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.
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
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.
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
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
Egypt rejected the agreement on the basis of the treaties of 1929
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.
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.
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.
have yet to come to terms with the new reality in the region and the needs of
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.
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.
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.
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
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?
writer, a fellow of The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is a former
ambassador to Romania, Egypt and Sweden.
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