Unquiet flows the Nile

Egypt is carefully weighing all options to avoid losing its control over the Nile river.

Herodotus’ prophetic words will soon be proven wrong! The Greek philosopher had long described Egypt as the ‘gift of the Nile’. But with the course of the river being diverted to fill the 145 metre tall Renaissance dam being built in upstream Ethiopia, the gift will soon be snatched from a country that has yet to emerge from its unresolved uprising three years ago. Egypt for once will be losing what it has always dreamed of having control over – the Nile.

Relations between the two countries have grown tense over the inevitable diversion of the river. While the Egyptian politicians have suggested sabotaging the dam, the Ethiopian government has vowed that nothing can stop the dam’s construction. The growing tensions are cause for global concern, beyond the six other riparian countries. Can the region which is simmerring with political discontent afford a cross-border confrontation of unimaginable proportions?

While some commentators express doubt if the region could afford a war, there are others who consider that the brewing distrust may trigger confrontation of some kind. For Egypt, allowing Ethiopia to construct this dam is somewhat like Israel allowing Iran to build a nuclear weapon. Egypt had sown the seeds decades ago, the bitter fruits of which it has been forced to harvest now!

It is a known fact that Egypt played a major role during 1960s in helping Eriteria break away from Ethipia. Cairo was then the ground zero for the formation of the Eriterean Liberation Movement, the primary forces behind Eriteria’s long war of independence. During the 70s and the 80s, Egypt had actively supported several groups that worked to overthrow the government in Ethiopia. When Eriteria finally gained independence in 1993, it had Egypt to thank. This is one of the roots of contention between Egypt and Ethiopia.

Current crises

Setting aside such troubled history and brushing past the current crises, Seifulaziz Milas argues that armed conflict over the Nile waters has always been extremely limited. Having worked with the African Union, Milas has examined the historical, political and economic aspects related to sharing of the Nile waters in the region in his recently published book ‘Sharing the Nile’ (Pluto).  Says he: ‘as in many marriages, the participants may no longer love each other, but have little choice to live together and keep the marriage working.’

Over the years, nations such as Kenya, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia have held the proverbial marriage together by abiding to pre-independence treaty – often to the detriment of their own people. Signed in 1929, the treaty between the UK and Egypt had prohibited riparian countries from building water infrastructure without Egypt’s consent. Since the upstream countries were never consulted, they were the first to reject the treaty upon gaining independence.
 
After nearly a decade of fruitless attempts to negotiate with Egypt on equitable sharing of the Nile waters, the basin countries launched the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) in 2010 which makes it clear that no state will exercise hegemony over the Nile waters. “Of all the riparian states’, argues Milas, ‘Egypt stands to gain most from the establishment of a basin-wide framework for water resources development’.   

An estimated 74 billion cubic metres of water stored in the cooler climate of the Blue Nile gorge, in the Rennaissance Dam, will save a huge volume of evaporation loss from Lake Nasser in southern Egypt, located in one of the hottest and driest deserts of the world. Since the Aswan Dam is increasingly incapable of meeting Egypt’s power needs, partly due to reduced storage on account of evaportation, Ethiopia can fill the growing demand for hydropower in the region.

For the region in general, cooperative harnessing of the Nile waters is crucial for meeting the energy and livelihoods needs of a growing basin population - estimated to exceed 500 million by 2025, some 50 per cent higher than at present. But Egypt has thusfar tried to scuttle new projects. It had successfully blocked an expected loan from the African Development Bank to Ethiopia for the Tana-Beles Project on the Beles River, a tributary of the Blue Nile, in 1988.

Of the two channels that form the river, the Blue Nile is significant as it carries 86 per cent of the Nile’s eventual flow with the White Nile contributing the remainder. The Blue Nile, on which the 6,000 megawatt Rennaisance Dam is being built, escapes Lake Tana in the Ethiopian highlands before joining the White Nile at Khartoum, in Sudan. The river nourishes 60 per cent of Egypt’s estimated 85 million people before draining into the Mediterranean Sea.

For Egypt, control over the Nile continues to be an emotive issue. ‘Who controls the Nile, controls Egypt’, so goes the old saying. Egypt is carefully weighing all options to avoid losing its control over the Nile. While it has discouraged global investors from financing the $5 billion project thufar, it holds the option of using its allies for bringing about instability in Ethiopia. Whether it triggers political reorientation in Ethiopia remains a billion dollar question?

(Dr Sudhirendar Sharma is water expert with The Ecological Foundation, New Delhi.)

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