Looking out across the vastness of Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile, it is
difficult to see why Ethiopia is known as a land plagued by horrific droughts. –
BBC, “Nile restrictions anger Ethiopia,” February 3, 2005
Any action that would
endanger the waters of the Blue Nile will be faced with a firm reaction on the
part of Egypt, even if that action should lead to war. – Egyptian president
Anwar Sadat – cited in “The Waters Of Life,” Time, April 23, 2006.
Egypt is taking the Nile water to transform the Sahara into something green, we
in Ethiopia – which is the source of 85 percent of that water – are denied the
possibility of using it to feed ourselves... and forced to beg for food every
year. – Ethiopia’s late prime minister Meles Zenawi, February 3, 2005.
The Greek historian Herodotus (c.484- 425 BCE) is credited with designating
Egypt “The Gift of the Nile.” Today, tens of millions of Egyptians might
consider the epithet “gift” singularly misplaced.
Writing on the wall?
The recent unrest that has raged across Egypt has once again thrust the country
into the center of international attention. Indeed, there is a growing
realization that the gap between the challenges facing the country and its
ability to meet them – in even a minimally adequate fashion – is widening,
perhaps irretrievably, making a humanitarian catastrophe of staggering
proportions evermore likely.
Of course, Egypt has been teetering on the
brink of political and societal collapse for a quite some time now – well before
the advent of the “Arab Spring” – another curiously inapt misnomer.
example, in a remarkably prescient essay, “Is Egypt stable?,” in the Middle East
Quarterly (Vol. 14, 3, 2009), Prof. Aladdin Elaasar diagnosed virtually all the
socioeconomic ills and political dysfunctionalities that were to lead to the
ousting of the Mubarak regime, the ascent of the Muslim Brotherhood, and its
inimical posture toward Israel, almost two years before their
Point of inflection?
As desperate as the situation was in
pre-revolution Egypt, January 2011 still comprises a downward “point of
inflection,” marking a dramatic acceleration in the degradation of the
parameters of Egypt’s society and in the performance of its economy.
example, just before the ousting of Hosni Mubarak, the country’s foreign
reserves stood at $36 billion. According to figures released this week by
Egypt’s central bank, the foreign currency reserves fell this January to
$13.61b., from $15.01b. in December, dropping by 10% in a month.
figures signify a decline of a total of $23b. in reserves over the past two
years, wiping out well over half of the nation’s reserves.
last year the central bank warned that levels hovering around $15b. constituted
a “critical minimum,” barely enough to cover three months’ worth of
This recent decline has been accompanied by weeks of political
violence, which have driven off foreign investors and tourists, both key foreign
currency earners for Egypt.
Around 12% of Egyptians are normally employed
in the tourist industry. According to The Washington Post (December 22, 2012),
Egypt’s revolution and ensuing unrest have caused a decline in the number of
visitors to the country of about 37%, while revenues have fallen by 30% compared
The figures cast further doubt on Egypt’s
ability to qualify for a badly needed $4.8b. loan from the IMF that would
shore up investor confidence and enable loans requested from other
The political turmoil has also made it considerably more
difficult for President Mohamed Morsi to institute unpopular austerity measures
such as raising taxes and cutting subsidies which are prerequisites for
obtaining the IMF loan. It is doubtful whether his government will carry out
such measures before parliamentary elections, due to be held in the coming
Egypt has long been plagued by dire poverty and dramatic income
disparities. Nearly half the population lives at or below the $2- a-day poverty
line, and is dependent on government subsidies for basic
Accordingly, Morsi is thought to be shying away from
undertaking any steps that may inflame further violence and risk losing even
more support for his Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government.
matters worse, Egypt recently had its international credit rating cut to “junk”
level (Bloomberg, December 24), with even further downgrades looming ahead,
making the possibility of raising further desperately needed funds even more
remote–and more expensive. In addition, the value of the Egyptian pound has
fallen rapidly, raising the price on imports for an increasingly impoverished
Precarious hydrological predicament
As precarious as Egypt’s
political and socioeconomic position is, there lurk, arguably, even greater
threats to its future.
These pertain partly to nature and partly to the
developmental ambitions – and imperatives – of its upstream co-riparian states
that comprise the Nile basin and through whose territory the river
Eleven co-riparians share the Nile, which in addition to Egypt are
Rwanda, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda,
Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan and South Sudan – with combined populations of almost
A glance at a satellite photograph will illustrate how
dependent life in Egypt is on the river. It will reveal that the country is made
up of yellow, uninhabited desert cut by a thin line of green along the course of
the Nile as virtually the only place that can sustain human existence. As one
involved UN representative remarked, “All of Egyptian life is based on the Nile.
Without it there is nothing.”
The Nile provides around 85% of Egypt’s
water today, and according to some estimates, demand will outstrip all current
sources of supply within several years.
Any reduction in availability of
the Nile waters would have catastrophic consequences for the
Increasingly untenable monopoly
Before reaching Egypt, the Nile
is fed by the relatively constant-flowing White Nile which originates in Central
Africa; and the highly volatile and seasonal Blue Nile and Atbarah rivers, which
arise in the Ethiopian highlands.
The White Nile contributes roughly 15
to 20% of the annual flow of the river, while approximately 75 to 85% is
provided by the Blue Nile (60 to 70%) and the Atbarah (around 15%), mainly in
the rainy season (January to June).
