Egypt and Ethiopia spar over the Nile

Egypt’™s colonial-era veto power over the river’s bounties is untenable

February 6, 2014 8:15AM ET
The Blue Nile in Guba, Ethiopia.
William Lloyd-George/AFP/Getty Images

On Jan. 8, Ethiopia turned down Egypt’s demand that it suspend construction of its mega-dam on the Nile, further escalating tensions between the two states. Fearing that Ethiopia’s $4.2 billion project would reduce the river’s flow, Egypt calls for a halt in construction until the dam’s downstream impact is determined. Otherwise, it has vowed to protect its “historical rights” to the Nile at “any cost.”

While scoffing at Egyptian threats, Ethiopia has called for Cairo’s collaboration in negotiations and claims that the dam will have no adverse effect on Egypt. It would, in fact, decrease evaporation and improve water flow. Ethiopia hopes that the ambitious hydroelectric project, slated to be completed in 2017, would catapult the country out of poverty. Frustrated by what it described as Ethiopia’s stubborn stance, Cairo is threatening to take the issue to the United Nations Security Council.

Is this just standard diplomatic brinkmanship before an inevitable compromise, or a harbinger of a looming water war? Regardless, the lack of progress on the diplomatic front bodes ill for a quick end to a stalemate that has long gripped the region. Home to 600 million people, more than half of Africa’s total population, the Nile Basin is already traumatized by endless internal political strife and mounting pressures to feed a population growing at Malthusian proportions.

However, as ominous as it sounds, the collapse of the talks does not necessarily mean Egypt and Ethiopia will soon be locking horns. Despite suggestions to the contrary, this is simply the waning phase of a protracted diplomatic dance before an inevitable conciliation.

A dam for development

Although known as northeast Africa’s water tower, Ethiopia until recently had not bothered to utilize its many rivers. The inability to make use of the Nile has been Ethiopia’s age-old national lament. That changed in 2011, when the country announced plans for the construction of its so-called Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), designed to generate a staggering 6,000 megawatts of electricity. By situating the project only 19 miles from the Sudanese border on the vast Blue Nile gorge, where the land is unsuitable for agriculture, Ethiopia sought to reassure Egypt but ended up stoking its fears.

The design and impacts of the GERD are shrouded in secrecy. Observers cast doubts on its timely completion. In a flawed bidding process, Ethiopia granted the project to a Milan-based engineering company, Salini Costruttori, circumventing its own contract procedures and international standards on procurement. The construction is reportedly lagging behind schedule and faces several unresolved technical problems, one of which is how long it takes to fill the dam. Ethiopia claims the project is on course and dismisses facing any technical hurdles.

One of Africa’s fastest-growing non-oil economies, Ethiopia has embarked on a state-led development fashioned after the economic miracles in South Korea and the rest of the so-called Asian tigers. Ignoring warnings from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank that such a massive publicly funded infrastructure project would starve private investments, Ethiopia is forging ahead. To wit, when Egypt used its influence with international financiers to choke off funding, Ethiopia declared it would finance the project with domestic resources.

Gift of the Nile

The founding myths of many ancient civilizations center on famous rivers — the Euphrates and the Tigris (Babylon), the Yangtze (China) and the Ganges (India), to name a few. However, not many are as inextricably dependent on a single river for their livelihood as Egypt is on the Nile. Egypt’s history is defined as much by the flooding and drying beds of the Nile as by the pyramids. For a country described by Herodotus as “the gift of the Nile,” control over the majestic river has been an existential Egyptian preoccupation since antiquity.

The world’s longest river is made up of a maze of tributaries. Nineteenth-century explorers went on a wild goose chase to locate the mysterious river’s murky origin before tracing it to Lake Tana in Ethiopia and the Great Lakes in Central Africa. Two of the river’s main tributaries are the Blue Nile and the White Nile. The Blue Nile, accounting for upwards of 80 percent of the Nile waters, originates in northern Ethiopia. It makes a steep descent from Ethiopian highlands — carrying brown silt — before it joins the White Nile in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, augmented by several large rivers from southwestern Ethiopia. The White Nile originates in Burundi and flows northward from the Great Lakes region, crossing Tanzania, Uganda, and South Sudan.

Who owns the Nile?

The Nile’s origin being outside its borders did not prevent Egypt from getting the lion’s share of its waters. The claim for exclusive ownership of the Nile waters is premised on a 1929 treaty between Egypt and Britain’s East African colonies, Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda. These colonies gained independence from Britain in the 1960s. The treaty awarded 57 percent of the waters to Egypt while also requiring other nations to clear with Cairo before launching any major water project on the river. Another treaty, signed in 1959 between Egypt and Sudan, raised Egypt’s share to 66 percent. The two signatories, divvying up virtually all of the Nile waters, did not even consult Ethiopia, the main source of the river. After the 1959 accord, both Egypt and Sudan built mega-dams to exploit the water for irrigation.  

