Gwynne Dyer: Is a water war on the horizon over the Nile River?

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      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.



      Tarik taye

      May 24, 2010 at 7:44pm

      In most cases I'm against zenawi, the dictator, but when it comes to national soverngity and an attack by Egypt to Ethiopia, I fully support zenawi and what he said is right. No country on earth has occupied Ethiopia in the past, and I don't think Egypt will dare to do it.


      May 24, 2010 at 8:12pm

      The geo-political setups have been changed for good in the world in this 21st century, and East Africa is no exception. So, Egyptians should be smart enough to negotiate and cut a decent deal with the rest of the countries.
      P.S. I really like the last paragraph; though it looks sarcastic, it is sensible!!


      May 24, 2010 at 8:35pm

      I wish journalists would write with a resolution driven tone rather than war. I have read much on Nile/Abbai all are the same articles.

      The issue of water deals with the same issues as the economic collapse in the world today. It has its essence rooted in "Greed" and "Selfish" attitude which the world needs to wake up to and chage direction to a more "Human" and "Sharing" mode.

      Both sides have legitimate reasons to worry feeding people and so they have common issues and need to come up with a resolution. In order to succeed they must have the right intentions, which is hard to come by as Egypt is trying to out-smart all 8 countries. Good luck.

      Hassan Sherif

      May 24, 2010 at 9:10pm

      I think Egypt has to put the Aswan dam out of commission and obtain its electricity from Ethiopia through grid connection. Egypt also has to close down all those mega agricultural projects and move them down to Ethiopia. In general, Egypt has to face the reality that it can no longer sustain its existance with the borrowed time and with somebody else's water resources. Eventually, Egypt must explore other options for its long term solution, such as building a desalination plant on Red Sea. Population growth control should also be exercised by Egyptian government. It is unimaginable to have 80 million people living in a country with majortiy of its land desert and with zero rainfall.


      May 24, 2010 at 10:22pm

      The time for Egypt to face reality is at hand. No Ethiopian should sit back and watch as our fertile land withers, as our farmers are decimated and as our nation crumbles, all the while the desert land proposes to grow mangos in the desert. We do not want war, but we will give it to them if they want. Egypt, the land that can never defend itself, the land that could not resist Europeans, the land that could not defeat Israel, will be no match of the mighty Ethiopians!

      Anwar Sadat

      May 24, 2010 at 11:18pm

      Baloney !
      As for Ethiopia not being colonized, that depends on self serving definition. The apartheid Woyane regime in Ethiopia with embedded Europeans in its institutions to run the country's affairs, with foreign governments calling the shots, with British, American and French personnel embedded in the mercenary Woyane regime as advisors, and thousands of their NGOs and affiliates permanently established and operating all over Ethiopia, enriching themselves off the "aid" flowing into Ethiopia, is in fact, a de facto colonized state. The only difference is that, as opposed to other African countries that were under one or two colonial powers, its colonizers are many !!

      If Ethiopia was never colonized or occupied, why are most of the streets and neighborhoods in its capital have Italian names? It is common knowledge that Italy under Mussolini had invaded and occupied Ethiopia for 5 whole years.


      May 24, 2010 at 11:28pm

      yes MELES.We ethiopians r on your side.things never happened befor will not happen in the new generation of ethiopia .what ever comes we will face it.its our water given to us from GOD.ltes use our water.


      May 25, 2010 at 12:33am

      It is very well known Egypt made that Ethiopia would divert both its efforts and its resources into civil war (Eritrean). By providing the necessary military, ideological,
      Political and diplomatic support for the insurrection, Egypt successfully destabilized
      Ethiopia. As a result of the insurrection, which lasted many years, thousands of people were killed, thousands were uprooted and displaced, and millions of dollars worth of property was destroyed. These Egypt bloody strategies are observed in some borders of Ethiopia still. From my point view, Egypt should work in collaboration with Ethiopian.. I am fully supporting Ethiopia government policy regarding to Blue Nile /Abily. It is national sovereignty. Off course, in most cases I'm against. However, it is time to go a head one step forward. I like the last paragraph. We know Ethiopia is a poor !?? But if we use our potential resources properly (land , so many rivers ...... ), we will eradicate poverty very soon .
      let us work together for the benefit of all peoples ....otherwise ....they will die in their desert land with out a drop of water.


      May 25, 2010 at 1:01am

      There had been a number of factors that softened upper riparian states’ claim for fair and equitable use of the Nile, in the past. Now, these states began to challenge the status quo, which favors Egypt. But, it seems that Egypt is still reluctant to sign a new Nile water agreement and still upholds its rigid claim of “natural” and “historical” rights over the Nile. I think, hereafter, the Egyptian gov’t should settle the Nile issue through a new approach based on far-sightedness and cooperation.

      Tariku Morgan

      May 25, 2010 at 1:23am

      While almost everybody agrees that Egypt probably needs Nile more than anyone else, the way they approached the issue since olden days is misguided. They can make a case for themselves by requesting higher share. However, their insistence on Veto power and monopoly touches the question of sovereignty. The one thing the nile basin countries should not even be willing to discuss should be the Veto nonsense. No one has any right to dictate on the resources of others. Period. That attitude infuriates me. Other than that, the nile basin countries should be flexible in considering Egypt's unique circumstance. As for Egypt attacking with military force, I am not losing any sleep over it. Only a handful of countries in the world have a capablity to wage a sustained long range military campaign. Using its old US donated B52's, Egypt might throw a few bombs here and there. But it will backfire on themselves, and they will lose any goodwill regarding the river forever. African nations also should seriously consider aquiring auch military gear, at least equivalent bombers from eastern block as a detterence, or if push comes to shove, to strike back.