Monday,16 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1151, 6 - 12 June 2013
Monday,16 July, 2018
Issue 1151, 6 - 12 June 2013

Ahram Weekly

River war

Ethiopia has cast aside Egypt’s leading cooperative approach to Nile Basin issues, adding no small measure of insult to injury, writes Abdel-Moneim Said

Al-Ahram Weekly

In 1899, Winston Churchill, who would later become Britain’s famous prime minister during World War II, published The River War. The river in question was the Nile, and this particular war had just ended in 1898 with Lord Kitchener’s entry into Om Durman in the course of the campaign to end the Mahdist uprising and restore Sudan to Egyptian rule, albeit in the framework of an Anglo-Egyptian condominium this time. Churchill was a British army officer in this campaign.

There is no trace of the Mahdist War — as it was referred to in British literature — in Egyptian schoolbooks and very little on it in Arab history books in general. If it is mentioned at all, it is generally in the context of resistance and rebellion against colonialism, while the Egyptian role is portrayed as marginal and subordinate to colonialist will since Egypt, too, was under occupation at the time. But, more precisely, this was not entirely the case. The army that fought with Kitchener in Sudan was an Egyptian (and Sudanese) one, even if it was under British command. The campaign was completely financed from the Egyptian treasury, to the tune of £3 million at the outset of the war and additional sums when the initial funds ran out. The Egyptian treasury was not in the healthiest state at the time, but the war was of the highest strategic importance to Egypt. This was less because the recalcitrance of “Egyptian Sudan” than because of Egypt’s vital Nilotic artery.

Some Egyptians take exception to Herodotus’s famous saying that “Egypt is the gift of the Nile.” They argue — perhaps correctly — that Egypt is the gift of the Egyptian people who succeeded, where others had failed, in generating a splendid civilisation from this river. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the Nile made Egypt a consummately riparian nation, one that shared many of the properties of other riparian nations in the world that had given birth to flourishing civilisations. Therefore, ensuring the uninterrupted flow of the Nile had always been a major cornerstone of Egyptian national security. A major factor that had helped Egypt safeguard the continued flow of Nile waters was a balance of powers between the Nile Basin nations that had always been in Egypt’s favour, and Egypt actively sought to retain this advantage through its network of African, regional and international relations. Suddenly, however, the status quo that had lasted thousands of years was disrupted by Ethiopia’s recent declaration of its intent to divert the waters of the Blue Nile in order to construct the Renaissance Dam.

The Ethiopian move triggered pandemonium in Egypt. Government and opposition exchanged volleys of vehement accusations. Foreign policy on this question was thrown into confusion, perhaps less because of the incident itself than because of the surrounding circumstances and the ambiguity as to whether they are a prelude to something more ominous.

Up to the time of writing this article, Egyptian (and Sudanese) policy has been to accept the Ethiopian move and to set it in the framework of the cooperation of Nile Valley nations, in the hope that this will establish a new approach commensurate to the “historic relations” between Egypt and Ethiopia. One imagines that the Egyptian leadership had to swallow back a certain amount of bile when it took this stance out of consideration for the potential danger of the situation. Ethiopia announced its decision to divert the Blue Nile before the tripartite Ethiopian, Sudanese and Egyptian committee issued its report on the dam project. It was as though Addis Ababa was bent on notifying Khartoum and Cairo that they had better get used the policy of fait accompli. More significantly, even before this, Ethiopian behaviour in the committee could hardly be described as cooperative, and the aim was clearly to undermine the guarantees that Egypt and Sudan would continue secure their fair shares of Nile waters.

More significantly, Addis Ababa has not indicated its approval of the new Egyptian approach towards the Nile waters question, which is based on a distinction between the Nile Basin and the “course of the Nile”. More than 1,600 billion cubic metres of precipitation falls on the Nile Basin countries while the Nile carries around 100 billion cubic metres of water per year. The huge quantities of lost rainfall could solve all of Africa’s water problems if, instead, it were harnessed to the benefit of vast open tracts of land. Indeed, in the past Egypt offered Sudan, Uganda and Congo considerable assistance in the construction of dams, canals and irrigation systems to draw rainwater into the Nile, to generate electricity and to expand cultivation. As this indicates, the approach is logical and workable, but putting it into effect over an extensive area can only be achieved with the intensive cooperation of Ethiopia, from which emanates 85 per cent of the Nile waters and which, simultaneously, receives relatively abundant rainfall.

The technical specifications and the pros and cons of the Renaissance Dam are not our subject here. What is of concern is that the dam is connected with a variety of issues that are inevitably worrisome for Egypt. Ethiopia is pressing ahead with the project against the backdrop of the ratification process of a framework agreement for cooperation between Nile Basin nations. The text of the agreement failed to live up to Cairo’s expectations that it would adopt Egypt’s cooperative approach and set conditions consistent with this approach that would enable all parties to obtain more than their water needs. However, six countries have signed, effectively isolating Egypt and Sudan. In this already charged climate, although Cairo and Khartoum were naturally aware of the Ethiopian project, Addis did not give Cairo or Khartoum advance notification on the steps it was about to take, nor did it submit much of the necessary information to the tripartite committee.

Not only has Ethiopia taken a high-handed approach on this issue, it has begun to play the role of regional superpower on the strength of its population of 85 million, its victory over Eritrea and military presence in Somalia, and its noticeable economic growth. Such factors should have made Ethiopia more confident and self-assured, but apparently it felt that it had to claim an exclusive right to determine the fate of the Nile waters and the region, and to insult Egypt and Sudan in the process.

This state of affairs, in general, is inseparable from two important factors. First, the Ethiopian move came at a time of considerable decline in Egypt’s strategic position in Africa and the Middle East. The second is that Egypt, which lacks a new strategy commensurate to the changes that have taken place since January 2011, also lacks a “water policy and strategy” to guide it as it confronts the huge development challenges that lay ahead. Egypt needs to address these factors, and it can do so effectively if it takes them seriously enough.

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