Ethiopia: Likely war over the Blue Nile River?
The Nile water is the sole lifeline for Egypt to which the Blue Nile River contributes 85%. The Blue Nile River is a vital indispensable resource of Ethiopia for irrigation farming in view of her increasing population, source of hydraulic power, and a deterrent weapon of last resort for self-defense. The two countries are naturally bound by the Blue Nile on which they are dependent for survival. This is a top priority agenda like no others for both Ethiopia and Egypt to take extreme care in order to stop radicals on both sides bent on souring relations.
The writing of this piece is prompted by the uncertainty in the fate of multi-party democracy in Egypt and the intransigence of the TPLF-controlled EPRDF government to make an all-inclusive change conducive to robust internal harmony and unity to respond to any external threat to national interests. The matter is so serious that I gave it a rather scary title after a lot of soul-searching, but the arrogant stance of prominent Egyptian leaders begged for it as mentioned in the paragraph below – notwithstanding my long held dream that democratic Ethiopia and Egypt will one day emerge as powerful allies working together as keepers of stability and engines of economic growth in the region and beyond in the African continent.
But the new Egyptian regime appears to have dimmed any hope of engendering a secular democratic state given that liberal democratic political forces that have spearheaded the Egyptian revolution have withdrawn from drafting the constitution. It seems the government is bent on following in the footsteps of its predecessors. For example: in 1970, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat threatened war with Ethiopia over the proposed construction of a dam on LakeTana on the Blue Nile (El-Khodary, 1995: 1); the Egyptian former Secretary General of the United Nations, Boutros-Ghali, is reported to have talked of war over the Nile waters (Butts, 1997: 1); in October 1991, the Defense Minister of Egypt “remarked in al Ahram that his country would not hesitate to use force to defend its control of the Nile River, and predicted that future Middle East wars could result from water scarcity issues (Postel, 1992: 4) adding “I do not actually expect an impending control of the Nile River by a foreign country, but we consider it a possibility and are planning our military strategy accordingly” (Postel, 1992: 5).It is to be recalled that the Minister, Field Mohamed Hussein Tantawi Soliman, took over power from President Mubarak relinquishing it later to President Mohamed Morsi of the Moslem Brotherhood Party (FJP). My emphasis
This recent setback for democracy in Egypt has considerably curbed my earlier hope that democratic Egypt and Ethiopia will play key roles in stabilizing the region and promoting development thus becoming formidable political forces to contend with; will be partners in the development of the Nile Basin – a key factor of regional policy to avoid war.
There is nothing more serious than asserting Ethiopia’s right to control the source of the Blue Nile, but this requires the unity of her citizens and competent leadership with Ethiopia’s interest at heart. But the EPRDF as it now stands is so weakened by internal wrangles of its own creation rendering it unable to defend vital national interests in the face of endless threat by Egypt to control the Blue Nile River.
Diminishing per capita quota of Nile water
The table below provides a frightening data of rapidly diminishing quota per capita of water available to riparian states for the period 1995 to 2025 vindicating the predicted fear that future wars would be over water more than anything else. Note that Ethiopia would incur a loss of 1365 cubic meters by 2025 remaining with only 842 cubic meters per capita quota in almost 12 years from now.
Population 1995 (millions)
Population 2025 (millions)
GNP per capita 1996 (US $)
Population below the poverty line (1US$/day) (PPP) (%)
Per capita water availability 1990 (m³)
Per capita water availability 2025 (m³)
Suggestion to split riparian states in two groups
There are ten (10) riparian states entitled to the utilization of the Nile water of which Ethiopia is the source for 85% of it. With Egypt at the receiving end, Sudan in the middle and Ethiopia as the source, the relationship among these three countries is of paramount importance to the rational development of the Blue Nile Basin for the proportionate benefit of all parties.
It is interesting to note that the seven riparian states in the Great Lake Region are a cohesive group in the East African community with only Uganda having dams built or planned project on the White Nile River. This is unlike the other three lacking the knack for political cooperation due to their history of conflicts for centuries; the two of them are members of the Arab League traditionally inimical to vital strategic interests of Ethiopia.
The Nile water should therefore be resolved in two parts comprising White Nile riparian states on the one hand and those of the Blue Nile on the other so that issues unique to each can be much less cumbersome to handle and more effective to define and resolve to the satisfaction of parties to the issue. The approach in handling the matter at the two distinct regional blocs is further justified by the fact that the need for the Nile water greatly varies among the ten riparian states. But cooperation is encouraged under the umbrella of all riparian states of the Nile and African Union where the interests of the two blocs converge.
