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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Ethiopian Dam over Blue Nile Raises Specter of Conflict with Egypt

Filed under: Africa, Egypt

In line with Egypt’s past military rulers, who warned at times of military action if Ethiopia threatened water resources, Egypt’s Islamist President Mohammad Morsi threatened that “all options were open” if Ethiopia would divert the waters of the Blue Nile.  The purpose of Ethiopia’s action is to build the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam; a mammoth project ($4.7B) intended to produce 6000 megawatt of electricity generated by a Hydroelectric Dam. This dam is to be constructed by Italians and partly funded by China. The Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which is being built in the Benishangul-Gumuz region bordering Sudan is part of a $12B investment project to boost power exports.

Egyptian sensitivity to what happens with the Blue Nile emanates from the fact that it is the largest tributary proving most of the water to the Nile itself (in comparison with the White Nile).  The Blue Nile originates from Lake Tana in Ethiopia and then flows into Sudan, where its waters join with those of the White Nile and form one river that consequently flows into Egypt, eventually reaching the Mediterranean Sea.

In an emotional and defiant televised speech before cheering Islamist supporters, President Morsi said on June 10,”Egypt’s water security cannot be violated at all…As president of the state, I confirm to you that all options are open…If Egypt is the Nile’s gift, then the Nile is a gift to Egypt…The lives of Egyptians are connected around it… as one great people. If it diminishes by one drop then our blood is the alternative.”

However, Morsi stopped short of “calling for war,” but he did say he would not allow Egypt’s water supply to be endangered. President Morsi said Egypt had no objection to development projects on Nile basin areas, “but on condition that those projects do not affect or damage Egypt’s legal and historical rights.”1

Morsi’s speech comes a week after bellicose rhetoric, including talk of military action were aired by Egyptian politicians last week, raising concerns of a “water war” between Africa’s second and third most populous states. Egyptian politicians were embarrassed after being heard suggesting hostile acts against Ethiopia to stop it from building a dam across the Blue Nile. They were inadvertently heard on live TV  proposing military action at a meeting called by President Mohammed Morsi.

As the participants did not know that the meeting was being aired live by state TV, they spoke their minds freely. Their suggestions centered on military action as a decisive response to what one of them called a “declaration of war.” One of the participants even suggested sending Special Forces to destroy the dam; another thought of jet fighters to scare the Ethiopians; and a third called for Egypt to support rebel groups fighting the government in Addis Ababa.2

But President Morsi appeared to leave room for compromise. He did not renew an Egyptian call – flatly rejected by Ethiopia – to stop work at the dam but said further study on its impact was needed. Describing Ethiopia as a “friendly state,” he said Cairo was pursuing all political and diplomatic avenues for a solution.

Earlier on June 10th, Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Kandil, who was sent several times to Addis Ababa to discuss the issue of the Nile waters during the military regime that preceded Morsi’s presidency and knows the issue quite well, told parliament more time was needed to study Ethiopia’s project and for dialogue with Sudan and Ethiopia on the best design for the dam and how to fill its reservoir without reducing the river’s flow.

Egypt and Sudan are particularly dependent on water supply from the Nile. Both countries claim that diversion of the Nile violates a colonial-era agreement, amended in 1959, which gives both of them rights to 90% of the Nile’s water. Ethiopia’s decision to construct the dam challenges a colonial-era agreement that had allocated both Egypt and Sudan rights to the Nile water, with Egypt taking 55.5 billion cubic meters and Sudan 18.5 billion cubic meters.

That agreement, first signed in 1929, took no account of the eight other nations along the 6,700km (4,160-mile) river and its basin. Those African states south of the historic frontier of the Muslim Arab world – notably Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo – have been agitating for a decade for a more equitable accord and  are also anxious to develop the water resources of the Nile Basin.

Ethiopia, for its part, claims the diversion is momentary and will allow it to carry out civil engineering work. The aim is to divert the river by a few meters and then allow it to flow on its natural course.

In fact, it is not the diversion which is the source of concern: Even though the Ethiopian energy minister said the dam does not cause harm to any country, Egypt’s Deputy Foreign Minister for African Affairs, Ali Hifni, said that the diversion of the river was not something to worry about, but that the dam itself was of concern. Experts from Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan are set to announce findings of a study into the impact of the Ethiopian dam on the Nile’s flow in the coming weeks.

While letting water through such dams – of which Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia already have several – may not reduce its flow greatly, the filling of the reservoir behind any new dam means cutting the river’s flow for a time. Evaporation from reservoirs can also permanently reduce water flowing downstream.3

However, it seems that Ethiopia is not impressed by the Egyptian bellicose language. Ethiopia summoned the Egyptian ambassador after politicians in Cairo appeared on television suggesting military action or supporting Ethiopian rebels.

Egypt’s military options are very limited (if not non-existent):

  1. There are no common borders between the two countries
  2. The Egyptian air force does have the capacity to carry a massive strike at the Dam when finished  and even in the course of its construction
  3. The use of Special Forces is very complex and could be beyond Egypt’s army capabilities
  4. Assisting anti-Ethiopian rebel groups could be a double edged sword
  5. Egypt could “pay” a dire political and economical price vis-à-vis the African continent and the US.

Egypt’s options could be economic (closing the Suez Canal and Egyptian airspace to and from Ethiopia) together with diplomatic efforts to undermine Ethiopia. At the end of the day, Egypt will have no other choice but to negotiate a new covenant relating to the distribution of the Nile water to all countries concerned, replacing the 1929 agreement dictated at the time by British colonialism.

From this perspective it becomes clear that Morsi is exploiting this crisis in order to outwit his opponents from within and could be using the issue to distract attention from severe domestic political and economic challenges. In fact, Morsi faces a planned mass protest by non-Islamist groups on June 30, the anniversary of his election, and he is calling on his opponents to forget their differences to safeguard the Nile.