People's Democracy of IndiaIN the first half of June, there has been heated rhetoric emanating from the capitals of north eastern African countries. The reason driving the rhetoric is the construction of a huge dam on the Blue Nile in Ethiopia. The multi-billion Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam when completed is going to be among the biggest in the world, competing with the likes of China’s Three Gorges Dam in size. On June 13, Ethiopia’s parliament unanimously ratified a treaty that would no longer give Egypt the lion’s share of the Nile’s waters. Six Nile basin countries had signed the treaty in 2011. “Most of the upstream countries have approved the treaty through their parliaments. We delayed it as a gesture of goodwill to the people of Egypt until a formally elected government was in place”, Ethiopia’s government spokesman told the media. Eleven countries share the basin of the world’s longest river which flows through East Africa before emptying itself in the Mediterranean in northern Egypt.
Ethiopia’s neighbours like Egypt and Sudan whose economy is crucially dependent on the Nile are not happy with what they perceive as Ethiopia’s unilateral moves. Egyptian civilization and culture itself owes its existence to the free flowing waters of the Nile.
Egypt is of the opinion that Addis Ababa’s decision to operationalise the dam will also be an incentive for countries like Uganda and the newly independent Republic of South Sudan to plan similar dams on the Nile before its waters enter Sudan and Egypt. Three quarters of the Nile’s waters to Egypt comes from Ethiopia which is the source of the Blue Nile. The White Nile flows through Uganda and Sudan. The White Nile and the Blue Nile meet at Khartoum and then flows into the Sea through Cairo. Since the 19th century, Egyptian leaders have worked overtime to ensure that the waters from the Nile flow uninterrupted into the cotton and wheat fields of their country. Egypt had briefly invaded Sudan and Ethiopia in the 19th century in futile bids to get complete control over the Nile.
DISTRIBUTION GOVERNED BY TWO CONVENTIONS
The distribution of the Nile’s waters was until recently governed by two conventions. The first was signed in 1929 between Egypt and Britain. Britain was the colonial power that controlled or had influence over all the states through which the Nile flowed. Under this agreement, Egypt was given veto powers over projects on the Nile in other countries. The second was the 1959 agreement signed with Sudan, Egypt was allotted 55.5 billion cubic meters of water from the Nile with Sudan taking 18.5 billion. Ethiopia was excluded from the agreement. Ethiopia and other upstream countries like Kenya and Tanzania were extremely unhappy with the agreement.
The Aswan Dam along with the system of canals that have been built to harness the Nile water had done wonders for Egyptian economy. Unlike most of its neighbours, the country is entirely dependent on the Nile water. The country only receives scattered rains and has no forests or savannah. Egyptians feel that the supply to the dam will be adversely affected because of the Ethiopian project and will be a body blow to their already beleaguered economy. The new Aswan Dam was financed and built by the Soviet Union after the US had backed out of its commitment due to the politics of the Cold War era.
The Ethiopians too wanted to build a dam on the Nile since the latter half of the last century but their country was ravaged by war and political instability. Besides, no country was willing to finance the construction of a huge dam in a country impoverished by cycles of drought and war. 70 per cent of Ethiopians have no access to electricity. Now things are changing. The Chinese, who have had a history of engagement with the African continent also now, have the wherewithal to finance gargantuan projects. Chinese companies are now involved in a big way in the construction of the Dam in the Ethiopian highlands though the contract for the building of the dam is being handled by an Italian company. The Chinese government has provided a $1 billion loan for the project. The projected cost of the dam is $4.1 billion. Indian, Saudi Arabian and Qatari companies have also invested in the ambitious Ethiopian project.
Once completed, the dam is projected to generate 6000 megawatts, making Ethiopia the biggest producer of electricity on the continent. It will be in a position to export power to its energy starved neighbours including Egypt. The Ethiopian government has been stressing that the water in the dam will only be used to produce electricity and will not be used for irrigation purposes. In the last week of May, the Ethiopian Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn told his Egyptian counterpart that the course of the Nile’s was only being temporarily diverted to facilitate the construction of the dam
Weeks before the military takeover, Egyptian law makers, cutting across party lines, were caught off-guard on television threatening dire consequences for the Ethiopians if the quantum of water for countries downstream is disrupted. They were heard urging the government to use the Egyptian air force and special army units to abort the construction of the dam. The politicians were not aware that their meeting was being broadcast live on television. In the second week of June, the former Egyptian President, Mohammed Morsi in a nationwide address vowed to safeguard the nation’s water security at all costs. “As President of the Republic, I confirm to you that all options are open. If Egypt is the Nile’s gift, then the Nile is a gift to Egypt–if it diminishes by one drop, then our blood is the alternative”, he said.
The Ethiopian foreign ministry spokesman was quick to retort that no threat will stop the ongoing construction of the dam and that his country would not be “intimidated by the psychological threats” from Cairo. The Ethiopian prime minister described the Egyptian threats as “warmongering” meant to distract the Egyptian public from their political and economic problems. The former Ethiopian strongman, Meles Zenawi, had accused Egypt shortly before his death, of assisting rebel groups in destabilising his country.
SCRAMBLE FOR WATER
Many commentators have for long been predicting that the 21st century will soon witness “water wars” as nations scramble to make optimum use of the diminishing commodity to feed their growing populations and keep the economy ticking. However, nobody is predicting a military conflict in the Horn of Africa or other parts of Africa over the issue anytime in the near future, despite the overheated rhetoric. Most observers believe that Egypt is in no position to match its words with deeds. Despite its size and military strength, Egypt has been steadily losing its influence in the region. Ethiopia which also has a big population and a strong army has emerged as the West’s strongest partner in the region.
Egypt’s relations with Sudan have been frosty since the overthrow of the civilian government in the late eighties and the coming to power of a military government in Khartoum that was strongly influenced by Islamist ideology. Relations with Khartoum have considerably improved since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak and the coming to power of a government led by the Muslim Brothers. But the newly established Republic of South Sudan has no love lost for Cairo. Egypt, like many other African countries, was against the break up of Sudan and the creation of a new country. South Sudan is supporting Ethiopia on the Nile waters issue and has also announced that it is also planning to construct dams on the White Nile that flows through its territory. South Sudan has stopped worked on the Jonglei Canal financed by Egypt where 77 per cent of the work has already been completed. The canal if completed would have saved nine billion square meters of Nile water from being wasted.
The construction work on the Great Renaissance Dam started two months after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak. Wikileaks cables have revealed that in 2010, Egyptian officials were dissuaded by the US and Sudanese officials from making plans to bomb the infrastructure being readied for the construction of the dam. Sudan had warned that such a move would be counterproductive and Washington would anyway not have tolerated an attack on its most trusted ally in the Horn of Africa. Geo-political equations have changed along with the realisation that the Nile is no longer exclusive for Egypt and it is an African River whose bountiful resources have to be shared.
The former Egyptian President, Morsi, had said that he “understood” the Ethiopia’s need to harness its water resources. He had called for a “political solution” to the issue while describing Ethiopia as a “friendly state”. The new people in power in Cairo may take a different view. Figures in the Egyptian security set up and the opposition had criticised Morsi for being too soft on the Ethiopian government. The government in Addis Ababa continues to claim that “no appreciable harm” will accrue to downstream states as a result of the dam project. The Egyptian government has concluded that this is not the case and that the construction of the dam will have “negative consequences”. Egyptian experts have calculated that the country will lose around 20 per cent of its Nile water supply for the next three to five years. Cairo is awaiting the report by a Tripartite Nile Basin Committee comprising of Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt, to determine its next course of action.
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