Long years of deadlock and bitter recrimination are now coming to a head as the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam threatens Egypt’s water security.

By Martin Plaut Published 11 June 2013 8:49

A narrow branch of the Nile river in downtown Cairo. Photograph: Getty Images

A narrow branch of the Nile river in downtown Cairo. Photograph: Getty Images

The long-running dispute between Ethiopia and Egypt over the waters of the Nile is coming to a head. The Egyptian Prime Minister has been angrily denounced in parliament for failing to prevent the construction of a giant $4.7bn Ethiopian dam, which is threatening to leave Egypt dangerously short of water. Senior Egyptian politicians were caught on live television plotting the use of military force to halt the project.

Then, on Monday, President Mohammed Morsi told a cheering crowd that “all options are open” in dealing with the crisis.

Declaring that any threat to water security would not be accepted by Egypt, he said: “If it loses one drop, our blood is the alternative.” The president’s promise received a standing ovation.

The conflict over water goes back more than a century. Next to no rain falls on Egypt itself; its 85 million people depend, almost exclusively, on the waters of the Nile. They have relied on the sluggish brown waters of the river for all their needs. This has been guaranteed by a series of colonial treaties. First Italy and then Britain promised Egypt that it would have the vast majority of the Nile water in perpetuity. A 1959 agreement between Egypt and Sudan – following Sudan’s independence in 1956 – allocated 55.5 billion cubic metres of the Nile to Egypt, and 18.5 billion to Sudan; a combined total of 87 per cent of the Nile flow.

This suited the Egyptians, but the treaties offered nothing to the states further upstream. Since 1998 the Nile Basin Initiative has been attempting to bring together the 10 states that border on the Nile to discuss the issue.

But the states – Burundi, D.R. Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda, plus Eritrea as an observer –  have failed to reach a consensus. Its laudable objective; “to achieve sustainable socio-economic development through the equitable utilization of, and benefit from, the common Nile Basin water resources” has been thwarted by Egyptian intransigence.

While Cairo has repeatedly promised co-operation, it has jealously guarded its historic treaties, with their assurances that water will continue to flow southwards. The Nile Basin is home to over 200 million people. This figure is set to double in the next 25 years, greatly increasing the demand for water. But since Egypt depends on the Nile for 98 per cent of its irrigation, it has little option but to fight its corner at almost any cost. The result has been deadlock and bitter recriminations.

The construction of the giant Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam has brought the crisis to a head. This vast project on the Blue Nile, close to the Sudanese border, is designed to produce hydro-electricity to be used inside Ethiopia and exported to its neighbours. But Egypt estimates that even if not a drop is used for irrigation, the dam will mean they will lose as much as 20 per cent of the Nile water during the three to five years needed for Ethiopia to fill a massive planned reservoir.

Egyptian members of parliament have denounced their own government for inaction in the face of this threat. “Egypt will turn to a graveyard” if the dam is completed, geologist and Egyptian MP, Khaled Ouda shouted in parliament. “The prime minister didn’t provide anything.” “We have to stop the construction of this dam first before entering negotiations,” he said.

Egypt’s foreign minister, Mohamed Kamel Amr, who has promised not to give up “a single drop of water from the Nile”, said on Sunday he would go to Addis Ababa to discuss the dam.

Speaking to Egypt’s state news agency, MENA, two days after the Ethiopian government flatly rejected a request from Cairo to halt the project, Kamel Amr said Egyptians viewed any obstacle to the river’s flow as a threat to national survival. “No Nile – no Egypt,” he said.

This is not the first time Egypt has threatened military force to protect its share of the Nile. But in the past it has generally resorted to indirect means. There is a firmly held Ethiopian view that Egypt is behind many of its troubles. When President Nasser excluded Ethiopia from the planning of the Aswan Dam in 1959, the Emperor Haile Selassie negotiated the separation of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church from its opposite number in Alexandria, ending a relationship that had lasted 1,600 years.

Nasser responded by backing the Eritrean revolt against Ethiopian rule and by encouraging Somali Muslims to fight for Ethiopia’s Ogaden region. Eritrea still backs the Egyptian position over the Nile. In April this year a message of support was sent from the Eritrean president and delivered to Egypt’s president by Eritrean Foreign Minister Osman Saleh and Presidential Adviser for Political Affairs, Yemane Gebreab.

