Egypt, Ethiopia and the Nile River

Ethiopia Egypt And the Nile River
The Nile river and Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam

AFRICANGLOBE – For over a fortnight now, the normally frosty relationship between Egypt and Ethiopia took a turn for the worse, with Egypt threatening to go to war to protect its share of the ‘gift of the Nile river.’

This flare up is coming at a time when the general forecast is that waters of the Nile will recede because of the ongoing construction of the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, started during the tenure of late Prime Minster Meles Zenawi.

The Nile is the longest river in the world, flowing through some 11 countries, including Ethiopia, South Sudan, Sudan and Egypt. It is the primary source of water for many of these countries, particularly Sudan and Egypt, whose mainly desert landmass is made fertile by the river as it flows into the Mediterranean, thereby making it invaluable for agriculture and industrial development.

Indeed, the Nile is central to Egypt’s economic wellbeing because on it depend its cotton and tourism industries, two major foreign exchange earners, which may explain Egypt’s sabre-rattling. The present deplorable state of affairs can be traced to Egypt’s disdain for matters of the Nile basin and indeed Africa during Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule.

A major tributary of the Nile–the Blue Nile takes its source from Lake Tana in Ethiopia, but about 60 per cent of the water flows downstream through the two Sudans to Egypt, leaving Ethiopia to grapple with the challenge of irrigating its patched and parched land in order to sustain its agriculture.

Ethiopia several years ago suffered one of the most devastating famines ever witnessed in Africa, caused by severe drought that claimed many lives.

Several initiatives to discuss water sharing among the Nile Basin countries were snubbed by Egypt, which not only had gone ahead to build the Aswan Dam but also continues to insist that it reserves the right to hold on to the largest share of the Nile water based on the Nile Water Agreement of 1959.

President Mohammed Morsi’s response to the latest crisis arising from the Ethiopian dam is consistent with Egypt’s stance on the issue. But that is not sustainable, in the long run.

Morsi’s belligerence could be bluster; Egypt, though with a strong army bolstered by U.S. weaponry, has been weakened internally by the protracted and bitter uprising of 2011 that toppled Mubarak to enthrone democracy. Moreover, it is inconceivable that the conflict-weary Egyptians would support any war which logistics and distance would make its prosecution well-nigh too much of a price anyway; nor would the U.S. now working closely with Ethiopia to stem the tide of terrorism and piracy in the Indian Ocean permit such a war.

The Egyptians should dispense with the budding “hydro- hegemony” and nurture a more creative and sustainable diplomatic avenue for talks with its neighbours that would be economically beneficial to all countries in the Nile Basin. Culture and language demands that Egypt retains its affinity to the Middle East, but the reality of geography and the need to share the Nile water- an important resource- equitably and in mutually beneficial manner with other countries means it must be alive to African issues, particularly those pertaining to the river and countries in Nile Basin.

The policy of regional integration enunciated in the 1980s by the African Union was aimed at ensuring African countries pool resources for the common benefit to the region. While elaborate infrastructure has got off the ground in both West and Southern Africa, whose social and economic integration are growing steadily, the Horn of Africa, including the entire north east region which harbours the Nile Basin, is way behind in this endeavour.

Hence the Ethiopian dam and the Egyptian response to it rather than degenerating into a shooting war offers opportunity to renew commitment in the revitalisation of the sub-regional group at the north east of Africa capable of providing a vehicle not only to resolve conflicts but also to serve as the engine for economic development and prosperity.

When the Nile Basin economic group takes off, it should be possible for the constituent countries to agree on the most beneficial way the Nile water can be channelled to serve the entire region, and foster growth and integration.