Who is Losing the Nile?

Egypt helpless against Ethiopia and Sudan · The construction by Ethiopia of the Grand Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile has exacerbated tensions between the riverside countries. Egypt is worried for fear its share of the river waters may be seriously diminished but seems incapable of standing in the way of Addis-Abeba’s project which has now gained the support of Sudan.

Grand Renaissance dam under construction.

“Egypt is a gift of the Nile!” Schoolchildren the world over who have studied the history of the Pharaohs know that quote from the great Greek historian and traveler Herodotus, who lived in the fifth century BC. In the century before the birth of Christ, the Latin poet Albius Tibullus paid tribute to the river, for “along thy bank not any prayer is made to Jove for fruitful showers. On thee they call!”1 And yet this thousand-year-old blessing is under threat and in Cairo, specialists and civil servants alike, on condition of anonymity, admit that Egypt’s struggle to retain control over the waters of the world’s longest river is off to a very bad start.

Before the end of the year, the construction on the Blue Nile of the huge Renaissance dam will be finished and Ethiopia will be in complete control of the flow of waters. “We’ve lost,” an Egyptian official reluctantly admits. “We were unable to stop them from building the dam; we couldn’t get them to change any part of their plans, especially to reduce its capacity. Our only hope, and it’s a slim one, is that filling the reservoir will take longer than the three years planned by Addis-Abeba.” Otherwise, Egypt is likely to experience water shortages, perhaps as early as next year. And in Cairo, people still refer to the more or less legendary episode at the turn of the 14th and 15th centuries when Ethiopian King Dawit the Second threatened the Mameluk sultans with cutting off the flow of the Nile2.

A Demographic Explosion

Use of the waters of the Nile is a complex issue, involving international law (how should the waters of a transnational river be allotted?), regional history (the many treaties signed over the years), a rhetoric of the “unalienable rights” of the different parties and the power relations between the riverside countries. At the risk of simplification, let us try to outline the basic elements of this dispute. The Nile rises in Ethiopia as the Blue Nile, and in Burundi as the White Nile. The two join together at Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, with the former supplying 90% of the total volume of water. Since the beginning of the 20th century, Egypt has obtained through various treaties the recognition of its water rights, all the more crucial as it depends for 97% of its needs on the Nile, unlike the other riverside countries like Ethiopia where there is plenty of rain.

Though these basic factors have always appeared intangible, they have now been completely overturned. First of all, the region has experienced a population explosion: in 1959, Egypt had 35 million inhabitants, Sudan 11 million and Ethiopia 27 million. In 2016, their respective populations were 95 million, 40 million (including Sudan and South Sudan, independent since 2011) and 102 million. And the other riverside countries have grown abreast. And we must add the intensification of livestock breeding which accounts for half of both the Ethiopian and Sudanese agricultural GNP and absorbs steadily increasing amounts of water, while rainfall is declining as a result of global warming. And finally the rapid growth of urbanization has also caused an increase in water consumption.3 Thus water is becoming a rare and increasingly expensive resource while across the whole Horn of Africa the desert is gaining ground.

Above All a Political Project

These are the conditions in which Ethiopia launched its Grand Renaissance Dam project on the Blue Nile. It will be the biggest dam in Africa, more impressive even than the Aswan High Dam, built in the 1960s by Egypt with Soviet aid as a showcase for the Nasser regime. 175 meters high and 1800 meters wide, the new dam’s storage capacity is 67 billion cubic meters, nearly the equivalent of a year’s flow of river water. The result of a unilateral decision, its construction by an Italian firm began in 2013 and according to Addis-Abeba, it is two thirds finished. It will be able to produce 6 450 megawatts (MW) of electricity.

Hani Raslan, research fellow at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Stategic Studies and one of the most qualified Egyptian experts on these issues, believes that the Ethiopian project is “mainly political. It is aimed at consolidating national unity in a country where power is monopolized by a tiny ethnic minority, the Tigrayans, who encounter much opposition, especially from the largest ethnicity, the Oromos.” The latter held street protests at the very end of 2016 and early in 2017 when Addis-Abeba accused Cairo of encouraging their rebellion. “What is the point of wanting to produce 6 000 MW of electricity,”Raslan wonders,”when the consumption of Ethiopia and all its neighbors combined does not even amount to 800 MW?”

