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Cold water wars
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 26 - 04 - 2001

Will plans to redistribute Nile waters spell an end to agriculture as Egypt knows it? Rushdi Said assesses the situation
Of the 2,960,000 square kilometres that make up the Nile Valley basin, only a small portion is located in areas that receive significant rainfall; the remainder is situated either in vast stretches of arid desert or savanna lands. Egypt and northern Sudan, in the arid reaches of the basin, are almost entirely dependent on the waters that reach it from the sources of the Nile in the south or southeast, whereas for the other Nile Basin countries, although their average rates of precipitation vary from Kenya at the lowest end to Uganda and Ethiopia at the highest, the Nile is essentially a secondary source of water.
The Nile has two primary sources, one located in the Equatorial Lakes Plateau, where precipitation is regular throughout the year, though with higher rates in the autumn and spring, and the other on the Ethiopian highlands with their torrential summer rains. Very little of the equatorial plateau precipitation makes its way to the northern confluence of the Nile, as most of it is dissipated over the Sudd Plains in southern Sudan, creating vast swamps in the areas of Sobat, Bahr Al-Gebel and Bahr Al-Ghazal. As a result, 86 per cent of the water that reaches Egypt's southern border comes from the Nile's Ethiopian tributaries as opposed to only 14 per cent from the equatorial plateau.
Although most Nile Basin countries have abundant water resources, they all suffer water crises. On the equatorial plateau the problem is how to make use of the abundant water resources available, especially during years of drought. At the same time, the countries of the equatorial plateau have no problem with the distribution of Nile water among themselves, nor with the amount that flows to Sudan and Egypt, because that accounts for a relatively minor proportion of the billions of cubic metres of water available to that region, most of which is dissipated uselessly in the plains. As for the eastern Nile Basin countries -- Egypt, northern Sudan and Ethiopia -- which rely heavily on the waters from the Ethiopian highlands, their problem is how to apportion the relatively limited amount of water that emanates from this source between them. Indeed, current distribution arrangements are a source of tension between these countries, because both Ethiopia and Sudan feel that Egypt is receiving a disproportionate share.
Waters from the Ethiopian highlands are distributed at present in accordance with the Nile Waters Agreement signed between Egypt and Sudan in 1959, to apportion the water that the High Dam, which was under construction at that time, was to tap in the enormous reservoir of Lake Nasser. The average annual net volume of the water expected to reach Lake Nasser, after deducting the quantity lost through evaporation, is 74 billion cubic metres, of which Egypt is accorded 55.5 billion cubic metres and Sudan 18.5 billion cubic metres. It is worthy of note, here, that before the construction of the High Dam, approximately a third of the Nile water coming from Ethiopia flowed into the Mediterranean without being tapped.
The previous figures take into account the volume spared through the creation of the High Dam reservoir at a ratio of 14.5 and 7.5 billion cubic metres for Sudan and Egypt respectively. It is interesting to compare this agreement to an early agreement signed between Egypt and Sudan in 1929. Calculated to fulfil irrigation needs for the land under cultivation at that time, Egypt obtained 48 billion cubic metres and Sudan four billion.
Ethiopia was not a party to the Nile Waters Agreement and never recognised it. Nevertheless, in implicit deference to this country, the agreement stated that its parties would be prepared to consider any request from a third party for a share of this water, and that the concessions made would be deducted in equal ratios from their quotas. At the time the agreement was signed, however, Ethiopia was not exploiting its Nile tributaries. Subsequently, however, in spite of the difficulty and futility of damming these tributaries, in view of the deep gorges they occupy and the rugged and uncultivable land they flow through, Ethiopia began to insist on utilising them.
A glance at the history of Ethiopian-Egyptian-Sudanese political relations shows that Ethiopia's preoccupation with this issue was politically motivated. In the 1960s, at the instigation of the US, Ethiopia sought to use the water card to exert pressure on Egypt, which at the time had a policy of non-alignment that the US felt was Soviet-inspired. The US sent a large team of experts to Ethiopia to study the Nile tributaries there and encouraged Addis Ababa to dam these rivers so as to exploit the water before it reached Egypt. The objective of course, was not to help Ethiopia solve its water crisis, since it had none at the time, but rather to send a message to Egypt's Nasser that it owed its well-being to whoever controlled the sources of the Nile.
In the 1970s the situation reversed itself, with Ethiopia moving into the Soviet orbit as Egypt began to mend its ties with the US. This time, it was Colonel Mengistu Haile-Mariam who invited Soviet experts to Ethiopia to study the feasibility of damming the tributaries preparatory to helping finance their construction. The move escalated tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia to the extent that President Sadat threatened military action against Ethiopia, saying he would destroy any dams the country attempted to build. Although such threats gave rise to the commonly held notion that future African wars would be over water, the fact is that these tensions were a spin-off of the Cold War.
