A war of words breaks out in north-eastern Africa as Egypt fears that the $4.7-billion dam Ethiopia is planning on the Blue Nile will curtail the flow of Nile waters to the country and encourage other basin states to emulate Ethiopia. By JOHN CHERIAN

IN the first half of June, there was heated rhetoric emanating from the capitals in north-eastern Africa. The reason for this was the construction of a huge dam on the Blue Nile in Ethiopia. The multibillion-dollar Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, when completed, will be among the biggest in the world, competing with the likes of China’s Three Gorges dam in size.

On June 13, Ethiopia’s Parliament unanimously ratified a treaty that would no longer give Egypt the lion’s share of the Nile’s waters. Six Nile basin countries—Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi and Rwanda—had signed the treaty in 2011. “Most of the upstream countries have approved the treaty through their parliaments. We delayed it as a gesture of goodwill to the people of Egypt until a formally elected government was in place,” Ethiopia’s government spokesman told the media. Eleven countries share the basin of the world’s longest river, which flows through East Africa before emptying itself into the Mediterranean Sea in northern Egypt.

Ethiopia’s neighbours, such as Egypt and Sudan, whose economies are crucially dependent on the Nile, are not happy with what they perceive as Ethiopia’s unilateral moves. Egyptian civilisation and culture itself owes its existence to the free-flowing waters of the Nile.

Course of the river

The government in Cairo is of the opinion that Addis Ababa’s decision to operationalise the dam will be an incentive for countries such as Uganda and the newly independent Republic of South Sudan to plan similar dams on the Nile before its waters enter Sudan and Egypt. Three quarters of the Nile’s waters to Egypt comes from Ethiopia, which is the source of the Blue Nile. The White Nile flows through Uganda and Sudan. The White Nile and the Blue Nile meet at Khartoum and then flow together into the sea through Cairo. Since the 19th century, Egyptian leaders have worked overtime to ensure that the waters from the Nile flow uninterrupted into the cotton and wheat fields of their country. Egypt had briefly invaded Sudan and Ethiopia in the 19th century in futile bids to get complete control over the Nile.

The distribution of the Nile’s waters was until recently governed by two conventions. The first was signed in 1929 between Egypt and Britain. Britain was the colonial power that controlled or had influence over all the states through which the Nile flowed. Under this agreement, Egypt was given veto powers over projects on the Nile in other countries. The second was the 1959 agreement signed with Sudan in which Egypt was allotted 55.5 billion cubic metres of water from the Nile with Sudan taking 18.5 billion cubic metres. Ethiopia was excluded from the agreement. Ethiopia and other upstream countries such as Kenya and Tanzania were extremely unhappy with the agreement.

The Aswan dam along with the system of canals that was built to harness the Nile’s waters had done wonders for the Egyptian economy. Unlike most of its neighbours, the country is entirely dependent on the Nile water. The country only receives scattered rains and has no forest or savannah. Egyptians feel that the supply to the Aswan dam will be adversely affected by the Ethiopian project and will be a body blow to their already beleaguered economy. The new Aswan dam was financed and built by the Soviet Union after the United States backed out of its commitment owing to the politics of the Cold War era.

Ethiopia’s needs

The Ethiopians too have wanted to build a dam on the Nile since the latter half of the last century but their country was ravaged by war and political instability. Besides, no country was willing to finance the construction of a huge dam in a country impoverished by cycles of drought and war. Seventy per cent of Ethiopians have no access to electricity. Now things are changing. The Chinese, who have a history of engagement with the African continent, now have the wherewithal to finance gargantuan projects. Chinese companies are involved in a big way in the construction of the dam in the Ethiopian highlands even though the contract for building it is handled by an Italian company. The Chinese government has provided a $1 billion loan for the project, whose projected cost is $4.1 billion. Indian, Saudi Arabian and Qatari companies have also invested in the ambitious Ethiopian project.