For years, upstream Nile Basin countries — Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda — nursed misgivings about the colonial-era accord, in which they had no say. However, they grudgingly acquiesced mainly because, unlike Egypt and Sudan, whose arid lands are watered by the lone river, they are not wholly reliant on the Nile. But, finding the challenge of feeding their growing populations on rain-fed subsistence farming unbearable, upstream countries initiated negotiations in 1999 to find an equitable and reasonable way to share the Nile waters. The decade-long negotiations resulted in the 2010 Cooperative Framework Agreement, known as the Entebbe Agreement. The landmark accord, signed by the six upstream countries, was rejected outright by both Egypt and Sudan. Touted as “an African solution for an African problem,” the agreement calls for the creation of a commission to oversee development projects on the Nile. It needed ratification by the legislatures of each of the signatory countries. But its implementation is in limbo until another Nile Basin country — for example, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is now sitting on the fence — signs it.

Ethiopia’s diplomatic coup

The High Aswan Dam in Egypt.
AFP/Getty Images

In a further blow to Egypt, its alliance with Sudan faltered in 2012 when Sudan, which gets 35 percent of the Nile water according to the 1959 treaty, rescinded its initial opposition to Ethiopia’s renaissance dam. Khartoum’s change of heart is attributed to a still-secret report by a panel of international experts that concluded the dam would neither significantly affect downstream countries nor fundamentally alter the flow of the river. But Sudan’s internal vulnerabilities presumably played a crucial role.

In 2011, Sudan saw a huge chunk of its land mass secede to form Africa’s newest state, South Sudan. Ethiopia’s support for the former rebels of South Sudan (currently embroiled in a power struggle of their own) was instrumental in forcing Sudan — Egypt’s loyal ally — to accept the divorce. An international warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir in connection with the conflict in Darfur has made the country an international pariah. Sudan could not afford to alienate its increasingly assertive neighbor to the south and eventually threw its weight behind Ethiopia’s colossal undertaking. Although it has yet to sign the Entebbe Agreement, which loosens Egyptian and Sudanese dominion over use of the Nile waters, Sudan’s new stance hands Ethiopia a diplomatic coup.

‘Egypt’s ill designs’

The most recent Egyptian president to threaten war to protect Egypt’s “inviolable” rights over the Nile was the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi. Last June, in a secret all-party discussion chaired by then-President Morsi, which was “mistakenly” broadcast live on state TV, Egyptian lawmakers suggested arming Ethiopia’s political opponents to obstruct the construction. The tension subsided with the military takeover in Cairo. However, after a brief interlude in which it appeared that diplomacy was to replace the menace of war, the military regime is now raising the ante. The high brass knows full well that a food shortage resulting from a significant reduction in water volumes means riots in Egyptian cities.

The last time Egypt staked its claim militarily over the Nile and the Red Sea was in 1876, when it invaded Ethiopia. The two armies met at Gura, now an Eritrean territory. Egypt’s army was nearly wiped out by an ill-equipped and ragtag Ethiopian side that would, two decades later, go on to hand Italy a humiliating defeat at the battle of Adwa. Although it never ruled out direct military confrontation with Ethiopia, Egypt has since reverted to proxy wars.

For centuries, Muslim Egypt supplied the head of Ethiopia’s Orthodox Church, a state religion until the 1974 revolution. The imperial regime of Haile Selassie found itself under political pressure to leave the centuries-old arrangement intact following the 1959 Nile accord that excluded Ethiopia. Despite this historical relationship, Ethiopia’s official historiography is replete with Egypt’s ill designs over it. In the 1970s, Ethiopia blamed Egypt for fanning the Republic of Somalia’s irredentist claims over the Somali-inhabited Ogaden region of Ethiopia. The two countries went to war twice over the Ogaden.

Egypt is also faulted for its role, with Sudan as its accomplice, in precipitating Ethiopia’s loss of access to the Red Sea with Eritrea’s independence. Eritrea broke away from Ethiopia in 1993 after 30 years of civil war.

Internal fragility

Official rhetoric notwithstanding, both Egypt and Ethiopia are represented by shaky regimes presiding over brittle states and divided societies. Given their internal vulnerabilities, neither country can afford to go to war — a war whose outcome is uncertain.

While Ethiopia saw its economic fortunes rise over the last decade, its internal cohesion has not kept pace. Ethnic and religious cleavages as well as a border dispute with Eritrea (over which the two states fought a bloody war from 1998 to 2000) are constant reminders of its enduring fragility. Ethnic Tigreans, estimated at 6 percent of the population, have been in power since 1991. They dominate the country’s politics, military, security and economy. This is resented by both the Oromo, Ethiopia’s majority population, and the Amhara, its traditional rulers. Over the last two years, the country’s otherwise docile Muslim population, long marginalized despite accounting for a sizable portion of the population, has been increasingly restive. Ethiopia’s single-party leadership has not fully recovered from the death in 2012 of its strongman of two decades, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. The new prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, a Protestant and from another minority group, does not hold as much clout as his predecessor and is seen as a temporary figure.

