Egypt is still in shock over Ethiopia’s May 28 announcement, in which it said it was diverting the flow of the Nile River to facilitate the building of a dam on the Blue Nile.

In the fourth century BCE, Greek historian Herodotus proclaimed Egypt the gift of the Nile – and this still resonates today. The mighty river surging from the depths of Africa to the Mediterranean, with its more than 4,000-mile course, is the lifeblood of Egypt and has made a flourishing civilization possible since the dawn of history.

Ninety-five percent of the country is relentless desert, the continuation of the Sahara, and the Nile not only water the lands it passes through, it carries loose soil taken from Africa and deposits it along its banks. In this way, it turns them into a narrow strip of fertile land – inhabiting a mere 40,000 square kilometers, or 4% of a country of 1 million square kilometers.

North of Cairo the river divides into two branches running to the sea, thus creating a delta in which most of Egypt’s agriculture is concentrated.

Altogether, 96% of a population numbering an estimated 85 million people lives in the Nile Valley.

For untold generations, Egypt has been accustomed to seeing the Nile as its own property, only grudgingly allowing Sudan – which was long under Egyptian rule and considered a sister Arab country contributing to its security – to have a small part of the river’s flow.

According to the treaty signed in 1929, at a time when both countries and part of Africa were under British rule, out of the 85 billion cubic meters flowing annually in the river, Egypt received 48 billion and Sudan 4 billion.

Egypt was given full control of the Nile, while African countries were forbidden to build dams on the river or its tributaries; Egypt also had the right to carry out checks to make sure that the treaty was respected. In accordance with the treaty, Egypt still maintains today a permanent delegation of engineers stationed near Lake Victoria, source of the White Nile, to supervise the activities of the countries along the river.

In 1959, the treaty was amended so that Egypt received 55.5 billion cubic meters and Sudan 18.5, for a total of 87% of the annual flow accrued through the rains – leaving a mere 13% to the Upper Nile countries of Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda, Kenya and Congo.

The amended treaty gave Egypt the right to build the Aswan Dam, and its Lake Nasser reservoir holds 168 billion cubic meters of water. The dam made it possible for Egypt to boost its production of electricity to 2,100 megawatts and to regulate the flow of the river, putting an end to the annual flooding that impacted Cairo and other areas. Lake Nasser is used to provide water for drinking and irrigation, thus increasing usable lands.

In this way, Egypt has remained an agricultural land and cannot envision a future with no free and steady supply of water from the Nile for its multipurpose uses. However, the past 50 years have seen changes in Africa. The growing populations of newly independent states need more and more water – drinking water, water for agriculture and for industry, water to produce electricity. For the past 10 years they have had talks on the subject with Egypt, which stubbornly refused to see the problem and forbade them from taking advantage of the river flowing through their countries. Egypt even exerted pressure on the World Bank to refrain from financing projects along the Nile, and resorted to thinly veiled threats against the countries that were considering such projects.

But the problem would not go away.

In May 2010 at Sharm el-Sheikh, proposals for a new treaty were presented to Egypt by the upstream countries.

The Entebbe Agreement they drafted created a blueprint for cooperation between all Nile River countries, which would supersede all previous agreements and provide for a new partition of the water, to answer the needs of all countries in a more equitable way.

Egypt rejected the agreement on the basis of the treaties of 1929 and 1959.

Upper Nile countries then decided to submit the Entebbe Agreement for signature to all river states so that it could be implemented within a year. Angry debates have been raging ever since.

Neither the Hosni Mubarak regime nor the army regime that followed were ready to enter into discussions with the relevant African states – which nevertheless kept on planning the dams they needed to develop their countries.

The Blue Nile, which provides 85% of the river’s water, has its source in Ethiopia. The country, the largest in the region with a population set to overtake that of Egypt in the coming decades, has begun to build several dams. The best-known is the Grand Renaissance Dam, which is scheduled to hold 200 billion cubic meters in its reservoir and provide 6,000 megawatts of electricity.

Intense pressure from Egypt has not deterred Ethiopia, which insists upon developing its water resources, as Egypt clings to the position that the two treaties granted it the right to control what goes on in the river.

Suddenly, last week – following meetings between Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn – Ethiopia published the communiqué announcing that the river would be diverted to facilitate the completion of the Grand Renaissance Dam. Egyptians are offended at what they perceive as an insult, since Morsi knew nothing of the communiqué. However, on a deeper level, they feel that the very basis of their existence is being threatened.

