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Has the Nile Water War Begun? - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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A WikiLeaks document has revealed that Egypt has fears about the possible impact that Southern Sudan’s secession may have on its Nile water quota, and that it therefore sought to convince Washington to postpone the scheduled referendum in the South. However one does not need to read this document in order to know that the Nile water issue is open to a number of complications, and that in the near future this is something that may come to overshadow all other regional issues. Anybody listening to the statements, observing the frantic manoeuvres, or watching the growing tension, might already feel that the Nile Water War has begun in earnest.

Ethiopian Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi is leading his country’s organized campaign which is demanding a redistribution of Nile water resources and the amendment of old agreements. In a recent statement, he appeared to fire a provocative ‘bullet’ in Cairo’s direction when he claimed that Egypt could not win a war against Ethiopia over the distribution of Nile resources. Zenawi revealed the true proportions of this underlying crisis when he accused Egypt of supporting rebel groups [in Ethiopia] as part of an attempt to destabilize the country, due to Egypt’s dispute over the distribution of the Nile waters. In an interview he conducted with Reuters toward the end of last month, Zenawi said: “I am not worried that the Egyptians will suddenly invade Ethiopia. Nobody who has tried that has lived to tell the story. I don’t think the Egyptians will be any different and I think they know that.” This statement, which was devoid of the usual diplomatic rhetoric, indicates that there is a mounting crisis [over the issue of the distribution of Nile resources] between the two most important players in this region, which has now entered a new phase with the use of the war-like language.

On one hand, the largest Nile tributary runs through Ethiopia, as the country lies at the source of the Blue Nile which supplies the River Nile with more than two-thirds of its running water and fertile soil. Moreover, Ethiopia has one of the highest birth-rates in the world, and by 2025 its population will have reached 113, over-taking Egypt to become the second most populous country in Africa, after Nigeria. Over the past 30 years, Ethiopia has been stricken by terrible famine and drought which prompted the government to erect five giant dams over the past ten years. This has reignited the old dispute over Nile water, and the question of how to reconcile the increasing needs of the Nile Basin countries, and the limited water resources offered by the Nile.

Egypt, on the other hand, is the primary consumer of Nile water, and the Nile is considered the country’s chief lifeline. That is why this issue is being discussed as if it were a matter of life or death. Egypt believes that Ethiopia is the driving force behind demands to revoke the old agreements that govern the distribution of Nile water and calls for new agreements to be made which would see upstream Nile countries granted a large share of the Nile’s resources, inevitably resulting in a decrease of Egypt’s share. Nevertheless, Egypt responded in a diplomatic manner to Zenawi’s statement, preferring not to further escalate the issue. Cairo expressed surprise at the Ethiopian warning and maintained that Egyp it was not considering war as an option to resolve the Nile water issue, stating that it is committed to a strategy of dialogue and negotiations to resolve this problem. However Cairo also stressed that in the event of a solution not being reached, Egypt would exercise its right to resort to international law to protect what it deems to be its historical rights, as defined by international agreements. After dismissing Zenawi’s accusation that Egypt was supporting rebel groups with the aim of destabilizing Ethiopia, Cairo accused Zenawi of being behind the Cooperative Framework Agreement signed by five Nile upstream states, namely Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya and Tanzania. The agreement is also supported by the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi; however both countries have expressed reservations about signing this as they are wary of escalating tensions with the Nile downstream countries, particularly Egypt and Sudan.

Cairo has launched intense diplomatic efforts towards the signatories of the Cooperative Framework Agreement, in an attempt to prevent what it regards as an Ethiopian move to isolate Egypt, and force Cairo to renegotiate the distribution of the water resources of the longest river in the world. The Egyptian diplomatic efforts towards the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi were successful, yet they failed to stop the other five countries from signing the agreement. If the provisions of this agreement are implemented, this would inevitably lead to a major confrontation between the Nile countries on the grounds that this would undermine the former agreement and allow each country to act of its own volition [with regards to the Nile water resources] or result in the formation of two competing blocs, which is something that could result in war.

Meanwhile, Egypt is intently observing the recent developments in Sudan, and fears that following next year’s self-determiantion referendum, any newly formed southern state might side with the Cooperative Framework Agreement states, especially as there are strong ties between the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) in South Sudan and Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda. All three countries supported the armed struggle and diplomatic efforts of the SPLM for long years, both prior to the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, and afterwards. Even if a newly formed state of Southern Sudan did not adopt a confrontational stance similar to that of the Cooperative Framework Agreement states; its mere establishment would open the door to re-negotiations over how the Nile water resources are divided. Some people have suggested that the water quota for an independent southern state of Sudan should be taken from the share granted to Egypt and Sudan or from Sudan’s share alone.

These complexities are further compounded when we take into account the warnings of environmentalists, who indicate that the coming decades will see a marked rise in temperature rates and a gradual decrease in rainfall in many countries around the world, including some Nile states. Perhaps the worst case scenario would be the continued escalation of tensions amongst the Nile states, at a time where fierce international competition is taking place over natural resources in Africa. Needless to say, there are external parties monitoring the situation, waiting for the slightest opportunity to incite conflicts and wars.

Osman Mirghani

Osman Mirghani

Osman Mirghani is Asharq Al-Awsat's former deputy editor and senior editor-at-large.

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