A Western expert agrees: “Economically speaking, as well as from an ecological standpoint, it would have been more rational to build several dams.” The consequences of the construction of giant dams have long been debated and not only in Africa. As this specialist reminds us: “The dams retain the water but they also trap the sediments carried by the rivers and which serve to fertilize the soil.”

But the Ethiopian regime has invested all its prestige and authority in this dam, brought to bear all its domestic resources and demanded forced contributions from the population. And nothing seems likely to stand in its way. “Ethiopia is behaving like Turkey,” Raslan spits out, and coming from him this is no compliment: the relations between Egypt and Turkey have deteriorated since Abdel Fattah Sisi took power in Egypt in 2013. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is accused of backing the Muslim Brotherhood, the sworn enemies of the Egyptian regime. Raslan is referring to a project in South-Eastern Anatolia (Güneydoğu Anadolu Projesi, GAP) involving the great Atatürk dam and some twenty smaller structures which have partly dried up the Euphrates and the Tigris causing water shortages in Syria and Iraq4. Now it will be Egypt’s turn to be deprived of water…

“There is no crisis, there is no more crisis”

Faced with this Ethiopian determination and Sudan’s support for Addis-Abeba’s position, Egypt has proven incapable of mounting a coherent strategy, wavering between an ultra-nationalist rhetoric - especially via the media, always ready to flare up over the Nile issue – and a public stance of willingness to cooperate which often borders on illusions. Thus, on the occasion of the summit meeting of the African Union in January 2018, Sisi, flanked by the Ethiopian and Sudanese presidents, claimed that all the problems would be solved within a month: "Egypt’s interests are one with Ethiopia’s and also one with Sudan’s. We are speaking as one voice. There is no crisis, there is no more crisis.” At the same time he withdrew his mediation request submitted to the World Bank a few weeks earlier to resolve the deadlock. In March 2015 a provisional agreement had already been signed between the three parties, which Sisi had approved against the advice of several members of his entourage, including his national security adviser, Faiza Abu El-Naga. Their opinion went unheeded.

In a region where there is no willingness to cooperate, where each of the three regimes favors a nationalist stance first and foremost, Egypt, though unwilling to recognize this, is up against a decline in its influence. In the words of Nabil Abdel Fattah, another research fellow at the Al-Ahram center and a true expert on Sudan, “our diplomatic capacities in Africa have been shrinking for decades; we depended on the United States and Europe. We neglected the major changes taking place on the continent and had no scholars, diplomats or military personnel who really knew Ethiopia. We have even proved incapable of resolving this impasse by activating the Coptic networks when the churches of both countries are closely connected.”

Like Franco-Algerian relations

And what about Sudan’s policy shift, a country traditionally allied with Egypt? “The history of our countries’ relations is very complex,” Nabil Abdel Fattah explains. “Sudan is a country which we occupied during half the twentieth century and it became independent against our will. There is a kind of love-hate relationship between the two of us not like that which determines Franco-Algerian relations” Long after Sudan became independent in 1956, personal and economic relations between the two countries remained close.”The greatest Sudanese writers” Nabil Abdel Fattah points out,”like Tayib Salih, who wrote Season of Migration to the North, lived and worked in Cairo."

But time has passed and these ties have weakened. Cairo has neglected its neighbor to the South. On 30 June 1989, a coup in Khartoum brought Omar Al-Bachir and his Islamists to power. “That regime has been in power for twenty-eight years, an Egyptian diplomat observes, and during all that time it has done all it could to sever the links between our two countries. It closed down the Egyptian universities in Sudan and fueled hostility towards Egypt, especially among young people who hadn’t known the period of good relations. Actually, power is in the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood who seek revenge for what happened in 2013.”

“A culture of exclusion has developed in Sudan“, Nabil Abdelfattah explains. The Salafists have extended their grip on society, on young people, often with the help of Saudi Arabia.” Nonetheless, he does acknowledge the existence in Egypt of an anti-Sudanese racism and admits that his country has often neglected the development problems encountered by their neighbor to the South.

One of the contentious issues, regularly raised by Khartoum, concerns the Hala’ib triangle in south-western Egypt which Sudan has claimed for its own since independence. “They call it an occupied territory, Raslan says with indignation, and describe our army using the word misraili, which associates Egypt (misr) and Israel and establishes a parallel between Palestine and the Hala’ib. They lost South Sudan, which has become independent and raise their flag over Hala’ib to distract from that!” And the two capitals regularly accuse one another of harboring their neighbor’s dissidents: the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and the Darfur rebels. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Sudan and debates over the establishment of a military base in Cairo were also worrying.