They have yet to come to terms with the new reality in the region and the needs of other countries.

So far, Ethiopia says that there will be no change to the amount of water reaching Egypt, and that the reservoir will not start functioning until next year and will not be full before 2017.

The Egyptians do not quite believe it and are afraid that their share will be affected, since the Ethiopians will slow the flow of the river in order to fill the dam. This at a time when the individual consumption of water in Egypt has dropped to 759 cubic meters, well below the 1,000 mark recommended by the UN. Cairo is worried. While the president and sundry officials repeat that they will not tolerate attempts on their water, they say it is too early to come to the conclusion that the Grand Renaissance Dam will affect Egypt. Instead, they want to wait for the conclusions of the tripartite commission of experts from Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia. The commission submitted its findings last week and they are still being reviewed; further studies may be needed.

Politicians, on the other hand, are not waiting. There have issued calls for a stronger stand against Ethiopia and other Upper Nile countries; some would even want to see military action such as blasting the dam, and Islamist groups are calling for jihad against Ethiopia. Hamdeen Sabahi, leader of the Nasserist movement and a former presidential candidate, wants Ethiopia punished – by, for instance, barring its vessels from crossing the Suez Canal. Furthermore, says Sabahi, a similar measure should be extended to Italy, the US and Israel, since according to him these countries are providing the financing for the dam. It was left to the daughter of Gamal Abdel Nasser, a professor of political science, to point out that according to the Constantinople Convention of 1888, there must be free passage in the canal in times of both war and peace – and any one-sided move by Egypt would harm it and endanger the course of world navigation.

The minister in charge of irrigation has been at pains to stress that Egypt should not resort to force and that there is still time for negotiation. However, he added that there is today a deficit of 7 billion cubic meters of water, which is expected to grow – with an estimated 150 million people living in Egypt by the year 2050, and the deficit reaching 21 billion cubic meters of water. In essence, an agriculture minister would see the building of the dam as akin to using armed force against Egypt.

To make matters worse, Sudan, which Egypt considered its staunchest ally on the Nile issue, has apparently come to the conclusion that it would not be harmed by the dam – though some argue that Sudan wants to take advantage of the situation, to force Egypt to be more accommodating regarding the vast, disputed Halayeb and Shalatan territories on the Red Sea. (While ruled by Egypt, Sudan claims them for its own.) Ultimately, however, the fact is that due to its copious rainfall, Sudan does not lack water, while Egypt is entirely dependent on the Nile.

As is always the case with Egypt, Israel is accused of a variety of sins: inciting Ethiopia against Egypt, and even granting agricultural assistance to Ethiopia and thus increasing that country’s need for water. Of course, Egyptians are conveniently forgetting that they themselves were the recipients of Israel’s technology in the ’80s and ’90s, and that it was thanks to that help that they were able to grow crops in the light desert soil. Egyptian agriculture today is based on such Israeli techniques as drip irrigation, and on Israeli varieties of fruits and vegetables. Thousands of young Egyptians trained at Kibbutz Bror Hayil, where they learned how to cultivate the soil and save precious water.

The fact is that the writing was on the wall. Egypt had years and years during the Mubarak regime to enter into discussions with Upper Nile states with a view toward reaching an agreement. Both Egypt and the Nile states needed increasing amounts of water for their development, and cooperation and a change in the existing treaties were needed. Unfortunately, the press was not free to publish studies on the subject, which would have been considered detrimental to Egypt.

Yet, while some 1,600 billion cubic meters of rain fall annually on the Nile Basin area, a mere 85 billion eventually reach the river; some of the water evaporates as swampy areas appear and slow the flow. A concerted effort of all neighboring countries financed by the World Bank would considerably increase the amount of water in the river. Thus far, however, nothing has been done and Egypt is still in a state of denial, with Egyptian diplomacy suffering a serious blow.

The questions remain: Can the troubled country, threatened by a potential agricultural disaster and widespread famine, understand that now is the time to enter into serious negotiations? Has it understood that only a fair and equitable solution, taking into consideration the legitimate needs of all Nile countries, will end the crisis in time?

The writer, a fellow of The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is a former ambassador to Romania, Egypt and Sweden.

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