The hushed dispute over Nile waters
The Arab Spring is rearranging the political landscape of the Middle East, and many have been wondering whether the Muslim Brotherhood’s takeover in Cairo would mark the end of the 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. But one Israeli official recently suggested to The Christian Edition that Egypt’s attention may soon be drawn in another direction – to the south and the headwaters of the mighty Nile River, where a pair of dams are being built that could diminish the supply of Nile waters so critical to sustaining Egypt’s mushrooming population.
In the desert regions of the Middle East, battles over water are not a new phenomenon, as the Bible records struggles over wells all the way back in the book of Genesis. But Egypt’s limited water resources and its swelling population over recent decades, now topping 80 million, have left it notoriously on the brink of a Malthusian nightmare.
This predicament has not been lost on Egyptian leaders. When President Anwar Sadat signed the peace treaty with Israel in 1979, he assured that, “Egypt will never go to war again, except to protect its water resources.” Egyptian diplomat Boutros Boutros Ghali, who rose to become Secretary General of the United Nations, also famously predicted that the next major war in the region would be over water.
Yet little attention has been paid to recent reports and rumors, some traced to Wilileaks, which claim that Egyptian authorities have threatened Ethiopia and Uganda over their plans to build dams on their respective tributaries of the Nile.
The Nile is considered the world’s longest river and draws its waters from two main sources, the Blue Nile and the White Nile. The latter tributary originates in Rwanda and Burundi, and then flows north through Tanzania, Lake Victoria, Uganda and South Sudan. The Blue Nile begins at Lake Tana in Ethiopia and meanders northwest into Sudan, joining up with the White Nile at Khartoum and surging northward as one into Egypt before emptying into the Mediterranean Sea.
Egypt has historically asserted a natural right to the Nile waters, and its riparian claims were eventually enshrined in a series of agreements orchestrated by Great Britain during the colonial era, when it had military control over much of east Africa. However, these Nile accords, which gave Egypt control of 90 percent of the Nile waters and a stake in any dams built all along the river, were never ratified by several upstream African countries, including Ethiopia, where the Blue Nile rises and supplies 80 percent of the Nile’s volume.
These colonial-era treaties were renegotiated when the nations of the region gained their independence, but Egypt still enjoyed too much leverage, especially after threatening war on Ethiopia, Tanzania and other states to maintain its dominance over the Nile waters.
The late Ethiopian prime minister, Meles Zenawi, who passed away last August, had expressed dissatisfaction for years with the colonialist agreements which granted his nation control over only three percent of the Blue Nile. So he decided to construct a dam on the river to boost development in his country, a project known as the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
The Italian company Salini began work on the Renaissance Dam in April 2011, while Egypt was preoccupied with its internal revolution sparked by the Arab Spring. The dam is going up only 25 miles from its border with Sudan and will power the largest hydro-electric generator plant in Africa.
The project promises to transform Ethiopia, allowing it to finally feed its people. This, after all, is the country where droughts and famines claimed more than one million lives from 1983-85, prompting massive famine relief efforts and the pop-driven “We are the World” video. Yet few realized in those days that the water resources which could have prevented all that suffering and starvation in parched areas of Ethiopia were located right there in Lake Tana and the Blue Nile – if only Ethiopia could have been free to use it.
In a recent interview with The Christian Edition, Ethiopia’s minister for federal affairs, Dr. Shiferaw Teklemariam, proudly defended the dam project and lauded the contributions it can make to all of East Africa when finished.
“We started to build the Renaissance Dam about a year ago, and we feel that we are in an era of agricultural growth and soon even industrial development,” he said. “Power is the major triggering factor for any industrialization project, be it manufacturing, agricultural and so forth.”
Teklemariam explained that the Renaissance Dam is being constructed to address the root problems of poverty and under-development.
“We are engaged in a number of power projects, and the Ethiopian Renaissance is one of them, a dam that will contribute some 6000 Megawatts on its own. But we have to remember that the very intention of this mega-dam is not only to contribute to Ethiopia and its people, but it is also meant to contribute to our neighboring countries, be it Sudan, Egypt or Kenya,” he stated.
“This means that not only Ethiopia, but also our neighbors will be able to gain advantage from the dam in the form of power sharing or power contribution from one another. It’s hence a project that ties together the neighboring countries and benefits all people in multiple countries.”
As the dam has been going up, Egyptian engineers and experts have been trying to assess how the dam will affect their country. The initial reactions were troubling.
According to a report released by Wikileaks, dating to the time when President Hosni Mubarak was still in power, military strategies aimed at sabotaging the dam were discussed with Sudan. One leaked document read as follows:
“If it comes to a crisis, we will send a jet to bomb the dam and come back in one day, simple as that. Or we can send our special forces in to sabotage the dam. But we aren’t going for the military option now. This is just contingency planning. Look back to a cooperation Egypt did in the mid-late 1970’s, I think 1976, when Ethiopia was trying to build a large dam. We blew up the equipment while it was traveling by sea to Ethiopia.”
The same source further claimed that Egypt had received a green light to build an airbase in Sudan, to be used as a base to launch attacks against the Ethiopian dam.
When asked about the reports, Teklemariam said he was familiar with the claims but did not believe they were accurate.
“For me it is a fabrication that Egypt would attack the dam, a fabrication created by some people who do not want to see the people-to-people or government-to-government collaboration between the people of Ethiopia and Egypt. These are fictions which just create their own mindset here and there,” he said.
Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy also recently told an Egyptian paper that the leaks were “designed to disturb Egyptian-Ethiopian relations.”
Teklemariam insisted the dam will bring cooperation rather than conflict.
“The Renaissance Dam has nothing to do with Egypt loosing anything. In fact it is rather the opposite, as it will benefit Egypt. It controls the flooding, it maintains the natural sustained flow of water in both Sudan and Egypt, and so in the end they will actually benefit more from this dam,” he assured.
“During the rainy season the flooding is a real challenge. During the drought season, the shortage of water is another challenge. So the building of the Renaissance Dam itself is going to resolve those real problems that Sudan as well as Egypt are facing. So there is nothing strange that will bring people into conflict. It’s a common project for a common benefit.”
Teklemariam was not only optimistic about collaboration with Egypt, Sudan and other neighboring countries, he was in Tel Aviv at a conference last month to explore ways to cooperate with Israel about development in Ethiopia. After all, Israel is a world leader in the fields of desalination, drip irrigation, wastewater management and other water conservation techniques.
Meantime, Teklemariam remains confident Ethiopia’s new dam will bring peace and prosperity, not war and destruction.
“The Renaissance Dam is a well-studied, well-explored and a well-investigated dam. Ethiopia has no intention to build a dam that will hurt someone else somewhere else,” he said. “I believe that the Renaissance Dam is opening a new chapter of collaboration and joint development as well as a new chapter of one supporting the other; a new chapter not to see each other as enemies but as friends, as sisters and brothers. And that is where we are today.”