Egypt/Ethiopia: There will be no water war in the Nile Basin because no one can afford it – By Seifulaziz Milas

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has tried to dampen down embarrassing suggestions that Egypt might use military power over disagreements concerning the Nile waters.

The comedy started last Monday when the Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi invited leading politicians to discuss the report of a tri-partite Egypt-Ethiopia-Sudan commission. The commission had recently conducted a one year study on Ethiopia’s plan to build a hydropower dam on the Blue Nile; the source of most of the water reaching Egypt and Sudan. Some three days earlier the commission had reported that the hydropower dam would not significantly reduce the flow of water to the downstream countries.

This coincided with a report that Ethiopia had diverted the flow of the Blue Nile (by some five hundred meters from its normal channel) as part of the process of construction of its $4.2bn Grand Renaissance hydropower dam, now about 20 percent complete. This provided the occasion for the politicians to engage in one of their favorite pastimes: repeating time-worn myths about the river Nile, their ownership of it and their readiness to fight over control of its waters.

An aide to President Morsi later apologised for failing to inform the politicians that they were live on air, which allowed viewers to watch them discuss plans to sabotage the dam and undertake a variety of other hostile acts against Ethiopia. The suggestions included aiding rebels inside Ethiopia and destroying the dam itself. Ethiopian officials have long accused Egypt of backing anti-government rebels in Ethiopia.

Getachew Reda, a spokesman for Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn, was quoted on Tuesday as saying that Egyptian leaders had unsuccessfully tried to destabilize Ethiopia in the past. Morsi did not directly react to this suggestion, but concluded by saying that Egypt respected Ethiopia and its people and would not engage in any aggressive acts against it. However, on Wednesday a senior Egyptian official was quoted as saying that Egypt will demand that Ethiopia stop building the Blue Nile dam.

Getachew Reda responded with the following statement: “There are on the one hand people who still think that they can turn back the clock on Ethiopia’s development endeavors including of course the construction of the Renaissance Dam…Second you have people like President Mohammed Morsi, who according to the reports, said to have stressed said that there is no point in trying to force Ethiopians, but the best solution would be to engage to Ethiopians.”

Meanwhile, Ethiopia has summoned the Egyptian Ambassador to explain the hostile remarks and the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs says that it is demanding an official explanation.

Three days earlier the report of an independent panel of experts from Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan had concluded that the hydropower dam would not significantly reduce the flow of water reaching Sudan and Egypt, both of which are highly dependent on the Nile waters. Hydropower dams do not consume water – the water merely has to pass through the dam’s turbines and come out the downstream side to produce hydroelectricity.

However, for decades Egypt has spent considerable effort propagating various myths about the Nile, including the myth of Egyptian ownership of the Nile waters based on “international law” and the attendant myth that Egypt would respond militarily against any upstream country that dares to interfere without Egypt’s permission.

Egypt justifies its claims to ownership of the Nile waters by reference to two treaties, neither of which is relevant to Ethiopia (the source of the Nile waters). The first is the 1929 treaty between Britain, which controlled Egypt at the time (and needed Egyptian cotton as raw material for its textile industry), and the British colonial governments in the upper Nile basin colonies of Sudan, Uganda, Kenya and Tanganyika. The 1929 treaty prohibited the upstream British colonies in the Nile Basin from building water infrastructure on the Nile without Egypt’s permission. This, of course, was not relevant to Ethiopia (which was never a British colony); though it was the source of 86 percent of the Nile water reaching Egypt.

The second treaty was a 1959 bilateral agreement between Egypt and Sudan to divide the Nile waters between the two of them at the rate of 75 percent for Egypt and 25 percent for Sudan. Of course they had every right to divide such water as entered their territory, but this could not affect Ethiopia, which was not a party to their bilateral agreement. This agreement was made redundant in 2010 when Ethiopia and the other upstream states signed the Comprehensive Framework Agreement (CFA), aimed at ensuring the equitable access of all Nile basin states to use of the Nile waters.

The Renaissance Dam has been under construction for the past two years in the Blue Nile Gorge near the border with Sudan in an area unsuitable for irrigation projects, as any arable land would be at a much higher altitude than the river. The dam is expected to produce around 6000 megawatts of electricity, making it Africa’s largest hydroelectric power plant.

Egypt claims dependency on the Nile waters as the basis for its development requirements, and the source of 97 percent of its water supply. It proclaims the Nile as a strategic priority and its foreign policy focuses on the need to control the Nile flow and maintain the status quo regarding regional patterns of water distribution. From its strategic perspective Egypt has always been concerned that control of the Nile flow by others could threaten its own security.

