War on the Nile?

When Egypt’s now deposed president Mohamed Morsi said in June 2013 that ‘all options’ including military intervention were on the table if Ethiopia continued to develop dams on the Nile River, many dismissed it as posturing. But some experts claim Cairo is deadly serious about defending its historic water allotment, and if Ethiopia proceeds with construction of what is set to become Africa’s largest hydroelectric dam, a military strike is not out of the question.

Last May some Egyptian parliamentarians were calling for sending commandos or arming local insurgents to sabotage the dam project unless Ethiopia halts construction of its £2.9 billion ($4.2 bn) Grand Renaissance Dam in 2011. Former president Hosni Mubarak made plans for an air strike on any dam that Ethiopia built on the Nile, and in 2010 established an airbase in southeastern Sudan as a staging point for just such an operation, according to emails from Wikileaks. Sudan however now backs Ethiopia’s plans so that military option is no longer available.

‘It is a matter of life or death, a national security issue that can never be compromised on,’ says foreign ministry spokesman Badr Abdelatty (www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-26679225).

Egypt is totally dependent on the Nile. Without it, there effectively is no Egypt. To Ethiopia, the new dam is a source of national pride and the hydro-electric power it will produce is essential to its economic future.

‘Ethiopia’s move was unprecedented. Never before has an upstream state unilaterally built a dam without downstream approval,’ Ayman Shabaana of the Cairo-based Institute for Africa Studies had told IPS news agency last June. ‘If other upstream countries follow suit, Egypt will have a serious water emergency on its hands’ (www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/egypt-prepares-force-nile-flow)

Egypt fears that the new dam, which will begin operation in 2017, will reduce the downstream flow of the Nile, on which 85 million Egyptians rely for almost all of their water needs. Citing a pair of colonial-era treaties, Egypt argues that it is entitled to no less than two-thirds of the Nile’s water and has veto power over any upstream water projects such as dams or irrigation networks. Accords drawn up by the British in 1929 and amended in 1959 divvied up the Nile’s waters between Egypt and Sudan without ever consulting the upstream states that were the source of those waters. The 1959 agreement awarded Egypt 55.5 billion cubic metres of the Nile’s 84 billion cubic metre average annual flow, while Sudan received 18.5 billion cubic metres. Another 10 billion cubic metres is lost to evaporation in Lake Nasser, which was created by Egypt’s Aswan High Dam in the 1970s, leaving barely a drop for the nine other states that share the Nile’s waters.

The desire for a more equitable distribution of Nile water rights resulted in the 2010 Entebbe Agreement, which replaces water quotas with a clause that permits all activities provided they do not ‘significantly’ impact the water security of other Nile Basin states. Five upstream countries – Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda – signed the accord. Burundi signed a year later. Egypt rejected the new treaty outright. Cairo now finds itself in the uncomfortable position of watching its mastery over the Nile’s waters slip through its fingers.

While the treaty’s water allocations appear gravely unfair to upstream Nile states, analysts point out that unlike the mountainous equatorial countries, which have alternative sources of water, the desert countries of Egypt and Sudan rely almost entirely on the Nile for their water needs. But upstream African states have their own growing populations to feed, and the thought of tapping the Nile for their agriculture or drinking water needs is all too tempting.

As we said in an earlier article: ‘Scarcity of any resource that is vital for the production of profits could be, and has been, seen by states as a reason to go to war’ (Socialist Standard, December 2012). The waters of the Nile may well be the cause of another conflict.


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