It can be argued that Ethiopia as provider of the lion’s portion is entitled to have veto power in any bilateral agreement with Sudan involving the sharing, conservation and development of the Blue Nile water; similarly, Sudan should have a veto power over its agreement with Egypt. However it would be best if the three enter into a viable single agreement and forge a regional community emulating the countries of the Great Lake Region. This is in line with my recommendation made three decades ago in a friendly discussion with Egyptian experts at the reception held at their Embassy in Addis Ababa. It was appreciated that: cooperation would open the door for regional economic block involving Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia; the trio would become a powerful block in bolstering and expediting the African Union to realize continental integration; the saving of resources from such arrangement would be enormous.
The Blue Nile River is a natural bond of indispensable significance to Egypt and Sudan. Ibrahim Nasreddin of Cairo University’s Institute for African Studies said that “a 20-year-old feasibility study, a cooperative venture between some of the Nile’s source countries and donor states, to build 50 dams on the River Nile over 50 years has not seen any headway due to the high cost of these dams”. He added that “the projects would cost in excess of $40 billion. According to Nasredin, “none of the African states can afford this. They won’t be able to repay loans of such an amount.” Source: Article by Reem Leila, Al-Ahram Weekly January 5, 2011.
Incidentally, the Imperial regime had participated in the abovementioned study, which I had the opportunity to see several volumes shelved in the study room of the Monarch at His Bahr Dar Palace. I was reverently surprised by His interest to read about the study of the dam projects.
Water expert Diaa El-Qousi stresses that “Egypt’s cooperation with other Nile Basin countries is based on a sense of neighborhood and an understanding of mutual interests and is likely to be an ongoing process that will encompass educational, irrigation, electricity, agriculture and industry-based projects. He goes on to state that “Egypt’s immediate focus will be on issues deriving from the ecology of the Nile Basin and on prospects for economic integration among the riparian countries that provide Nile water in a way that will ensure the maximum utilization of resources. Egypt is taking steps towards implementing joint projects with Nile Basin countries and is seeking agreement on future plans. Within this context, economic and trade relations between Egypt and Ethiopia are developing rapidly. The volume of Egyptian investments in Ethiopia is expected to increase to more than $1.1 billion.”
I was upbeat about the Egyptian uprising as written in some of my articles. However with the reported stance of President Morsi behaving like ‘the new Pharaoh’, entirely exclusive of secular liberal political parties that spearheaded the uprising, I should confess that my enthusiasm is considerably subdued. So should the optimism of Nasredin and Diaa El-Qousi, I would think. Egypt should propose scaling down of the DAM instead of pushing to scrape it altogether taking advantage of the weakness of the EPRDF at this time.
The Renaissance Dam
At all times and at this time of uncertainty in regional politics particularly I reiterate my stand that robust defense force and internal harmony are quintessential to preserve and protect national values; however the repressive government in power must change its ethnic-based policy and open the political space for very serious consultations with all political opposition parties, civic organizations, and above all the Ethiopian people as the ultimate and supreme source of power and owners of the country’s resources. I would like to underline that it would be foolhardy to construct the so-called “Renaissance Dam” at a location within artillery range from Sudan – a situation that will require missile defense against in-coming Egyptian air strike. My hunch is however that Egypt will send a commando force at some critical stage to destroy the Dam, which action would inflame political turmoil in Ethiopia and entail hefty loss of capital expenditure – a highly probable grave scenario indeed.
My suggestion is therefore to scale down the size of the Dam at its present location considerably and build as many other dams as required in the Amhara, Oromia and Gambella regions on rivers tributaries of the Blue Nile.
It is irresponsible to weaken internal harmony and strength by pursuing the familiar cheap politics of divide-and-rule along religious and ethnic lines thereby playing into the hands of hawkish Egyptian leaders to exploit any weak point in our midst to destabilize us. Therefore EPRDF government should release all political prisoners, preserve the unity of the 1682-yeay-old Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church, and acquiesce to all constitutional demands of the Ethiopian Muslims so that unity and strength is achieved to effectively defend national interest.
The riparian states of the Nile should be split into two blocs, namely, Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt on the one hand and the rest on the other. Ethiopia is legitimately the one to control the Blue Nile River in her territory and use it as a deterrent weapon of last resort in self-defense. To that effect, there has to be unity, internal peace and strength.
LONG LIVE ETHIOPIA!!!