Egypt is buffeted by political turbulence in the messy aftermath of the Arab Spring, but it is also facing a resources crisis that, if left unchecked, could plunge it into even deeper turmoil – loss of water from the River Nile that has been the source of life in the Land of the Pharoahs since time immemorial as it flows northwards to the Mediterranean.
Ethiopia is building a huge $4.8bn hydroelectric dam Ethiopia on the Blue Nile, a major tributary of the Nile,on which Egypt depends for almost all of its water. Cairo maintains this will be a disaster for Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous nation, because it will reduce the mighty river’s flow of water by some 20%.
Earlier this year, the military-backed administration in Cairo launched a major effort to internationalise the thorny issue in hopes of gathering support for its case against Ethiopia after bilateral negotiations became deadlocked in January.
Addis Ababa turned down Cairo’s demand to halt construction until the effect on the river’s water flow can be determined. Meanwhile, Egypt has vowed to defend its “historical rights” to the Nile waters “at any cost.” Ethiopia says the massive dam, which is now about 30% complete, will not permanently affect the downstream water flow.
But if Ethiopia gets its way, other upstream African states may build dams as well. Turkey’s massive dam-building programme over the last two decades has reduced the flows of the Tigris and Euphrates, which has caused serious water loss in Iraq and Syria. Iranian dam-building has further reduced the Tigris’ flow to Iraq.
Egypt, with a swelling population currently pegged at 84m, depends on the Nile war for nearly all of its water. The core of the current problem lies in a 1959 agreement drawn up by colonial power Britain that allotted Egypt 55.5bn cubic metres of the Nile’s flow and Sudan 18.5 bn – and gave Cairo veto power over dam-building upstream.. But the Nile, the world’s longest river at 4,258 miles in length, supports another 180m people in nine African states, whose governments also have claims on its water. Addis Ababa is at pains to stress that the Blue Nile, which provides 85% of the Nile’s water, rises in the Ethiopia’s highlands and joins the White Nile, whose head- waters lie in the East African highlands of Burundi, at Khartoum, capital of Sudan.
Addis Ababa and its upstream allies say the 1959 agreement, in which they had no say, is an outdated colonial relic. In 2010, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda signed a breakaway Cooperative Framework Agreement in Entebbe, Uganda’s capital, for a more equitable sharing of the Nile’s water.
Burundi joined the agreement in 2011, giving it the two-thirds majority required to fight what Addis Ababa termed ‘waterlordism”.
But the Egyptians, stung by longtime ally Sudan’s December defection to the Ethiopian-led upstream states, are stepping up their diplomatic drive to halt the Grand Renaissance Dam.
Threat of conflict
“Both Egypt and Ethiopia have demographic profiles that will lead to massive population increases in the coming years, and water and agriculture consumption will only increase with the populations, placing both countries in a difficult position,” the US global security consultancy Stratfor cautioned.
Egypt is the most militarised of the riverine states. But Stratfor noted: “Ultimately, Egypt does not possess the military strength to prevent the dam’s construction if Ethiopia unilaterally decides to finish the dam, then Cairo will have to rely on the international community to prevent it.”
“The campaign initiated by Egypt …aims to persuade the international community to reject the dam’s construction because it may lead to further conflict and instability in the region of the Nile Basin,” an Egyptian diplomatic source in Cairo told the Middle East’s Al- Monitor website on 19 February.
“More negotiations with Ethiopia only waste time and directly threaten Egypt’s water security,” said the source, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.
“We realised that Ethiopia doesn’t want genuine solutions to end the crisis … Ethiopia hasn’t provided genuine guarantees the dam will not affect Egypt and has shown no intention to amend the technical specifications to minimise the potential risks according to the report by the international experts’ committee, which recommended reconsidering the dam’s safety studies.”
Gamal Bayouni, secretary-general of the Egyptian- European partnership at the Ministry of International Cooperation in Cairo, said Egypt now seeks to “target all countries that provide technical assistance for design- ing and building the Renaissance Dam through private contractors and also the states likely to fund construction of the dam.”
In February, Egypt’s minister of water resources and irrigation, Mohamed Abdul Muttalib, visited Italy, which is seen as Ethiopia’s main technical supporter in the Grand Renaissance Dam project.
