Nile River's future is the future of Egypt
By Jeffrey Fleishman, Los Angeles Times
November 11, 2012
CAIRO ï¿½ Overwhelmed by cascading economic and political problems since
the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, this nation teeters from within even
as it biggest threat may lie hundreds of miles away in the African
highlands. Buried in the headlines is the future of the Nile River ï¿½
and thus the fate of Egypt itself.
Mubarak long neglected the security danger posed by other nations'
claims to the timeless pulse that provides 95% of this desert
country's water, without which its delta farmlands would wither and
its economy die. As poor African capitals increasingly challenge
Cairo, however, the struggle has become one of the most pressing
foreign policy tests for Egypt's new president, Mohamed Morsi.
African countries at the river's source, notably Ethiopia, no longer
feel bound by colonial-era agreements on water rights and are moving
to siphon away larger shares of water for electricity, irrigation and
business to meet demands of burgeoning populations.
It is a skirmish involving diplomats, engineers and veiled threats of
war over geography's blessings and slights and how nations in a new
century will divvy up a river on whose banks civilizations have risen
"All of Egyptian life is based on the Nile. Without it there is
nothing," said Moujahed Achouri, the representative for the United
Nations' Food and Agricultural Organization in Egypt.
Morsi's acknowledgment of the water crisis and his desire to reach a
compromise to protect his country's strategic and historical claim is
evident: The Islamist leader has visited key Nile countries twice
since his inauguration in June, and his prime minister, Hesham Kandil,
is a former water and irrigation minister with connections to
officials in African governments. An Egyptian delegation recently
toured the region, listening to how Cairo might help build hospitals
and schools in villages and jungles.
An advisor to the president quoted in Al Ahram Weekly said this of
Morsi: "The man was shocked when he received a review about the state
of ties we have with Nile basin countries. The previous regime should
be tried for overlooking such a strategic interest."
For decades, Egypt had concentrated on problems closer to home,
including keeping the Arab-Israeli peace and tending to wars from
Lebanon to Iraq. Mubarak, who survived a 1995 assassination attempt by
Islamic extremists in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, had paid
little attention to East Africa. But his regime was adamant ï¿½ at one
point hinting at military action ï¿½ in preserving the existing Nile
That echoed a warning from his predecessor, President Anwar Sadat, in
1979: "The only matter that could take Egypt to war again is water."
In a 1929 treaty and through other pacts, Egypt and its southern
neighbor, Sudan, were granted the bulk of the Nile's flow. The logic ï¿½
filtered through decades of politics and power struggles ï¿½ was that
Egypt could not survive without the river. Nile basin countries,
including Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania, have seasonal rains
and other water sources.
But economic pressure and increasing demand for energy and development
have turned African countries' attention to the Nile. Since 2010,
Ethiopia, which now gets only 3% of its water from the Nile, and five
other upstream countries have indicated they would divert more water
and no longer honor Egypt's veto power over building projects on the
The biggest challenge to Cairo is the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
Experts estimate that the hydropower project, which is under
construction and is expected to cost at least $4.8 billion, could
reduce the river's flow to Egypt by as much as 25% during the three
years it would take to fill the reservoir behind the dam. The project
faces a number of potential setbacks and lost its biggest proponent
when Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi died in August.
Ethiopia has sought to reassure Cairo that Egypt's annual share of
55.5 billion cubic meters of Nile water ï¿½ about two-thirds of the
river's flow ï¿½ will not be disrupted and that the new dam may provide
low-cost electricity to its neighbors. But the Egyptians are suspicious.
"Egypt has entered a stage where its resources are depleting and
population is rapidly increasing," said Hani Raslan, an expert on the
Nile basin for Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in
Cairo. "If the dam is complete ï¿½ this will mean Ethiopia will turn
into an enemy for Egypt because it will essentially threaten the
country's safety, development and livelihood of its people."
He added, "Egypt would legally have the right to defend itself by
going to war."
The struggle over the river highlights decades of strained relations.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni was quoted as saying before Morsi's
visit in October: "Despite the Nile River supporting livelihoods of
millions of Egyptians from the ancient times to date, none of the
country's presidents has ever visited Uganda to see the source of this
Egypt and the other Nile nations are seeking to calm the rhetoric.
Officials say a resolution may include Cairo entering into long-term
economic and energy resource agreements with neighboring capitals. The
Egyptian delegation that recently toured the region included doctors
and representatives of food banks, hospitals and charities.
Egypt, however, faces deep economic problems and is trying to attract
foreign investment, which dropped sharply during last year's uprising
and ensuing political unrest.
"Morsi is trying to send signals to the African world that Egypt is
opening up now, that he wants to improve relations and increase
cooperation," Raslan said. Morsi's visits to Africa "are all just
"No real agreements have been reached yet," he said. "More needs to be
done. Egypt wants and needs to reach its influence in the region."
The essence of the Nile conflict is poor nations ï¿½ Egypt and Ethiopia
ï¿½ needing the river for similar reasons. Ethiopia, which has
experienced strong economic growth in recent years, wants to boost
electricity output while spurring agriculture and development. Those
needs also resonate to the north, but Egypt, which has no other water
source, faces more dire prospects.
The crisis is certain to force Egypt, where regulations are tangled in
bureaucracy and often ignored, to improve water conservation among the
nearly 30% of its population that depends on farming for its
livelihood. Much of the Nile Delta is made up of small family farms
that for centuries have grown wheat, corn and rice with little
environmental concern. This attitude and a growing population, which
may jump from 82 million to 150 million by 2050, have put further
strains on the river.
"Water policies in Egypt have to be long-range," said Achouri, the
U.N. official. "If you want farmers to stop using too much water for
irrigation, alternatives and other incentives should be made available
to them. Farmers right now cannot make a living without the Nile."
A possible solution is rotating away from water-intensive crops, such
as rice, and shifting to increased wheat production. Egypt, where the
word "bread" also means "life," is the world's No. 1 importer of
wheat. Agricultural experts say reducing rice production while
increasing wheat yields would conserve water and meet the country's
Such a scenario may be forced upon farmers if the Nile's flow is
curtailed and irrigation canals become parched. Egypt's water and
irrigation minister, Mohamed Bahaa El Din Saad, said recently that
overpopulation, farming and other water uses have left the country
with a "water deficit" of billions of gallons.
"More than 90% of the water for Egypt's 90 million people is coming in
from the Nile," Achouri said. "The only way out is for more efficient
Special correspondent Reem Abdellatif contributed to this report.
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