The opening of a Sudanese hydroelectric dam on the Nile at Merowe, north of Khartoum.
Ashraf Shazly/AFP/Getty Images

Khartoum’s woes did not end with the secession of South Sudan, either. Its army is struggling to contain rebels in the Nuba Mountains. Muffled though they appear, Sudan’s troubles in Darfur are far from over. Alienated by former allies, his capital rocked by Arab Spring–inspired unrest over the last two years, Bashir’s three-decade hold on power is tenuous. He also has to dodge the arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Egypt is facing far more serious calamities. It fired the imagination of the world’s youth with its peaceful 2011 revolution. With the military wresting the reins of power back from its nemesis, the Muslim Brotherhood, and clamping down on dissent, the country has clearly slid backward.  Pursuant to the overthrow of Morsi, its first democratically elected president, Muslim-Christian relations have soured. The elevation of a trigger-happy general to the presidency would heighten Egyptian vulnerabilities. In short, with Sudan now squarely in Ethiopia’s camp, Egypt could not stage a ground attack on the dam. War by proxy has run its course. An airstrike is still possible but fraught with risks.

The dam’s long-term effect on the ecosystem upon which hundreds of millions depend for their livelihood is the greatest unknown.

The tensions over the Nile, however, are not simply an old-fashioned competition for a scarce resource. They are rather symptomatic of deeper underlying schisms. The Nile marks the divide between black sub-Saharan Africa and the Arab Maghreb, and forms the fault line between Christian, Muslim, and indigenous Africa.

Moreover, the rhetoric of water wars over the Nile misses the crucial voice of marginalized indigenous populations — whose lives are altered by these state-sponsored megaprojects. While the construction of the Aswan Dam in Egypt and a smaller one in Sudan have enabled the two countries to develop thriving agro-industries, they caused wanton destruction to the Nubian people’s ancient way of life.  As a result of the secrecy surrounding the Nile discussions and the lack of tolerance for political dissent in all three countries, there is little discussion of the dam’s impact on indigenous communities and the horrendous environmental consequences.

The dam’s long-term effect on the ecosystem upon which hundreds of millions depend for their livelihood is the greatest unknown. There is a widespread charge that studies of the dam’s environmental impact are as faulty as they are insufficient. It is unclear whether the justifications for such megaprojects are even grounded in economic rationality, let alone environmental sensitivity. And why not multiple smaller dams with sound economic, technical and environmental rationales rather than one humongous project? Ethiopia has not yet answered.

The way forward

A satellite image of the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in 2012.
DigitalGlobe/Getty Images

While the specter of a global water shortage is real, talk of the Nile Basin becoming the first battlefield in the coming water wars is a bit of a distraction. This does not mean that war over the Nile is to be ruled out. In fact, despite rampant vulnerability, indeed because of it, the countries may find it impossible to compromise on their maximum demands. To Egypt, water security equals national security. To Ethiopia, the dam has become a matter of national pride. As much as the Aswan High Dam stood as a monument to Gamal Abdel Nasser’s quest for grandeur, the GERD symbolizes Zenawi’s shot for a place in the history books as well as a ploy to spruce up the ruling party’s patriotic credentials. By casting the project as Ethiopia’s renaissance, Ethiopia risked that Egypt would see the project as its relapse. Facing water shortages amid a growing population, Egypt has actually been asking to increase its share of the Nile waters to 95 percent.

With positions so widely apart, the risk of conflagration is not entirely rhetorical. However, one thing is clear: The greatest sources of danger staring down at each of Africa’s oldest states — Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan — are internal rather than external.

While realizing that the old status quo that left it with a veto over the Nile’s bounties is untenable, Egypt’s future lies not in saber rattling but in returning to the aborted revolution’s democratic path. Owing to the increasing volatility of the rains, Ethiopia would inevitably need to use its rivers to feed 94 million hungry souls. Devoid of democratization, Ethiopia’s regime needs to realize that economic development alone won’t resolve the country’s woes. At the same time, antagonizing as important a player as Egypt is not in Ethiopia’s long-term interest. An Egyptian airstrike can turn the clock back on the dam. Although Ethiopia lacks the means to respond to such an attack in kind, Egypt risks earning the international community’s wrath and seeing its relationships with sub-Saharan Africa strained.

Compromise offers the only way out for both. Yet it is likely to be years before a durable peace built on a win-win formula replaces rancor over the Nile. While the latest collapse of talks is a diplomatic circus, it should be noted that dueling regimes, lacking democratic mandates, may indeed overreact to external threats, real or imagined, to win domestic legitimacy. Since a conflagration in the Nile Basin bears global repercussions, the international community must not be oblivious to the inherent dangers.

Hassen Hussein is an assistant professor at St. Mary's University of Minnesota.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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