But Egypt has consistently tended to over-estimate its own capacities and needs, and to seriously under-rate those of the countries and peoples to the south. Had it been otherwise, it might have made a more rational assessment of the resources and potential of the Nile Basin and its diverse peoples and interests. This might well have led it to understand that its own long-term interests might lie in seeking cooperation and consensus, rather than an ultimately unsustainable focus on hegemony and confrontation. Nevertheless, it opted for hegemony that it lacked the capacity to sustain, and threats of confrontation that could only run counter to its unrecognised, but no less vital, need for upstream cooperation.

For more than three decades Egypt’s political leaders have claimed ‘historic rights’ to control of the Nile waters, punctuated by threats of war against any upstream country that might attempt to build dams or water infrastructure on the river. This became a prominent feature of Egypt’s Nile policy after the construction of the Aswan High Dam by the Soviet Union. The late President Anwar Sadat realigned his country with the West, made peace with Israel and announced that the only thing that could bring Egypt into war again would be if any country threatened Egypt’s control of the Nile waters.

This announcement was aimed less directly at the upper Nile basin states than at the World Bank and other International Financial Institutions (IFIs). Egypt’s peace agreement with Israel opened Cairo’s way to aid agreements with the United States and to Egyptian access to strategic positions in the World Bank and other IFIs which they could influence against lending for water infrastructure in upstream states without the agreement of downstream states.

Until recently, Egypt was able to derive considerable comfort from the knowledge that after decades of unrest, disasters and economic collapse, the upper basin countries had little hope of financing any significant water infrastructure on their own. To build it, they would need loans from the International Financial Institutions (IFIs), which were unlikely to be available without Egypt’s agreement, especially in view of propaganda that such loans might possibly lead to war. Now however, there are many other sources of funding, like China.

The way forward is increasingly clear. There will be no water war in the Nile Basin, because no one can afford it, least of all those who talk most about it. For Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan, rural futures may be limited by constraints of land and water and rapid population increase. All three will need to focus on rapid urbanization to address these constraints, and on industrialization and urban job creation to sustain it. To make this possible, all need to develop their sustainable energy resources, and cooperate to use them as effectively as possible.

Seifulaziz Milas  is author of Sharing the Nile: Egypt, Ethiopia and the Geo-Politics of Water.

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11 thoughts on “Egypt/Ethiopia: There will be no water war in the Nile Basin because no one can afford it – By Seifulaziz Milas

  1. very objective and deeply thought analysis. As Egypt has Aswan High Dam constructed on the Nile for its power source and no country raised a voice, Egypt should not claim exclussive rights on Nile projects. Ethipia’s renaissance dam will help even neighbouring countries to solve energy problems. Moreover, experts have shown that the water volume flowing to Egypt will not be significantly affected.

  2. The Egyptians are acting as if there are no people upstream in the basin at all. Population is increasing also in Uganda/Ethiopia. There are more people living upstream in the basin than downstream. It is good to think wisely basin-wide for the overall integrated development of the basin population at large. While everyone understands that Egypt and Sudan need the water more than any one else, it is also critically important to see that Ethiopia needs to harness its hydroelectric potential and electrify its cities and sell energy and generate power, industrialize and pull millions out of poverty without affecting the downstream countries.

    Many poor farmers in the Ethiopian highlands have never seen electricity while the blue Nile meanders through their neighborhood. They cut the trees and degrade the land further. What is wrong if Ethiopia generate electricity from this resources and electrify those villages and potentially pull millions out of poverty?

    Why are Egyptians acting as if Black africa’s rise is their demise? Is it arrogance towards the black population of Africa? Why? Collaborate, think for every one, black Africa shouldn’t starve while Egypt is stretching the Nile waters to the deserts of Toshka and the Sinai! Invest on more effective irrigation system, augmentation from their immense ground water resources, invest more on research to find cheaper ways of desalination, efficient ways of reuse/recycle etc ..it is good for jobs and will stimulate the economy as well! Instead of looking for optimal solution, their approach is ‘do not touch the Nile, it is our gift!’ really? They destabilize and bleed the horn of africa and make life miserable by funding useless senseless wars and lunatic warlords in the horn of africa!

    Ethiopian population is also funding the dam. I am an Ethiopian student and I am giving 1000 dollars for the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. I am not even buying the bond – I do not expect return from my motherland. If this dam and its associated development can pull millions out of poverty, that is how I pay back to the poor Ethiopian farmers who paid for my education. And for Egypt’s quest who intend to destabilize Ethiopia and the horn via opposition groups, it is a grave mistake!!! I am actually an opponent of the government but I can’t stand against the development of the motherland! Any Ethiopian opposition group prostituting with Egypt now is actually committing suicide!

    On the other hand, richer and stable Ethiopia means more trade and economic integration with Egypt. Everyone benefits! Egypt shouldn’t stand up against Ethiopia’s Renaissance!!!

    And for all those Arab countries who are overly enthusiastic to jump into Egypt’s wagon of arrogance (esp. Saudi Arabia), this is gonna be Arabs vs Black Africa! The whole african basin population is against the unreasonable arrogance of Egypt! Remember the Entebbe Agreement!

