Battle of the Nile

As unresolved problems pile up in Egypt, yet another issue – one of vital national importance which has been rumbling in the background for years – has suddenly come to the fore. Water.

On Tuesday, Ethiopia announced that it has begun diverting the Blue Nile as part of a hydroelectric project known as the Grand Renaissance Dam. This has raised fears that Egypt will lose a significant part its already scarce supplies of water.

Yesterday, a sheikh from the Egyptian Gamaa Islamiyya described Ethiopia's move as a "declaration of war", while an opposition politician, Hamdeen Sabbahi, suggested closing the Suez Canal to ships from any country assisting Ethiopia in its construction of the dam.

In seeking to protect its water supplies, revolutionary Egypt finds itself in the peculiar position of relying on agreements dating back to the colonial era. One of them, a 1902 treaty between Britain and Ethiopia, states:

"His Majesty the Emperor Menilik II, King of Kings of Ethiopia, engages himself towards the Government of His Britannic Majesty not to construct or allow to be constructed any work across the Blue Nile, Lake Tana, or the Sobat, which would arrest the flow of their waters except in agreement with His Britannic Majesty’s Government and the Government of Sudan."

Needless to say, Ethiopia maintains that it never ratified the treaty and also claims the Amharic-language version has a different meaning.

The actual impact of the Ethiopian dam on Egypt is disputed, but there seem to be two problems – one temporary and the other long-term. 

The Blue Nile accounts for almost 60% of the water entering Egypt further downstream. Once the Ethiopian dam is completed (expected in 2015), supplies will be reduced while it fills. One estimate is that Egypt will lose the equivalent of one-and-a-half years' supply, spread over five years.

However, Egypt does have a buffer in the form of Lake Nasser behind the Aswan Dam which could help to spread the shortly over a longer period.

The other problem is that evaporation from Ethiopia's newly-created lake will permanently reduce the amount of water arriving from the Blue Nile. One expert predicts this could amount to three billion cubic metres a year.

But that is not the only threat to Egypt's water supplies from countries further upstream. Pressure had been growing during Hosni Mubarak's presidency for some readjustment to Egypt's historical dominance of the Nile waters but, as Jonno Evans explained in an article from 2011, Mubarak had enough international clout to maintain the status quo:

"Incorporated in the Mubarak regime was a regional dominance, with significant support from the United States. This gave Egypt both a diplomatic and military advantage, which appeared insurmountable to the less powerful upstream states. For example, Egypt had consistently put pressure on the Arab League not to supply loans to Ethiopia for Nile water development."

Evans adds that with Mubarak's overthrow a new optimism surfaced in the upstream countries, and it was probably no coincidence that Ethiopia announced its plans for the Grand Renaissance Dam just one month after Mubarak was ousted from power. The upstream countries seem to be betting that Egypt's new leaders will be less able to hold firm – and they are probably right.

All this adds up to a tricky problem. Egypt may currently be getting more than its fair share from the Nile but it's almost certainly going to need even more water from somewhere in future because of its burgeoning population. The country's birthrate is now at a 20-year high: 32 for every 1,000 people according to a recent report in the New York Times.

The Mubarak regime encouraged family planning to some extent (though not nearly enough) but Morsi's government has been cutting back, largely for ideological reasons.


Posted by Brian Whitaker
Friday, 31 May 2013