The dam is projected to generate 6,000 megawatts of electricity, which will make Ethiopia the biggest producer of power on the continent. It will be in a position to export power to its energy-starved neighbours, including Egypt. The Ethiopian government has been stressing that the water in the dam will only be used to produce electricity and not for irrigation purposes. In the last week of May, Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn told Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy that the Nile’s course was being temporarily diverted to facilitate the construction of the dam.

Egyptian lawmakers, cutting across party lines, were caught off guard on television threatening dire consequences for the Ethiopians if the quantum of water for countries downstream was reduced. They were heard urging the government to use the air force and the special army units to abort the construction of the dam. The politicians were not aware that their meeting was being broadcast live on television.

Egypt’s threats

In the second week of June, Morsy, in a nationwide address, vowed to safeguard the nation’s water security at all costs. “As President of the Republic I confirm to you that all options are open. If Egypt is the Nile’s gift, then the Nile is a gift to Egypt—if it diminishes by one drop, then our blood is the alternative,” he said.

The Ethiopian Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman was quick to retort that no threat would stop the ongoing construction of the dam and that his country would not be “intimidated by the psychological threats” from Cairo. The Ethiopian Prime Minister described the Egyptian threats as “warmongering” meant to distract the Egyptian public from their political and economic problems. Shortly before his death, former Ethiopian strongman Meles Zenawi had accused Egypt of assisting rebel groups in destabilising his country.

Many commentators have for long been predicting that the 21st century will soon witness “water wars” as nations scramble to make optimum use of the diminishing commodity to feed their growing populations and keep their economies ticking. However, despite the overheated rhetoric, nobody is predicting a military conflict in the Horn of Africa or other parts of Africa over the issue in the near future. Most observers believe that Egypt is in no position to match its words with deeds. Despite its size and military strength, Egypt has been steadily losing its influence in the region. Ethiopia, which also has a big population and a strong army, has emerged as the West’s strongest partner in the region.

Role of Sudan

Egypt’s relations with Sudan have been frosty since the overthrow of the civilian government in the late 1980s and the coming to power of a military government in Khartoum that was strongly influenced by Islamist ideology. Relations with Khartoum have considerably improved since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and the coming to power of a government led by the Muslim Brothers. But the government of the newly established Republic of South Sudan has no love lost for Cairo. Egypt, like many other African countries, was against the break-up of Sudan and the creation of a new country. South Sudan is supporting Ethiopia on the Nile waters issue and has also announced that it is also planning to construct dams on the White Nile that flows through its territory. South Sudan has stopped work on the Jonglei canal financed by Egypt, 77 per cent of the work on which has been completed. The canal, if completed, will prevent nine billion cubic metres of Nile water from being wasted.

The construction work on the Great Renaissance Dam started two months after the overthrow of Mubarak. WikiLeaks cables have revealed that in 2010, Egyptian officials were dissuaded by U.S. and Sudanese officials from making plans to bomb the infrastructure being readied for the construction of the dam. Sudan had warned that such a move would be counterproductive and Washington would anyway not have tolerated an attack on its most trusted ally in the Horn of Africa. Geopolitical equations have changed along with the realisation that Egypt no longer has an exclusive right to the waters of the Nile and that it is an African river whose bountiful resources have to be shared.

The Egyptian President has hastened to assure Ethiopians that he “understood” the country’s need to harness its water resources and has called for a “political solution” to the issue while describing Ethiopia as a “friendly state”. Egypt’s Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr, who had earlier said that he would not sacrifice a “drop of water from the Nile”, is scheduled to visit Addis Ababa for talks on the dam issue.

The Ethiopian government continues to claim that “no appreciable harm” will accrue to downstream states as a result of the project. The Egyptian government has concluded that this is not the case and that the construction of the dam will have “negative consequences”. Egyptian experts have calculated that the country will lose around 20 per cent of its Nile water supply for the next three to five years that is needed to fill the massive Ethiopian dam with water. Cairo is awaiting the report by a Tripartite Nile Basin Committee comprising Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt to determine its next course of action.