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Opinion: Diverting the Blue Nile’s course could take Africa to war | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Laborers work at the Grand Renaissance Dam in Guba Woreda, in the Benishangul Gumuz region in Ethiopia, on March 16, 2014. (Reuters/Tiksa Negeri)

Water wars, many warn, could be around the corner. After the removal of former President Mohamed Mursi, Egypt has inherited a huge problem: Addis Ababa decided to divert the course of the Blue Nile late May, as part of its project to generate electricity through the construction of the Renaissance Dam. Ethiopia took the decision—which will have a negative impact on Egypt’s share of the water from the Nile—one day after Mursi returned to Cairo from a state visit to Addis Ababa, a move the Egyptians considered as a blow to the Islamist president. Ethiopians seem to have sensed Egypt’s weak position.

There are ten countries along the Nile. The problem here is that Ethiopia’s unilateral step means the collapse of the current regional order set by Great Britain and Egypt in 1929 in what is known as the Nile Water Agreement.

Apart from Ethiopia, none of the Nile Basin countries was independent when the agreement was signed. The agreement allocated 48 million cubic meters of water per year to Egypt and 4 million to Sudan—but it neglected the other eight countries. In 1959, Egypt and Sudan agreed to increase their share of the Nile water to 55 million and 18 million cubic meters, respectively, allowing Egypt to build the Aswan Dam. The agreement bans the establishment of any project on the Nile, its tributaries or the Nile Basin that may reduce the amount of water reaching Egypt. The agreement also gives Egypt the right to conduct inspections and investigations along the Nile down to its farthest sources.

This right, which is equivalent to an Egyptian veto against any water and energy projects, has been a subject of intense debate, and has caused restlessness among Nile Basin countries. These countries—once colonies—consider Egypt’s privileges as a violation of their sovereignty, and some have already begun running water projects threatening Egypt’s share. Egypt considers any change to the agreement as tantamount to a strategic threat and has repeatedly threatened to use all means available to a prevent violation of the agreement.

After the overthrow of Mursi, several meetings between water ministers from the member states of the technical committee have failed. So have the February 11 talks in Addis Ababa between the Ethiopian and Egyptian water ministers.

Egypt is trying to dissuade or persuade Ethiopia from changing its plans in a bid to limit the damages to its interests. But Ethiopia insists on adhering to its original plan, claiming the dam will have no negative impact on Egypt. As for Sudan, it has taken Ethiopia’s side and is supportive of the dam’s construction.

Turkey, whose relationship with Egypt has worsened after Mursi’s removal, has been encouraging Addis Ababa to go ahead with the construction of the dam, Egyptian media reported. Several media outlets in Egypt have not ruled out Israel’s potential role in the project.

Last January Egypt pulled out of talks with Ethiopia and Sudan, announcing that it will resort to all diplomatic and political means in order to preserve or even increase its share of Nile water. Ethiopia said it will go ahead with building the dam even after the suspension of the talks. Around 30 percent of the dam has now been constructed, but will take another three years to complete. However, Egypt’s Minister of Water Resources Mohamed Abdel-Motaleb said Egypt will not stand with its hands tied and that it is supportive of the construction of the dam providing it does not impact Egypt’s water security. The Egyptian minister also called on Ethiopia to freeze the construction process pending necessary technical research to ensure neither Egypt nor Sudan will be affected in case the dam collapses.

After his visit to Moscow, Egypt’s Foreign Minster Nabil Fahmi said the problem could be solved and that the Nile could fulfil each of the countries’ water needs. Fahmi, however, warned that if no agreement was reached as soon as possible, Egypt would not accept to give up its water security, urging everyone to be prepared to deal with the consequences of an undesirable regional crisis.

Ethiopia responded on February 17 that the military establishment is poised to protect the Renaissance Dam, highlighting that it is a national project, one the Ethiopians deem as one of the country’s greatest achievements. Ten days later, Ethiopia and Sudan signed, in the presence of both countries’ ministers of defense, a protocol to form a joint force tasked with the protection of their borders.

Egypt adheres to the agreement and considers it to be effective according to international law, maintaining that any amendment or change requires its prior approval. In comments about the issue, Sherif Mousa, the director of the Middle East program at the American University in Cairo, said the agreement should be dealt with in the same way the borders of most of the Nile Basin countries are respected which have been drawn by the colonial powers and recognized by international law.

What Ethiopia has done seems like an extension of the Arab Spring. And Crimea’s independence from Ukraine confirms that no international order recognized by international law will remain the same. Should Ethiopia be allowed to do what it likes, all of the Nile Basin countries will follow suit. The problem is that all African countries occupy higher land elevations than Egypt. The 1959 bilateral agreement between Egypt and Sudan that saw an increase in the two countries’ shares—neglecting other countries’ interests, such as those of Tanzania, Kenya and Ethiopia—has weakened Egypt’s contention that the 1929 agreement cannot be violated. Ethiopia was the first to challenge the agreement, claiming the full right to the Blue Nile and the diversion of its course—a move Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda were supportive of. This breakaway led to the signing of the 2010 Entebbe Agreement by the upstream countries in East Africa including Ethiopia. The agreement allows for the signatories to carry out water projects on the Nile without the approval of Egypt. South Sudan said it will join the agreement while Congo and Eretria remained on the sidelines. But the agreement was opposed by both Egypt and Sudan, which, following the overthrow of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, sided with Ethiopia.

With its increasing population and poverty-stricken rural areas, Ethiopia has decided, in accordance with the Entebbe Agreement, to build the Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile. At a cost of 4.7 billion US dollars, the dam will be the largest in Africa. With its 74 million cubic meter reservoir, it is expected to generate 6,000 megawatts of energy. To facilitate its construction, Ethiopia has diverted the Blue Nile 500 meters from its natural course.

The Egyptian media has launched a campaign against Ethiopia, claiming that the Egyptian people would rather die defending their right to the water than die of thirst. Of course, Egypt will not allow Ethiopia to ignore Egypt’s right to its share of Nile water. Moreover, according to international laws, Ethiopia cannot obtain the Blue Nile water. This is not to mention that the Egyptian army is powerful and can comply with the country’s agreements. The two countries can reach a mutually satisfactory arrangement. Perhaps, Ethiopia would provide Egypt with water in exchange for security. Should it benefit from some of the energy generated by the Renaissance dam, Egypt can carry out sea water desalination projects that require both energy and money.

Ethiopia’s unilateral decision to build the Renaissance Dam has shaken all of Africa, not just Egypt. Should a war take place, the dam will not protect Ethiopia. Egypt needs to organize its house at a time when most world countries are experiencing instability.