Who Owns the Nile?

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Middle East Policy Council

As a country whose history has been synonymous with the Nile River, Egypt can perhaps be forgiven for forgetting that it is not the only country in the region with claims to the Nile’s water resources. No wonder, then, that two weeks ago Egyptians were caught off guard by news that the Ethiopian government had started diverting the flow of the river. The objective, according to the Ethiopian government, is to prepare for the construction of a $4.2 billion hydroelectric plant. Following the news, the Egyptian government was at first criticized for not doing enough to protect Egypt’s vital interests connected to the Nile River. However, the bellicose language coming out of Cairo since has discomfited many who see diplomacy as a better way to handle the new development.

When news of the new dam construction came out, the Egyptian government initially kept a surprisingly low profile and did not come out to condemn what many saw as a unilateral move by the Ethiopian government. Soon after coming under criticism however, the rhetoric quickly escalated, with some government officials even advocating the use of force in a closed meeting that was accidentally aired live on television. Some of the fears surrounding the construction of the dam have been stoked by a recent Egyptian government study which studies “the implications of the Ethiopian Nile Dam…. A dam with such specifications has catastrophic effects on Egypt. The dam filling process (which takes up to six years), will cause Egypt to sustain a huge water share deficit, estimated at around 10 to 20 billion cubic meters….Furthermore, it is possible that this dam would prevent water from reaching the coastline, affect navigation on the river and cause a reduction by an estimated 20% in the electricity production generated from the High Dam [in Aswan].”

The study, which was published in the Pan Arab daily Al Hayat, then concludes with a stern warning against inaction: “In light of the importance of the Nile for Egypt, Egyptian national interests must prevail without consideration for any other matter. An aware, strong political will must come into being and take bold decisions to halt Ethiopia from constructing the Renaissance Dam according to current specifications.”

The ill feelings between the two countries have also affected the situation of Ethiopian refugees in Egypt, who, as Al Ahram’s Hazel Haddon reports, increasingly find themselves the target of xenophobic violence: “Dozens of Ethiopian refugees protested on Sunday outside the Egypt office of UN refugee agency (UNHCR) in Cairo’s 6 October City to demand protection from what they describe as increasingly frequent xenophobic attacks by Egyptians. Protesters, mostly from the Oromo ethnic group, said that members of their community had faced several violent attacks in Egypt in recent weeks….According to UNHCR Deputy Regional Representative for Egypt Elizabeth Tan, a number of Ethiopian refugees in recent weeks have reported being evicted from their homes or losing their jobs because of their nationality, along with facing difficulties obtaining medical care at Egyptian hospitals.”

Wondering how the Ethiopian government even decided to move forward with such a plan despite knowing the possible ramifications, some have pointed the finger at Egypt’s internal divisions: “The risks of the Renaissance Dam are greater than its benefits for Egypt and Sudan. Yet, Egypt, which is divided between those supporting the authorities and others supporting the opposition, does not have a new vision for its policy in Africa, nor the ability to move and act effectively in order to regain its role and prestige….Egypt’s role and position continue to wane. The cultural division and the political and legal conflicts are blinding both the regime and the opposition and impeding them from looking out for the best interests of the country.”

Despite the strong Egyptian response, it is unlikely the Ethiopian government will back off anytime soon. According to a report by Tesfa-Alem Tekle of  Sudan Tribune, the Ethiopian government has made it clear that “no force could stop the construction of its massive Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) being built just 30 kilometers from the border with Sudan….Following the Egyptian high profile meeting — which Egypt’s State TV accidently aired live — tensions between Cairo and Addis Ababa have further escalated….Egypt has long opposed the construction of Africa’s biggest hydroelectric power plant project arguing that it could diminish the rivers water supply to its territory. The Ethiopian official has declined to comment on whether Ethiopia is ready for any possible confrontation over the resources dispute.”

The Lebanese daily Al Manar also notes that following strong words by Egyptian government officials, “Ethiopia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned on Thursday Egypt’s ambassador to Addis Ababa over ‘hostile remarks’ by Egyptian politicians about a dam project on the Nile River. Egyptian Ambassador to Ethiopia Tarek Ghoneim was summoned to give an official explanation regarding the ‘hostile remarks,’ Dina Mufti, a spokesman for the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said. The spokesman said Ethiopia is awaiting a response.”

Amidst the war of words and demarches, regional observers are urging more caution and more patience. The National editorial for example notes that “The status quo is not acceptable, but nor is a unilateral decision by Ethiopia that could potentially disrupt the economy and social order of two pivotal countries. In the end, hundreds of millions of people depend in a direct way on the Nile and the waters cannot be monopolized by just one country. The seven countries most involved need to talk, swiftly and seriously. North and East Africa are thirsty, crowded neighborhoods. This most precious resource needs to be amicably shared, or, of a certainty, it will lead to conflict – which is something this water-starved region already has plenty of.”

Even in Egypt, there are some who believe that the Ethiopian dam is not really the problem. Rather, as Mahmoud Salem writes in his column for the Daily News of Egypt, Egypt needs to worry about the underlying structural changes that are occurring all around the region: “Dear Egypt, take heed of this. The world is moving forward all around you, with plans of development and infrastructure to meet its future needs, with the Ethiopian dam being the ultimate proof of that, while you are going nowhere fast and talking about delusional past  glories that have nothing to do with current day realities. Ethiopia is not the problem or the enemy; our laziness, stupidity, incompetence and lack of sound planning are, and it simply cannot be allowed to continue. It’s time for you to wake up.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at info@mepc.org.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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