Then, in the early 1990s, as tensions exacerbated between Egypt and Sudan, Khartoum availed itself of the Nile pressure card, signing with Addis Ababa a Declaration of Friendship and Peace, in which framework they jointly established the Blue Nile Valley Organisation for studying a number of major water projects. Not only was Egypt not invited to join this organisation, but the projects themselves, had they been implemented, would have been highly detrimental to it. As it turned out, the activities of this organisation drew to a halt in the second half of that decade as Egyptian-Sudanese relations improved.
From this brief historical overview, it is clear that the distribution of Nile waters has been politically charged, often at the instigation of the superpowers, whereas the fact is that not a single Nile basin country faces a water shortage of a dimension that would compel it to enter into confrontation with its neighbours. Quite to the contrary, all these countries have sufficient resources to meet their present requirements, as well as their needs for the foreseeable future if they exploit them appropriately. Egypt, northern Sudan and Ethiopia are no exception if we take into consideration their other sources of water, a consideration that would justify the current allocation of Ethiopian highlands waters solely between Egypt and Sudan.
According to the current system, Egypt obtains approximately three-fourths of these waters, a quota that barely meets the needs of its ever increasing populace and one that, in view of its lack of other significant reliable water resources to fulfil its requirements, it is determined to maintain. One can safely state that the maintenance of this amount of water resides at the very heart of Egypt's national security. If Egypt once sought to increase its quota of the water emanating from the equatorial Great Lakes, it long ago abandoned these efforts and resolved to accommodate itself to its current quotas. Not only did Cairo find it difficult to persuade the countries of the equatorial plateau to divert a portion of their water to Egypt, but it balked at the exorbitant costs of the projects that would make this possible, the difficulty of conveying a larger volume through the conduit of the White Nile with its relatively low inclination and limited capacity, and the lack of reservoir capacity behind the High Dam.
Of the water that reaches Egypt today, approximately 80 per cent is allocated for agriculture and the remainder for domestic and industrial use. Although there has been significant improvement in the efficiency of the use of this water, much more needs to be done soon if Egypt intends to meet its growing water needs within the limits of the current quantities, which are not expected to increase within the near, or even distant, future.
It is understandable, therefore, that Egypt has been suspicious of any action that might affect is quota of Nile water and why, moreover, whenever the question of reexamining the distribution of Nile waters has been raised, it has insisted that the issue be approached within the framework of the total quantities of water available to each Nile Basin country. Unlike Egypt, both Ethiopia and Sudan have other sources. The Nile tributaries in Ethiopia, which has numerous other rivers as well as a high level of annual precipitation, account for less than half its water resources, and the same can be said to apply to Sudan, with its vast water-filled southern plains. Egypt holds that all such resources should be taken into account when reassessing Nile water quotas.
Egypt's position has been sharply criticised by all headwater countries and notably by Ethiopia, which always harboured plans to dam its Nile tributaries. Recently these plans as well as those of other Nile Basin states received the attention of many transnational companies working in contracting and water industries that found in their implementation great benefits. They lobbied to promote these plans and succeeded in obtaining the agreement of the Nile Basin states to enter a joint initiative to develop the river as a whole. The initiative received the support of the World Bank, which promised to help raise the necessary funds by holding a meeting of the donor nations and institutions in Geneva. To put the initiative into effect, a permanent secretarial and a technical board of experts was created. The board was assigned to propose and study the feasibility of the projects. Emanating from this initiative was a programme targeting the eastern Nile Basin countries (Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia) for the purpose of regulating and redistributing the waters emanating from the Ethiopian highlands. The whole initiative was placed under the supervision of a high council made up of the ministries of water resources of Nile Basin countries. Encouraged by the global support it got, the technical board worked feverishly and the water resource ministries sped from one capital to the next, holding their ninth meeting in Addis Ababa in January 2001, only three years into the programme.
Unfortunately, none of the substance of this feverish activity has been made public, despite its importance, especially to Egyptians. Not only has no information has been released concerning the nature of the projects that the water ministers are to bring before the conference of donor nations and institutions in Geneva only months from now, but the activities of the technical board have been shrouded in the tightest secrecy. All we know is that experts took aerial inspection tours over the tributaries of the Blue Nile, Atbara and Sobat, suggesting that the proposed projects could affect these areas.
