Posted by on June 24, 2013 in Blog

By: Lama Al-Arian

Summer 2013 Intern

The ten countries that share the Nile basin have debated for centuries how to best allocate the river’s waters to suit their interests. For Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Nile basin is a crucial source of life-sustaining water.

According to an article by Patricia Kameri-Mbote, the ten countries that line the Nile River have a joint population of about 300 million people, which is expected to double within the next 25 years, and demand for water has increased rapidly as business and agricultural production expand. In a report published by the United Nations Environment Programme the organization “estimates that from now up to the year 2027 almost a third of the world population will suffer from chronic water shortages.”

 “In 1979, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat said: ‘The only matter that could take Egypt to war again is water,’” Kameri-Mbote notes. Egypt’s struggle to control the flow and usage of the Nile water can be dated back to its 1929 treaty with Britain, which at the time controlled Kenya, Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda, and gave Egypt complete rights to use and manage the lion’s share of the Nile River. In 1959 a new treaty between Egypt and Sudan was signed that gave Sudan equal rights to Nile waters, unlike any other of the eight nations who were required to ask Egypt if they wished to use the water.

In the mid-60’s, Egypt continued to prosper from the Nile River after the development of the Aswan Dam, an embankment dam located across the Nile River in Aswan, Egypt, which not only helped by regulating flooding and storing of water, but also generated electricity for Egyptian industry. The dam’s development helped drive Egyptian economic growth for years to come.

Government involvement in Egypt’s economy has been the leading cause of its successful outcomes.  According to Kameri-Mbote, many neighboring countries did not take a stand against Egypt’s control of the water because it is one the strongest military power in the area. Egypt’s unwillingness to compromise over the water situation is due to its dependence on the Nile. In an article in Foreign Policy, author Nadia Anne Zahran asserts that the river supplies drinking water to virtually the entire Egyptian population of 80 million, a number that may reach 97 million by 2025, according to World Bank statistics.

With Egypt and Sudan’s full control of the Nile River Basin, eight of the poorest countries in the world continue to suffer from lack of access to the Nile. “In 1999, 10 Nile Riparian countries created the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), which sought to substitute a half-century-old Nile water usage agreement and bilateral contract between Egypt and colonial Britain with a new multilateral agreement that reflected current demographic and development realities,” journalist Nadia Anne Zahran of Foreign Policy writes.

Frustration over the economic state of the impoverished African countries led them to want to change the policy “which secures well over 87 percent of the Nile’s flow to Egypt and Sudan,” Zahran noted. The article also points out that, like Egypt, the othe Nile Basin countries also rely on the river for daily life and remain under “severe water stress.”

Despite the efforts of other countries to reach a consensus with Egypt and Sudan, the two countries have continuously declined requests for a more equitable distribution of Nile waters.

In recent years, Ethiopia has taken a stance against uncompromising Egypt and, in May 2010, Ethiopia announced the inauguration of a new hydroelectric dam, a £3.1bn project that will eventually provide 6,000 megawatts of power to distribute water for land cultivation and electricity. The Egyptian government, then headed by former President Hosni Mubarak, intervened after the Ethiopian dam was announced and threatened war if the Nile River was ever blocked. 

Egypt also threatened to bomb the location of the Ethiopian dam if construction continued. Ethiopia was forced to put construction on hold after continuous threats from the Mubarak regime.

On February 11, 2011, President Hosni Mubarak stepped down after a 30-year reign. With the Mubarak regime gone and the military left in charge, there was no government to intervene and fight for the Nile water rights of Egypt. Ethiopia, on the other hand, took advantage of Egypt’s situation to restart the construction of the dam.

According to the Jimma Times, “the planned dam will be the largest dam in Africa in electric power capacity.” The article emphasizes that the former Ethiopian leader of the People Democratic coalition is “concerned about Sudanese and Egyptian opposition to Ethiopian projects.”

The situation has not much improved since the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and President Mohamed Morsi last June. An article in The Guardian mentions that the “prospect of a water war has become a regular feature of Egyptian newscasts and front pages in recent weeks. The announcement, which marked a milestone in the dam's progress, was seen in Egypt as a humiliating slap and an indication that Ethiopia has no intention to negotiate over the dam's construction.”

Although Morsi has not been explicit in his speeches, he berated Ethiopia in a speech on June 11, saying "all options are open" in protecting the river, which accounts for 95% of Egypt's water needs.

“The country,” he told a crowd of cheering supporters, “is ready to sacrifice blood to ensure that not one drop of the Nile is lost.”

Each government is concerned about their own economic and social situation, and each remains dependent on the Nile River Basin for development. Although Egypt is facing political uncertainty in the aftermath of the revolution, the issue of water remains at the top of the foreign policy agenda of the new government, as it is a question of literal life or death for the Egyptian economy. It appears that tension will engulf the Nile Basin countries until the issue is resolved, either through diplomatic peaceful means or armed conflict.

In such a critical post-revolution transitory time, the water war along the Nile Basin is just another example of the many problems plaguing Egypt, a key US ally in the region.

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