After he signed the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in 1979, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat said: “The only matter that could take Egypt to war again is water.” Well, the world kept turning, and now a potential war over water is creeping onto Egypt’s agenda.
Egypt is the economic and cultural superpower of the Arab world. Its 78 million people account for almost a third of the world’s Arabic-speaking population. But 99 percent of it is open desert, and if it were not for the Nile River running through that desert, Egypt’s population would not be any bigger than Libya’s (5 million). So Cairo takes a dim view of anything that might diminish the flow of that river.
Back in 1929, when the British Empire controlled Egypt, Sudan, and most of the countries farther upstream in East Africa, it sponsored an agreement giving Cairo the right to veto any developments upstream that would decrease the amount of water in the Nile. The rationale at the time was that the upstream countries had ample rainfall, whereas Egypt and Sudan (at the time ruled as one country) depended totally on the Nile’s waters.
Thirty years later, in 1959, when Egypt and Sudan were already independent but all of the upstream states except Ethiopia were still colonies, Egypt and Sudan signed another agreement that left only 10 percent of the Nile’s water to the seven upstream countries while giving Egypt almost 80 percent and Sudan the rest. The argument was still the same: the countries further upstream had rainfall, while it hardly ever rains in Egypt or Sudan.
Now the upstream countries that got almost no water in that deal are rejecting it. Thirteen years ago, they persuaded Egypt and Sudan to start talks on the river, but they have now concluded that the two Arab countries really only joined the talks to prevent any new deal. So they are now going ahead without them.
Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Ethiopia signed an agreement on May 14 to seek more water from the Nile. Kenya signed last week, and the Congo and Burundi are expected to do so soon. Kenya’s minister of water resources, Charity Ngilu, described the 1929 treaty as “obsolete and timeworn” and said that Egypt and Sudan had “no choice” but to negotiate a reallocation of the Nile’s waters.
The Egyptian government replied that the new agreement “is in no way binding on Egypt from a legal perspective” and that “Egypt will not join or sign any agreement that affects its share.” It’s an understandable perspective, since Cairo must figure out how to feed not 78 million but 95 million Egyptians in only 15 years’ time.
But it is a perspective that gets little sympathy in Addis Ababa, which must feed 91 million Ethiopians now but will have to find food for 140 million 15 years from now. All the countries in East Africa and the Horn of Africa have far higher population-growth rates than Egypt, and they are getting worried about how to feed their people. So they want to use some of the Nile’s water for irrigation projects for their own.
Ethiopia, whose rivers provide 85 percent of the water that eventually reaches Egypt, is especially militant. As Ethiopian president Meles Zenawi said earlier this year: “The current regime cannot be sustained. It’s being sustained because of the diplomatic clout of Egypt. There will come a time when the people of East Africa and Ethiopia will become too desperate to care about these diplomatic niceties. Then, they are going to act.”
Predictions of “water wars” are commonplace, and yet they hardly ever happen: it’s almost always cheaper to cut a deal and share the water. But the Nile basin contains 400 million people today, and Egypt and Sudan, with only 120 million people, are using almost all of its water.
In 15 years’ time, there will be almost 800 million people in the Nile basin, and only 150 million of them will be Egyptians and Sudanese. It is very hard to believe that the latter two countries will still be able to keep 90 percent of the river’s water for their own use. On the other hand, how do they survive without it?
In the past, Egypt has safeguarded its share by threats of military action. Since it was in an entirely different military league from the countries to the south, those threats had some substance. But now the military disparities are less impressive, and Egypt’s options have narrowed dramatically.
As Zenawi said recently: “I think it is an open secret that the Egyptians have troops that are specialized in jungle warfare. Egypt is not known for its jungles. So if these troops are trained in jungle warfare, they are probably trained to fight in the jungles of the East African countries.
“From time to time, Egyptian presidents have threatened countries with military action if they move. While I cannot completely discount the sabre-rattling, I do not think it is a feasible option. If Egypt were to plan to stop Ethiopia from utilizing the Nile waters, it would have to occupy Ethiopia, and no country on Earth has done that in the past.”
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.