Such secrecy can only arouse suspicions, especially when someone of the status of Abdel-Malek Ouda, Egypt's foremost expert on African affairs, was unable to learn much of substance about the proposed projects except from unofficial press statements by government personalities. It appears that the governments of certain countries involved have not been officially apprised of some of the projects. According to a press statement issued by the Sudanese deputy minister for irrigation, the Sudanese government has asked its minister of water resources to seek clarification from Ethiopia over reports that it has submitted 12 proposals to the technical board for water projects that would divert 6.5 billion cubic metres of water from the Blue Nile for agricultural purposes.
It is not known whether the Egyptian cabinet was informed of these projects. Although the Ethiopian prime minister told Al-Hayat newspaper on 23 December 2000 that the Egyptian government voiced no opposition to the projects, no Egyptian official has commented on them. The only statement from an Egyptian official was made by Ambassador Marwan Badr, Egypt's delegate to the OAU, who announced that Egypt does not object to the construction of dams on the sources of the Nile on the condition that "they do not tangibly diminish the water that reaches Sudan and Egypt." This statement shows that the ambassador either had no specific information regarding the projects Ethiopia intends to bring before the forthcoming meeting in Geneva, or did not want to talk about them. The only projects the ambassador referred to in his statement were the series of small dams built in accordance with an agreement Ethiopia signed with Egypt and Sudan to tap about 180 million cubic metres of Blue Nile waters a year. According to available information, Ethiopia had already begun these small dam projects before obtaining Egyptian and Sudanese approval, and today these dams are able to tap more than five times the figure cited by Ambassador Badr.
In all events, as Egypt's OAU delegate has suggested, small-scale dams intended to capitalise on the flooding caused by seasonal precipitation will not significantly affect the quantities of water that reach Egypt and are simultaneously a reasonable and cost-effective means of solving Ethiopia's food shortage. On the other hand, major dam projects intended for long-term storage at the Blue Nile headwaters, of the nature one presumes has been under technical study in the framework of the Nile Basin initiative, will seriously affect the water available to Egypt and Sudan. For Egypt, in particular, they could wreak havoc on the many land reform projects underway in the Delta, Sinai and Upper Egypt. It is also to be feared that the building of these dams will break the principle of using total available resources as the basis for apportioning Nile waters, and thus open the door to demands for reassessment of current quotas -- and to possible disputes.
It is difficult to imagine how Egypt could survive with a lower quota of water, as seems to be the plan under the initiative. Quite possibly this would spell an end to agriculture as a primary activity, for which Egypt has been known since the dawn of history. Major dam ventures can also be detrimental for the countries at the Nile sources. Not only are they immensely costly, but it is impossible to predict how they might affect the course of the river, particularly when constructed at the headwaters. It is clear that the Ethiopian prime minister has not realised the potential dangers of this eventuality. In his interview with Al-Hayat newspaper he said these dams will also benefit downstream countries; they will control the water at its source, protect Sudan from the ravages of over-flooding, prevent the silting of the dams in Sudan and reduce the damage caused to Lake Nasser from silt accumulation. However, contrary to the prime minister's statement, the risks inherent in stopping the Nile silt from reaching Sudan and Egypt are far greater than the advantages, because of the drastic changes that will affect the river's regimen. The river will have more energy and greater erosive power, which could spell havoc for all the structures currently built along the northern reaches of the Nile.
Nor did the Ethiopian prime minister mention specific figures on the volume of electricity these dams are expected to produce, although he did hint that it would be large enough to enable Ethiopia to sell surplus electricity to neighbouring countries. Which countries he may have had in mind is difficult to determine, however, as none of Ethiopia's neighbours are industrialised nations or great consumers of electricity.
I do not want to leave the reader with the impression that this article has been written by an Egyptian who views the river as his own. My purpose here has not only been to defend Egypt's historical right to Nile waters, any significant reduction of which would jeopardise its very existence; it has also been to illustrate that both Sudan and Ethiopia have alternatives they can draw on to solve their water shortages, food and agricultural problems and to boost their overall development without having to impinge on Egypt's water rights. Major dam projects on the headwaters of the Nile will have a negative effect not only on Egypt but also on the upstream countries as well. The problems that accompany the drought that periodically occurs in the Sahel region of both Sudan and Ethiopia can best be addressed by making better use of this region's water resources rather than by forcing the population to move to the new lands around the Nile that will open up when the river is dammed. Most transfers of population cause hardship to the people who need to adapt to new environments and a new way of life. Frequently population transfers cause strife as they usually encroach on an indigenous population.
Both Sudan and Ethiopia have ample water resources outside the Nile Basin. The development of these resources could be more cost effective and less controversial. Ethiopia has many other rivers than the Nile which flow either in the Red Sea or the Indian Ocean. It also has a large number of lakes and untapped groundwater resources that could easily solve its water shortages without having to contest Egypt's sole source of water. The same can be said of Sudan.
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