Damning the dam: Egypt opens floodgates against Ethiopia

Youssef Khazem
Youssef Khazem - Special to Al Arabiya
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The announcement by Egyptian President Mohammed Mursi this week that “all options are open” to deal with the perceived Ethiopian threat to his country’s water supply raises questions about the Nile Basin and the deep and protracted water war. The opening of the Egyptian damning floodgates in response to Ethiopia’s recent diversion of the Blue Nile course, amid works to construct a hydroelectric dam, was surprising in its intensity and due to the conflicting tones that contrasted sharply with Sudan’s mild response to the Ethiopian action. So why is Egypt hanging Ethiopia out to dry over its Renaissance Dam plans and are the gathering political clouds all about ensuring water security in the land of the Nile Delta?

Without doubt, the Nile has historically played a vital role in the life of Egyptians and has been a top priority and “red line” for Egyptian officials since the days of the Pharaohs. In more recent times, the legal agreements governing the distribution of the Nile waters were all signed between the colonial powers in Africa from 1891 until the Second World War. In 1929, Egypt signed, with Colonial Britain (representing Equatorial countries), an agreement which admits Egypt’s historical rights regarding the Nile and prohibits the building of dams, irrigation projects and other measures on the river, its tributaries or lakes without prior agreement with Egypt. Britain, needing a guaranteed source of cotton for its textile mills in Lancashire and Manchester, gave Egypt the lion’s share in the Nile waters to irrigate its cotton crops. Many countries, including Sudan, Tanzania and Ethiopia, declared that they would not abide by these historical agreements signed under colonial rule and asked to renegotiate their share of the Nile water. This is not surprising given that although Ethiopia contributes 85% of the waters arriving at the Aswan Dam in Egypt and Uganda contributes the remaining 15%, Egypt and Sudan receive 90% of the total share of Nile waters, while the rest of the Nile basin countries receive one tenth of the total water share.

In the last six decades, Ethiopia and Egypt clashed repeatedly over the Nile with Addis Ababa declaring its plans to build water projects on the Blue Nile as early as 1956. In 1976, Egyptian President Sadat warned the Ethiopian military ruler, Mengistu Haile Mariam, that Egypt would wage a war if anyone tries to threaten its water supplies. In 1997, Ethiopia warned Egypt against its controversial plans to divert Nile water to the Peace Canal in the Sinai Desert and the Toshka project in the Western Desert. Ethiopian Prime Minister Zenawi declared at the time that it was unacceptable to divert waters outside the traditional Nile Valley. In an interview published in Al-Hayat Daily on April 7, 1998, Zenawi told me that “Egypt behaves that the Nile is its own, creates de facto situations on the ground which make it impossible for other countries to benefit from the river and has never consulted with other countries in the Nile Basin ahead of building the Toshka and Peace Canal projects.” In return, Egypt also warned Ethiopia over its plans to build the Renaissance Dam in the 1990s.

Without doubt, the Nile has historically played a vital role in the life of Egyptians and has been a top priority and “red line” for Egyptian officials since the days of the Pharaohs

Youssef Khazem

The recent tensions between Cairo and Addis Ababa over the Nile developed after Ethiopia started diverting the Blue Nile on May 28, 2013 to coincide with its commemoration of the 22nd anniversary of the deposition of Mengistu’s rule. The river diversion is essential to the works needed for building the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a $4.7bn project that Ethiopia says will eventually provide 6,000 megawatts of power, and is regarded by officials as the fruit of the country’s victory over its former rulers. The Chief Executive Officer of the country’s electricity company, Mihret Debebe, also claimed that the dam is vital for Ethiopia’s development and the diversion is necessary because the dam is being built in the middle of the river but once finished it will then be able to follow its natural course. The dam is also seen as a political stabilizer, the great draughts and economic strife witnessed in Ethiopia in 1972 and 1984-1985 accelerated the consequent fall of Emperor Haile Selassi and General Mengistu respectively.

Admittedly, Egyptian officials were taken by surprise when Ethiopia began the diversion works last month because Cairo was awaiting the findings of an international panel of experts on the impact of the Ethiopian dam on the river flow. That panel announced its findings on May 30th and consequently, Sudan said it is not worried by the effects of the dam, and even hinted that it may benefit the Sudanese people. Egypt’s minister of Water Resources and Irrigation, Mohamed Bahaa el-Din, also said Cairo was not opposed to Ethiopia’s development projects as long as they did not harm downstream countries. Moreover, Water experts felt the effect of the dam will be minimal in terms of reducing Egypt’s water share and that only limited impact will be felt in the three years needed to fill the dam.

Infographic: Water politics in the Nile Basin (Design by Farwa Rizwan / Al Arabiya English)
Infographic: Water politics in the Nile Basin (Design by Farwa Rizwan / Al Arabiya English)

Opening the floodgates

So why is Egyptian President Mursi opening the rhetoric floodgates against Ethiopia now? On Monday, Dr. Mursi said in a televised speech he was not “calling for war,” but that “Egypt’s water security cannot be violated at all.” He added “If Egypt is the Nile’s gift, then the Nile is a gift to Egypt. The lives of the Egyptians are connected around it... as one great people. If it diminishes by one drop then our blood is the alternative.”

It is highly likely that Mursi’s emotive speech is not about the Nile or the diversion of its waters but rather a political diversion from the internal crisis facing Egypt since he took office. President Mursi may talk tough to distract attention from severe domestic political and economic challenges in his country but Egypt needs to realize that it cannot take the gift of the Nile for granted anymore. As late Prime Minister Zenawi told me: “The Nile does not belong to Egypt or Sudan or Ethiopia, it is for all of the Nile Basin countries to share and we need to cooperate through dialogue for the benefit of all.” Climate change, rising populations, development needs, desertification and rising sea waters threatening the Delta region are challenges for the whole of the Nile Basin countries and calm waters rather than muddied ones are what Egyptians need right now.


Youssef is a British Lebanese independent media consultant and trainer. He has worked at over a dozen newspapers and media organisations in the UK, the Arab world and Africa, and has 30 years of experience as an internationally renowned journalist in the field, especially as an Africa expert who covered wars, conflicts and famine for 16 years.

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