Between Saudi Arabia and Turkey

And yet apart from his ideological orientations, what characterizes Omar Al-Bachir, president of Sudan, indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity in Darfur, is his pragmatism. For a long time he was allied with Iran, but in 2014 he broke with the Islamic Republic and joined forces with Saudi Arabia – which played a role in lifting American sanctions in 2017 – and sent several thousand soldiers to Yemen. Even in Egypt, it is acknowledged that Khartoum’s siding with Ethiopia on the Nile issue was a kind of realism: “Sudan realized that Ethiopia was going to win, an Egyptian diplomat explains, and counts on reaping benefits from the situation, lots of free electricity.” He fails to mention the ecological fallout but brandishes the unlikely possibility of the dam’s collapsing “when Khartoum would find itself under thirty feet of water.”

Already disputed by three countries, the Nile and the Horn of Africa have been taken hostage by the warring regional powers in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Iran. And in this extremely complicated game of chess, Egypt finds itself rather isolated. After a period of difficulties with Arabia, their relations have improved, but Riyadh is still providing indispensable economic aid to Sudan, which has just devalued its currency. “They’ve paid the price of blood in Yemen, and since the Saudis are Bedouins, that matters for them” an Egyptian intellectual observes, with a hint of contempt. Already enjoying the support of Sudan and the United States, who regard it as a key ally in the war on terrorism, especially in Somalia and the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia recently received Turkish support as well. Its president, Mulatu Teshome, went to Ankara in February 2018 to meet with Erdoğan. In November 2017, the Ethiopian Prime Minister signed a major agreement in Doha5 for bilateral cooperation – and Qatar even accused the Egyptian press of financing the dam, a good example of fake news.

A Water Warfare?

If diplomacy fails, could there be a war? “The next conflict in the Middle East will be over water (…) Water will have become a more precious resource than oil,” Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who had just become UN General Secretary, prophesied in 1992. True enough, there is much saber-rattling in the region and in January the Sudanese press announced the creation of a joint military force with Ethiopia, meant to protect the dam.6 The Egyptian fleet is cruising in the straits of Bab El-Mandeb, playing its part in the Yemen war, but it might well become involved in a conflict with Ethiopia. And Cairo has deployed troops in Eritrea, Ethiopia’s bitter enemy with whom it fought a bloody war in 1998-2000. “And yet, an Egyptian diplomat admits, while our military superiority over Ethiopia is undeniable, a war scenario is unlikely. Egypt would be totally isolated. “ And the undertaking itself would probably not be as easy as our informant believes.

“For Sisi, an Eyptian journalist observes, “it is preferable to make haste slowly and wait until after the presidential election at the end of March.” But what will happen then? When the Ethiopians begin stocking billions of cubic meters of water next summer and depriving Egypt of some of its resources? Since 2013, Sisi has developed a nationalist, in fact a chauvinistic rhetoric; but when last year Egypt transferred to Saudi Arabia the islands of Tiran and Sanafi where Saudi soldiers have just been stationed, there was much protest and a decline in Sisi’s popularity, even among his most stalwart followers. Is he going to let Egypt lose the Nile, the county’s jugular vein for thousands of years?

1The Elegies of Tibullus, trans. William Coe Collar (1906), Bk 1, Elegy VIII.

2Read the scholarly study by A. Caquot, “Aperçu préliminaire sur le Maṣḥafa Ṭēfut de Gechen Amba », Annales d’Éthiopie, 1955 ; p. 89-108.

3Read Ibrahim Elnur, « The Changing Hydraulics of Conflict and Cooperation in the Nile Basin » in The Burden of Ressurces. Oil and Water in the Gulf and Nile Basin (Sharif E. Elmusa, éd.), Cairo Papers in Social Sciences, Vol. 30, n° 4, winter 2007.

4This project was begun in the 1980s, long before the Party of Justice and Development (AKP) came to power.

5Ethiopia broke off diplomatic relations with Qatar in Apil 2008 following a critical coverage by Al-Jazirah of the situation in Ogaden.

6Al Mihjar, Khartoum, 17 January 2018.