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 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 Morsy 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 militants.
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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. 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.
That other countries have had no regard to the old treaty was revealed in October 2003 when Kenya’s then Water Minister Martha Karua told the media that the Nile Treaty was no more. The statement was significant as Ms Karua made it in the company of the then Egyptian ambassador to Kenya, Mermeen Wafik.
At the same time, members of the East African Legislative Assembly demanded that the treaty be reviewed to make Egypt and Sudan pay for the water.
Indeed, under the auspices of the Nile Basin Initiative, the 10 Riparian countries came together to negotiate a new treaty through a long process that culminated in the 2010 Agreement.
Although they participated in the talks, Egypt and Sudan refused to sign the new treaty. The two share the basin with Rwanda, Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Eritrea, South Sudan and Sudan.
There have been claims that Egypt has not been “responsible” in the way it has been using the billions of cubic metres of the Nile water that lands in its territory.
Other Nile Basin state have been unhappy with the fact that though Egypt has worked tirelessly and consistently to prevent them from using the water, it diverted huge amounts to an elaborate land reclamation programme covering about 6 million acres in the Northern Sinai desert, west of Suez Canal, which is not part of the basin. There were also claims that after Egypt entered into a peace arrangement with Israel, it made plans to sell some of the water to the latter.
Before the May 7, 1929 treaty, there were agreements made in 1889, 1891 and 1902 between the British and the Italians. Although the other riparian state were not party to it, the treaty required them to respect Egypt’s “natural” and historical rights to the Nile waters and to seek Cairo’s consent before putting up irrigation or hydroelectric power projects along its course.
A section of the latter Treaty reads: “Without the consent of the Egyptian government, no irrigation or hydroelectric works can be established on the tributaries of the Nile or their lakes if such works can cause a drop in water level harmful to Egypt.”
The Treaty secured, for the exclusive use of the Egyptians, 48 billion cubic metres while Sudan was given 4 billion cubic metres. The other riparian states got nothing.
In the 1950s, Sudan, which had not been satisfied with its share, negotiated with the government of the late Gamal Abdel Nasser and signed the 1959 Agreement which, interestingly, increased Egypt’s share to 55.5 billion cubic metres and Sudan’s to 18.5 billion cubic metres. This enabled Egypt and Sudan to irrigate 6 million acres and 2.75 million acres respectively. As with the earlier agreements, the other basin countries’ water needs were ignored.
The Treaty forbids Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda from even using the waters of Lake Victoria, which is the source of the White Nile. It says: “Save for the previous agreement of the Egyptian government, no irrigation or power works are to be constructed or taken from the River Nile or on the lakes from which it flows, so far as all these are in the Sudan or in countries under British administration.”
Over the years, Ethiopia has demonstrated a marked resistance to this arrangement. According to some sources, as Egypt and Sudan negotiated to renew the treaty in the mid 1950s, Ethiopia complained that the two were making an agreement on water that mainly came from its territory.
It also informed Egypt and other riparian states in 1956 and 1957 that it deserved the right to use the Nile waters. In June 1980, Addis Ababa threatened to block the flow of the Blue Nile, following an attempt by the then Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to divert Nile waters to the Sinai desert. This created tension between the two nations which almost degenerated into a full-scale war.
Indeed, when Ethiopia made public its intention, Egypt started preparing for war. Ethiopia had also indicated a willingness to got to war to defend its right to use the Nile. It made it clear that no one could ever stop it from implementing projects along the Blue Nile.
In 1998, Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin said there was no “earthly force” that would stop his country from benefiting from the Nile. Later in 2004, the Prime Minister, the late Meles Zenawi, warned that nothing short of occupation would stop Ethiopia from exploiting the Nile waters “and no country on earth has done that in the past.”
Ethiopia’s anger, it seemed, was because while Egypt continued to expand the land under irrigation, it maintained a hard-line stance against other basin countries’ efforts to increase food production using the water.
On its part, Egypt’s readiness to go to war over the Nile was encapsulated in early 1988 by a former Foreign Affairs Minister, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who later became the UN Secretary-General. Mr Boutros-Ghali said, “The next war in our region will be over the waters of the Nile, not politics.” This war-mongering was later reiterated by President Sadat, and most recently by Morsy.
But is Cairo’s hard-line position justified?
David Shinn, a professor of international affairs at the George Washington University, says that 95 per cent of Egyptians live in the Nile Valley and depend on the river for all their fresh water needs. “Egypt is not being alarmist when it says that (the) Nile water is a life or death issue for the country,” he says. This need is not as stark as it is in Ethiopia or the rest of the basin countries.
Ethiopia, Prof Shinn says, has mountains that trap moisture arriving by winds from the west and south; Uganda is endowed with a good climate and arable lands while 20 per cent of Kenya is agriculturally rich.
Rwanda and Burundi have far much better climate than Egypt and Sudan.
Egypt’s anti-Ethiopia moves
Though Egypt has not been into any war with Ethiopia, it has gone out of its way to interfere with Ethiopia’s stability hoping to weaken its ability to exploit the Nile.
Prof Shinn notes that when Ethiopia sought to have Eritrea as part of its empire in late 1950s and 1960s, Egypt opened a small military training camp for Eritreans opposed to Ethiopian rule and permitted the rebels to use Radio Cairo to undermine Haile Selassie’s government.
“Egypt allowed the predominantly Muslim Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) to establish an office in Cairo… Egypt saw this policy as useful in diverting Ethiopia’s attention away from efforts to develop Nile water projects.”
During its conflict with Ethiopia by training Somalia’s army and providing it with military hardware.
But the current impasse requires a more balanced approach than what global powers have adopted so far. For one, the US needs to reconsider siding with Egypt.