Egypt’s problems with the Nile are only likely to intensify. In April 2010, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania signed a new agreement in Entebbe, Uganda, to overturn the colonial-era treaties and replace them with a more reasonable and equitable utilisation of the river. The deal was approved after Burundi signed the agreement and joined the group in March 2011. It is just a matter of time before these countries begin drawing on the Nile waters for their own purposes. The outlook for Egyptians is grim indeed.

Source: New Statesman

Adding from the Guardian:

Ethiopia has refused to halt work on a controversial giant dam across the river Nile that Egypt fears will severely curb its water supply.

The refusal came after the Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, promised to “defend each drop of Nile water with our blood” and other senior Egyptian politicians called for the dam’s destruction.

A spokesman for the Ethiopian prime minister said on Tuesday that Morsi’s speech was irresponsible and that the project would proceed as planned.

“Nothing is going to stop the Renaissance Dam. Not a threat will stop it,” Getachew Reda said via telephone. “None of the concerns the Egyptian politicians are making are supported by science. Some of them border on what I would characterise as fortune-telling.”

Ethiopia hopes its Grand Renaissance dam – which will cost more than $4.3bn (£2.8bn) – will form Africa‘s largest hydropower plant. But Egyptian authorities have contested its construction after water experts claimed it would drastically lower the level of the Nile, which supplies almost all of Egypt’s water, and could reduce cultivated farmland by up to 25%.

In a speech to Islamist supporters on Monday night, Morsi called the Nile “God’s gift to Egypt”, and ambiguously veered between calls for peaceful dialogue, and veiled military threats. He said that while Egypt did “not want war … we do not accept threats to our security”, and claimed that all possible responses to the dam remained open to Egypt – a line that has been interpreted as a threat of force.

Last week, other senior Egyptian politicians were filmed discussing aggressive measures against their upstream neighbours – apparently unaware that their discussion was being broadcast live. Younis Makhyoun, the leader of Egypt’s second largest political grouping, the ultraconservative Nour party, suggested to Morsi in a televised meeting that as a last resort Egyptian intelligence forces could destroy the dam. In response to the embarrassing gaffe, Ethiopia summoned the Egyptian ambassador in Addis Ababa to explain Egypt’s stance.

Morsi’s own aggressive speech is aimed at a domestic audience as much as a foreign one, as he seeks to regain support ahead of anticipated large protests against his presidency on 30 June. However insincere his military threats may be, they are nevertheless rooted in very real and widely held Egyptian fears about the dam’s effect.

Dr Bahaa Alkoussey, the former chairman of Egypt’s National Water Research Centre, and a one-time senior official in the ministry of water resources and irrigation, claimed the Ethiopian plans copuld reduce waterflow to Egypt by more than 10bn kilolitres.

“Then you might cross the Nile on the back of a camel,” he said. “It’s not a joke. This is a serious matter. The Egyptians already have a deficit in their water supply of about 10bn kilolitres. If you add just 1 kilolitre to that, it will be a disaster. Now it’s already a problem. If you add more reductions, then you’ll have a catastrophe.”

Alkoussey claimed the dam would make it harder for ferries to travel up the Nile, and would cause more pollution, harming fish farms.

Most seriously, Alkoussey claimed the dam would devastate the farming community. “Every 1bn kilolitre reduction in natural flow to Egypt will cause 200,000 feddans [207,600 acres] of land to go out of production, and 500,000 farmers to be out of work – which will affect 2.5 million families,” he said.

Supporters of the dam have argued that Egypt could solve the crisis by using its water more efficiently. But Hani Raslan, an expert on water politics at Cairo’s government-affiliated Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, argued Egypt recycled much of its water. “Egypt is one of the most efficient countries with water consumption,” he said. “Our supplies are 55bn cubic meters but we consume 70bn, which means we’re recycling 15bn cubic meters.”

Ethiopia disputes the Egyptian experts’ conclusions, claiming the dam has been largely exonerated by a recently completed, but as yet unreleased report written jointly by scientists from Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan.

“Of course we are going to go ahead with the project, because we believe we are justified,” Reda said. “Why would a self-respecting government spend $4.5bn simply to spite Egypt? It’s beyond reason and it’s beyond science. None of the concerns of the Egyptians [are] really something you can remotely associate yourself with.”

Additional reporting by Mowaffaq Safadi