The Salini Construction Corporation of Milan is building the massive 6,000-megawatt facility on the Blue Nile, the main tributary of the Nile.
Muttalib, who was accompanied by Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy, said after a series of meetings that “the visit has achieved its goal. Italy has understood Egyptian concerns.”
Egyptian sources say Muttalib will visit Norway, which is one of the countries funding the Grand Renaissance Dam. But Ethiopia’s prime minister, Hailemariam De- salegn, said 13 February that Addis Ababa will not back down on the giant dam being built in the Benishangil region, an arid region in northwestern Ethiopia near the border with Sudan, by an army of 8,500 workers toiling around the clock.
“The water is enough for all of us and we have no intention at all to significantly harm Egypt or Sudan,” he said.
With a planned height of 558 feet and a hydroelectric power generation capacity of 6,000 megawatts, it will be the largest dam in Africa.
Much of the electricity will be for export to neighbouring African states, all struggling to cope with swelling populations and demand for greater agricultural production, a programme that will make Ethiopia the biggest power exporter in Africa and transform its moribund economy.
It is not yet clear whether Egypt’s diplomatic offensive will be able to secure enough international support to influence Addis Ababa.
But The Financial Times recently noted that “the issue has inflamed national rivalries and deepened a diplomatic conflict between Egypt and Ethiopia that reflects a shift in power between a resurgent sub-Saharan Africa and weakened Arab states to the north.
“It is a struggle over water resources that has elicited threats of proxy wars and missile attacks and raised fears of economic meltdown.”
Climate change and growing demands for water have heightened the insecurity in the entire Nile Basin. On top of that, says Ashok Swain, a professor of Peace and Conflict Research and the Department of Earth Science at Sweden’s Uppsala University, “the basin countries have not taken any measures to reduce their dependence on the increasingly scarce Nile River water.
“Moreover, geopolitical changes – including political uncertainty in Egypt that has weakened Cairo’s global leverage – have changed the historical power equation in the region, providing opportunities for Ethiopia and Sudan to attract financial and technical support for their own water projects…
“The emergence of China as a superpower in Africa has further shifted the situation in Ethiopia’s favour, and Ethiopia has already engaged several Chinese firms to develop its rich hydropower potential.”
The Ethiopians consider the Renaissance Dam and the other dams they plan to build a symbol of national pride as these will produce electricity that will transform the economic prospects not only for their long-impoverished country but for much of seriously under-developed East Africa as it stands on the cusp of a major oil and gas boom.
For Cairo, maintaining the current flow of Nile water is a matter of national security.
Egypt’s last two presidents, Hosni Mubarak, over- thrown on 11 February 2011, and Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, ousted by the army on 3 July 2013, both made thinly veiled threats to use military force to uphold Egypt’s current access to the Nile.
The current military regime in Cairo is focused on riding out the domestic political turmoil and restoring stability. But time is pressing: the dam is scheduled to become operational in 2017.
The restoration – and strengthening – of military rule in Egypt has introduced a worrying element into the dispute over the Nile.
With the Brotherhood safely marginalised, Egypt’s powerful military chief and former defence minister, Field Marshal Abdul Fattah El Sisi, who masterminded Morsi’s ouster, is expected to easily secure the presidency in elections slated for late May.
That will effectively bury the democratic expectations unleashed by the Arab Spring toppling of longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak in February 2011. Sisi will take Egypt back to strongman rule with far greater powers than Mubarak, himself a former military commander, ever had.
It is not yet clear how tough a line Sisi will take on the Nile. But given the parlous state of Egypt’s economy, with a poorly producing agricultural sector that depends almost entirely on the Nile for irrigation, and a burgeoning population, the prospect of a military-controlled government making concessions seems remote.
The sheer weight of the problems a Sisi administration will have to tackle, including a growing jihadist insurrection in the Sinai Peninsula, could push Cairo to compromise. But in view of the mythical resonance and symbolism that the river has had in the Egyptian psyche from the glory days of the pharoahs, that seems unlikely and Sisi would not be the first Arab ruler to use a threat to national security to rally a troubled nation.