AFRICANGLOBE – In the coming years, Egypt and Ethiopia may be forced to fight a “water war” because Ethiopia’s ambitions contradict Egypt’s “historical and legal rights” in the Nile waters. Ethiopia can only be deterred by the regional and international balance of powers, which in recent years has favored Ethiopia.
For any Egyptian government, Egypt’s water share and securing the Nile’s headwaters are the top national security priorities, irrespective of the Egyptian government’s ideology or domestic policies. This fact is dictated by geography. For thousands of years, Egyptian rulers have been aware how important water is for Egypt. Water is the lifeline of Egypt (97.5% of Egypt is barren desert). Egyptian rulers have always used any means to defend their country’s historic rights to the Nile waters.
As Greek historian Herodotus said, “Egypt is the gift of the Nile.” Egyptian civilization, which is one of history’s greatest civilizations, depends on the Nile. To illustrate the Nile’s importance, we should remember that Egypt is the largest desert oasis in the world. Life in Egypt is concentrated on the river banks where 90 million people live. In short, any Egyptian government should have one eye on the Horn of Africa — on Ethiopia, where the source of the Nile lies — and another eye on the Sinai Peninsula and the Levant, and the balance of power there. History has shown that most of Egypt’s invaders entered through that door.
Egypt’s sentries against the country’s internal and external foes have been sleeping on the job. Their first eye failed to notice the developments at the Blue Nile’s source in Ethiopia (the Blue Nile constitutes 86% and the White Nile 14% of the Nile water volume. The two tributaries meet in Sudan before flowing to Egypt). Their second eye had lost the ability to distinguish friend from foe. Now, with the worsening economic crisis and the political deterioration between the ruling Muslim Brotherhood and the opposition, the balance of power is more and more tilting toward Ethiopia, which may unilaterally increase its water usage. That will affect Egypt’s “historic rights” of the Nile water and cause a serious threat.
In the report below, we will try to shed light on the Nile conflict and on why Ethiopia’s negotiating position toward Egypt has improved. We will end with a recommendation.
The Conflict Over the Nile Waters
The two groups fighting over the right waters are as follows: the first group are the downstream countries, it includes Egypt and Sudan. The other group are the upstream countries which includes Ethiopia, Eritrea, Uganda, Congo, Burundi, Tanzania, Southern Sudan, Rwanda and Kenya.
Egypt depends on the Nile River for 95% of its water needs for drinking, agriculture and electricity generation. The growing Egyptian population is increasingly dependent on Nile water. Egypt has historical rights to these waters under the Nile Water Agreement signed with Britain in 1929. It gave Egypt the right to veto any project in upstream countries affecting Egypt’s share of water flowing to it. It is worth mentioning that the 1929 agreement is binding for the three upstream countries — Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda — on the grounds that Britain, which colonized these countries, was their legal representative and could sign binding international agreements on their behalf.
Egypt codified its legal status in an agreement with Sudan in 1959. The agreement gave Cairo 55.5 billion cubic meters of water (or 66% of the total water flow), which would go to the Aswan Dam, and Sudan received 18.5 billion cubic meters (22%). The remainder, 12%, is lost to evaporation, other African countries get none.
The downstream countries argue that they were not a party to those agreements at the time, and therefore do not recognize their legitimacy. The upstream countries want to modify the water-sharing agreement and keep more of the water by building dams, which will directly affect the water share of the downstream states, Egypt and Sudan.
The problem is compounded by the projected large population increase in the Nile basin. The UN projects that the population in the 11 basin states will reach 860 million people by 2050. This is pressuring both sides to try to improve their positions in the conflict over the Nile waters.
In May 2010, Ethiopia drafted the Entebbe Agreement to modify the historical and legal basis for the sharing of water. Most upstream countries supported the agreement but Egypt and Sudan refused it. It is true that the Entebbe Agreement is not legally binding for Egypt and Sudan, but it does show that Ethiopia is aware of the balance of power and its ambition to impose facts on the ground regarding the construction of dams, which will necessarily affect Egypt’s share in the Nile waters and thus represent an existential threat to Egypt. It is true that Ethiopia cannot force Cairo to sign, but the Entebbe Agreement shows that a major crisis between Cairo and Addis Ababa is on the way. What follows is an explanation of the Ethiopian diplomatic attack on Egypt and Sudan.