Up to now, Cairo has invoked the 1929
Nile Waters Agreement signed by it with Great Britain (as the colonial power of
the time representing the upstream riparians Uganda, Kenya and Tanganyika (now
According to this agreement, the Nile waters were to be
allotted between Egypt (48 billion cubic meters annually) and Sudan (4 billion
cu.m). The agreement also stipulated that no work would be undertaken on the
Nile, or its tributaries, that would reduce the volume of water reaching Egypt.
Likewise, it gave Egypt the right to inspect, investigate and monitor the flow
of Nile water into and out of upstream riparian countries along the entire
length of the river.
Ethiopia, which was not under colonial rule and thus
not party to the agreement, also gave an undertaking not to impede the flow of
rivers in its territory without the agreement of Great Britain and
With Sudanese independence in 1956, and the commencement of
construction of the Aswan Dam, the division of the estimated 84 billion cu.m.
flow of the Nile was renegotiated bilaterally between Egypt and Sudan, resulting
in the 1959 Nile Waters Agreement.
The agreement reset Egypt’s annual
share at 55.5, and Sudan’s at 18.5 billion cu.m., allowing 10 billion cu.m. for
evaporation. It did not, however, relate to the needs of the other co-riparians.
Indeed, Egypt’s position was that all previous prohibitions stipulated in the
1929 agreement continued to apply.
Growing upstream discontent
it has backed up this position with coercive diplomacy and bellicose
declarations, including overt threats of military action.
The effects of
Egypt’s conduct have been devastating for Ethiopia in terms of drought and
famine – despite its abundance of water.
The perversity of the situation
in which Ethiopia is the source of 85% of the Nile’s flow, but is virtually
prohibited from its use by a country that contributes nothing, is reflected in
the introductory excerpts above.
It is, thus, not surprising that growing
discontent is brewing upstream. As the Los Angeles Times reported recently
(November 11), in a piece titled “The Nile, Egypt’s lifeline... comes
under threat”: “Lately upstream counties, notably Ethiopia, no longer feel bound
by colonial-era agreements on water rights and are moving to siphon away larger
shares of water for electricity, irrigation and business to meet demands of
It is in this context that the ongoing
socioeconomic and political strife must be viewed – for it is eminently
plausible to surmise that a visibly weakened Egypt and its domestically
distracted government will be significantly less able to deter “recalcitrant”
riparians from new and previously prohibited hydrological initiatives.
In many ways, the Ethiopian economy is the diametric converse
of the Egyptian one.
With a population larger that Egypt’s – approaching
90 million – the country has been undergoing an impressive boom.
glowing report on the country’s economic achievements, the Word Bank reported:
“Over the past decade, the Ethiopian economy has been growing at twice the rate
of the Africa region, averaging, 10.6% GDP growth per year between 2004 and
In its newly launched Ethiopia Economic Update, the bank
“attributes this impressive economic growth mainly to agricultural
modernization, the development of new export sectors, strong global commodity
demand, and government-led development investments.”
It is against the
backdrop of a burgeoning Ethiopian vitality and a sagging, decaying Egypt that
an emerging conflict over the water resources of Nile should be seen.
In what could be one the most far-reaching strategic
game-changers in the region, Ethiopia has, in defiance Egyptian protests,
undertaken a massive hydroelectric project on the Blue Nile, near the Sudanese
The centerpiece of the project has been named the Grand Ethiopian
Renaissance Dam, which on completion will be the one of the largest dams in the
world and Africa’s largest hydroelectric project.
Ethiopians have been
reticent in providing details as to the downstream impact of the dam, but have
repeatedly reassured the Egyptians that they will not be adversely affected. As
the dam is planned for hydroelectric generation only and not large-scale
irrigation, they claim that the flow to downstream Sudan and Egypt will be
This has done little to allay Egyptian concerns,
and there are persistent rumors, denied by Cairo, that it has converted an
airfield near the Sudanese-Ethiopian border for military use. Of particular
concern is the effect on the flow during the extended period needed to fill the
Indeed, it is difficult to believe that the dam will have no impact
on the river flow.
Other large dams, such as Turkey’s Ataturk Dam on the
Euphrates and Egypt’s own Aswan Dam, have resulted in considerable constriction
of downstream flows.
Admittedly, these dams were intended for large-scale
irrigation and not limited to hydroelectric power generation.
the exigencies of maintaining its rapidly growing population, estimated to
outstrip Egypt’s by almost 30 million in 2025, one would have to be more than
naïve to believe that any government in Addis Ababa could long resist making use
of such a massive available supply of water to enhance the welfare and nutrition
of its people.
Putting Palestinian problem in proportion
Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is a major reason for concern, Egypt has many other
water-related worries. For if the Blue Nile project goes ahead, this may
embolden other upstream riparians, notably Kenya, that are champing at the bit
to discard the fetters of colonial era prohibitions and undertake their own
As one Kenyan MP once put it: “Kenyans are today importing
agricultural produce from Egypt as a result of their use of the Nile water. Why
shouldn’t we use the same water to grow fruits in our country?” Why, indeed!
Then, of course, there is the problem of the entire Nile Delta subsiding, and
the emerging need to evacuate and relocate millions. But that requires another
Still, it does help put the Palestinian issue in perspective,
Martin Sherman (www.martinsherman.net) is the founder and executive
director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies.