Egypt’s military promises talk, not guns, in Nile water dispute with Ethiopia

Published: August 30, 2013

An unintended consequence of July’s coup by the Egyptian army is that it has averted a threatened war with Ethiopia, over control of the waters of the Nile River on which Egypt has depended since the dawn of civilisation.

Relations between Cairo and Addis Ababa sank to an all-time low in May, when Ethiopia began diverting the waters of the Blue Nile to begin filling the reservoir for the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, Africa’s largest hydro-electric scheme which aims to produce 6,000 megawatts of electricity when completed in July, 2017.

But Egypt fears the Ethiopian dam will permanently decrease the amount of water it receives from the Nile, both for agriculture and its own 50-year-old hydro-electric scheme, the Aswan Dam. Egypt’s anxiety is heightened by predictions its demand for Nile water is going to dramatically increase in coming years as its population grows.

Threats of war surfaced on June 3 when then President Mohammed Morsi and senior political leaders, unaware they were on live television, discussed destroying Ethiopia’s dam project by aerial bombardment, commando raids and supporting anti-government rebels.

The Morsi government issued a guarded apology when Addis Ababa expressed outrage.
But a week later Morsi himself said, “Egypt’s water security cannot be violated at all. All options are open.”

The ouster of the Morsi government by the army at the beginning of July has significantly changed the tone of what continues to be a major dispute over the future use of the Nile waters.

On Tuesday Nabil Fahmy, Foreign Minister in the interim military government, said the Cairo administration will only pursue diplomatic solutions to the impasse. He said he plans to meet Ethiopia’s Foreign Minister Tedros Adhanom in New York in September, after the United Nations General Assembly.

Even with the threat of war apparently off the table, there is no guarantee that a diplomatic solution will be easy to come by. In many ways, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and the quarrels around it are symbols of a significant shift in power and influence among the nine countries that depend on the Nile for water resources.

For 200 years Egypt, and to a lesser extent Sudan, have been the dominant partners, frequently dictating agreements on water use to their own advantage. But in recent years influence began to shift southward to the countries that are home to the sources of the White Nile and the Blue Nile: Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda, the new country of South Sudan, and especially Ethiopia.

Under the leadership of Meles Zenawi, who died a year ago, Ethiopia became an assertive force in the Horn of Africa. With the urging and encouragement of the United States, Ethiopia’s army twice in recent years invaded neighbouring Somalia to oust forces of the al-Qaida-linked al-Shabaab Islamic fundamentalists.

Zenawi was equally opportunistic when he announced that Ethiopia planned to go ahead with the $4.8 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile, about 40 kilometres east of the border with Sudan.

He chose March 31, 2011 for the announcement, while Egypt was still in the chaotic aftermath of the removal of President Hosni Mubarak in mid-February, following weeks of mass demonstrations generated by the Arab Spring. Two days later the foundation stone was laid and construction began.

The building is rushing ahead, with the help of $1.8 billion that reports say is being provided by Chinese banks to finance purchase of the electrical equipment for the hydropower plants. The Ethiopian government plans to raise the rest of the money by issuing bonds, aimed mostly at Ethiopian buyers.

The 6,000 megawatts of electricity to be generated by the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam will make the country an electricity exporter, but is only a small part of the potential 45,000 megawatts that could be generated by hydropower on the country’s mountain rivers. The Blue Nile and Ethiopia’s other tributary rivers join the White Nile, which rises in Lake Victoria, just south of Khartoum. However, the Ethiopian rivers provide 80 per cent of the Nile’s flow by the time it reaches Egypt.

Egypt’s moves to secure its supply of Nile waters began in 1929, when Cairo signed an agreement with Khartoum, at a time when the southern Nile states were still European colonies and Ethiopia was an isolated, impoverished mountain kingdom.

The agreement gave Egypt the right to three-quarters of the Nile’s annual flow of about 84 billion cubic meters. Sudan got 11 per cent, and the remaining 14 per cent was to be shared among the other littoral states.

In 1959 Egypt and Sudan reaffirmed the 1929 agreement, but slightly increased Sudan’s allocation.

Then, in 1999, the Nile Basin Initiative was formed as a forum where the nine littoral states could plan joint projects and resolve disputes to assure “equitable utilisation” of the river. But it quickly became clear that Egypt, supported by Sudan, would brook no changes to what they saw as their “historic rights.”

Frustrated by Cairo’s intransigence, in 2010 Ethiopia joined with Burundi, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania to form the New Nile Co-operative Framework Agreement. This organisation aims to approve or reject any major hydroelectric, irrigation or other project that would affect the Nile’s flow.

Sudan and the new nation of South Sudan will soon sign this new agreement. But Egypt under the Morsi government refused to do so unless its allocation were guaranteed.

Critically, Egypt’s National Planning Institute estimates that by 2050 the country will require an additional 21 billion cubic meters of Nile water on top of the 55 billion cubic meters it now consumes. By that time, the estimates are that Egypt’s current population of 84 million will have nearly doubled to 150 million.

Copyright © 2013 Jonathan Manthorpe