    Ethiopia Shall Rise! Africa Shall Rise!

  3. What a balanced and matured post!!! Hope my Egyptian brothers could understand it and revise their outdated water policy in a way of mutual cooperation than otherwise.

  4. There is no winner and loser in the Nile game. The options are two; to win together or to lose together. I hope as a modern society the option is clear. TO WIN TOGETHER!!!!!

  5. There will not be divorce between Ethiopia and Egypt as long as Nile is kept on streaming. Politician who provokes war among nation should have to know that under any hypothesis war can’t be the game changer of the Nile issue because the rule of the game is swim together or sinks together.

  6. Egyptians are fools and and selfish people. How can they expect the people from the upstream countries to swim in poverty when Egyptians are enjoying themselves? Water, like oil, is a natural resource and those countries that do not have it in pleanty but need it must be ready to pay for it because that is the order of the day – I mean every country is selling natural resources that are found within their boundaries. For example the Russians and Arabs are selling their oil expensively to the Ethiopians, Ugandans, Kenyans and the rest of Black Africa. For anybody to expect the Ethiopians to consider the welfare of Egyptians before that of its own people is simply stupid and untenable. The long term solution is for Egypt to enter into purchase agreements with the upstream countries and pay them for the water originating from their boundries or else they should look to the mediteranean sea and desalinate its waters. After all, the sea is much larger than the Nile. As population in the upstream countires continues to increase more pressure will be exerted on the Nile waters and for Egypt to continue to expect the flow of free water from the upstream countries indefinitely is not only arrogant but simply stupid and commiting suicide.

  7. Another reality is, Egypt has no capacity to fight a war with Ethiopia. Ethiopia has fought many wars and has a battle hardened army. Egypt has fought only one war and lost miserably in only six days to Israel! Let it it start a war with Ethiopia and risk making the situation worse because after that, the small goodwill that Ethiopia has towards Egyptians will completely evaporate and Ethiopia will be free to do whatever it wants with the Nile waters.

  8. @Francis Nyanzi

    Sorry, but Egypt has more fighting experience than you think, even if most of their war’s ended in a defeat. In addition to the Six-Day War 1967 you mentioned, there were at least three other wars against Israel (1948, 1956, 1973). Between 1962 and 1967 Egypt fought with more than 50.000 soldiers in Yemen and in 1977 there were some clashes with the Libyan army. Egypt participated with round about 40.000 soldiers in Operation Desert Storm 1990/91 as well.

    Even if I don’t believe that both would risk a full scale war, we should keep in mind that both governments are under domestic pressure. Morsi could use a military operation to represent himself as guardian of the Egyptian people and to gain more support from the streets. Furthermore, a military campaign would keep a large part of the army away from Cairo and Morsi could minimize a military intervention against his government.

  9. @abdul…
    That might be right. but Ethiopians are born with the capability of defending their country. that’s why they never colonized as the Egyptians do for hundreds of years by Romans, Turks and Britain. these countries tried to conquer Ethiopia and failed as history tell us. that is not because these countries gave the freedom to Ethiopia. but rather the Ethiopians kept the freedom at all cost. Egypt is nothing without the united states, which every year grant them billions of dollars in military aid. what the Ethiopians have now is what they make…not given by anyone to be a puppet. anyway, war is not a good option here but Ethiopia has nothing to loose if that comes to play…B.E.L.I.V.E M.E!

  10. simply i want to say this. ” peace never surrendered by war” if we Ethiopians and Egyptians are discussing on the issue based on the real situation of the world, we the people of the two country are doing right. Because, still we the people of the two countries @ large and the government of Ethiopia are not aggravating war, rather we are doing on peace keeping. that is why most of the world people as well as neighboring brother countries advice seriously on the importance of peace and the rule of mutual benefit principle. so we can presume the advantages and the dis advantages of the current situation, if so peace is always peace; but, ware is always distraction. therefore, what will history records is a headache….

  11. It is foolishness or traitor’s thinking in the part of Ethiopian leaders to even consider Egyptians will ever be fine with Ethiopia’s idea of damming the Nile under any circumstances ever. Egypt knows on how spies covered-up as developmental and/or NGO workers can get information which is necessary to choke a country when needed.

    These information Egyptians are going to possess by covering themselves as plain diplomats trying to study the dam’s effect on Egypt’s water flow have a great potential of later on being used to choke the life out of generations of Ethiopians. This crazy move will put Ethiopia in a disadvantage because it gives Egyptian General Intelligence Service ample informations including.

    A. Strategic detailed military intelligence . .

    B. An opportunity to sabotage the under funded dam construction process before it is completed.

    If any country’s intelligence gets enough information on this dam they can bring Ethiopians to their knees unless Ethiopians do what Egypt tells them to do. Now is the time for Ethiopians to be smart and stop thrusting before it is too late.

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