whether Sharia law is good or bad, its adoption (the prime goal of the current government) will be a negative for tourism. As the population grows and Egypt needs more and more money to feed its population donor nations will more and more be unable or unwilling to finance the return of Egypt to the seventh century.

    What happens to Egypt in 20 or 25 years when it needs to import 80 percent of its food due to a doubling of the population will not be pretty.

  • Oddstar7

    Egypt may be facing famine even sooner than that. As you point out, they already import about 40% of their food, and they are already running out of foreign exchange.