AFRICANGLOBE – As Egypt and Ethiopia continue with talks over the shape the controversial Renaissance Dam ought to take, it is apparent that while Egypt remains the biggest military power in the region, its internal crisis — the unfolding shift in the balance of regional power as well as emerging geopolitics — means that it has few options than to work with Ethiopia and other Nile Basin countries for mutually beneficial arrangements on the use of the river.
Egypt may also find itself ceding ground to the other riparian countries that are determined to use increased volumes of the Nile waters to cater for rising energy and food needs.
Egypt is in a precarious political situation and is already using enormous resources to counter a highly disruptive revolution. This has reduced its ability to coerce other basin states to continue respecting its “birthright.”
On top of this is the fact that though Cairo continues to receive the biggest financial aid from the United States, the Muslim Brotherhood regime was not a darling of its benefactor, which now finds itself unable to openly support or condemn the new regime that came to power through a coup.
The initial falling-out was the result of suspicions that the government of Mohamed Morsi had worked towards lifting the squeeze Hosni Mubarak had placed on the ability of Israel’s militant neighbours to wage war on Tel-Aviv.
Of more long-term importance to the security and stability of the region is the fact that even before Ethiopia had belligerently begun to construct the Grand Renaissance Dam, it was not clear how much longer the other countries would have continued to honour Egypt’s demands over the Nile.
Rising populations and increased food and power needs have fed the quest by other Nile Basin countries for more of the water flowing in the tributaries of the Nile. The countries have also been portraying a noticeable economic renaissance, with many now deemed ripe for mega investments.
As a result, many of the countries have entered into agreements with either each other or with emerging global economic powers to finance multi-billion-dollar projects, some of which will use more of the Nile waters than ever before.
Besides completing a 250-Megawatt hydroelectricity project in 2012, Uganda, which has only irrigated 5,500 hectares, is said to be eyeing Nile waters to irrigate some 220,000 hectares within the Basin.
Kenya’s National Water Master Plan identifies Lake Victoria and its rivers as the sources of water the country needs to irrigate 180,000 hectares. Kenya has also been toying with the idea of taking Lake Victoria’s waters to irrigate its more marginal areas.
Besides the controversial dam, the Ethiopian Nile basin’s irrigation potential is 2.3 million hectares. Yet it has developed less than one per cent of this.
Although it has not happened on a massive scale, the use of the Nile waters for irrigation by other Basin countries has been, and continues to be, Egypt’s worst nightmare. Cairo may have so far succeeded in preventing any large-scale water-use schemes in other Basin countries other than Sudan, but does it have any more aces?
Besides asking the World Bank not to fund such projects, Egypt may not do much more to stop them in the future.
Military action, which was initially advocated by the politicians, may not work. Its geographical position would make a direct attack on Ethiopia or any of the other riparian countries highly difficult. And waging a proxy war would be very costly for Cairo’s own international interests mainly because some of the potential candidates for such a proxy war are international pariahs.
While relying heavily on the West for military aid and trade, Cairo cannot, for instance, support the Somali militants, al Shabaab. Some of its benefactors and trade partners would even impose biting sanctions to bring an end to the scheme. And other Nile Basin countries may also gang up to deal with any potentially destabilising eventuality, through regional bodies such as the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (Igad) or the East African Community.
Further, it would not be beneath Kenya and Ethiopia to join forces to fight off such a threat. After all, the two countries have demonstrated their decisiveness when each unilaterally carried out military excursions in Somalia to root out the Islamic terrorism.
But the other actor that Egypt needs to take into account before taking any military action against Ethiopia is Israel, which has not been happy with Cairo’s very public support of the Hamas. Although it would be imprudent on the part of Israel to be seen to be openly backing Cairo’s enemies, accusations have been made by Egyptian politicians that Tel-Aviv and Washington back the Renaissance Dam project.
The proponents of this claim that the two powers are out to force Cairo to reconsider arming Hamas and to close the tunnels Palestinians have been using to reach Egypt from the Gaza strip.
Israel is said to have been eyeing the Nile waters and, at some point, called for a review of the 1997 UN Watercourses Convention so that it could be considered as a beneficiary of the Nile. The convention is a global legal arrangement that establishes basic standards and rules for co-operation between states on the use, management and protection of international watercourses.
Egypt’s claim that it has a historical right over much of the Nile waters is backed by the controversial 1929 Treaty that was renewed in 1959 that it signed with itself. But the claim has been hotly contested by other riparian countries, which feel that the treaties were unjust, unfair, outdated and “colonial.”
For many years now, other riparian states have called for the scrapping of the treaty and enactment of a new one that would lead to more equitable sharing of the water.