Ethiopia’s parliament this week voted to push ahead with the country’s controversial Blue Nile hydroelectric dam project. The move is bound to raise the political stakes even higher following threats earlier this week by Egypt that it would go to war over Ethiopia’s plan to build a $4.7-billion dam on the great river.
Egypt claims that construction of the dam in Ethiopia will cause grave detriment to its supply of fresh water and spell ruin to its economy.
Most of Egypt’s 85 million people live on the banks of the Nile and the country relies on the river for over 95 per cent of its fresh water supply. For millennia, Egyptian civilization has depended on the bountiful Nile - the world’s longest river, stretching more than 6,500 kilometers from its source in Central Africa to its outlet in the Mediterranean Sea, just north of Egypt’s capital, Cairo.
The Nile comprises two tributaries: the longer White Nile originates in Burundi or Rwanda (still a matter of dispute among geographers) and it meets with the Blue Nile coming out of Ethiopia. The meeting point is near Khartoum, the capital of North Sudan, and thence the Nile flows on to Egypt. However, it is Ethiopia’s Blue Nile that provides more than 85 per cent of the downstream water of the Lower Nile.
That is why the construction of the mega dam in Ethiopia has apparently provoked so much alarm in Egypt. Ethiopia’s Blue Nile hydroelectric project - the biggest in Africa - has been on the drawing board for several years, initiated by the country’s late prime minister, Meles Zenawi, who died last year. At the end of last month, Ethiopia began diverting the water of the Blue Nile to enable construction of the dam.
Egypt has responded now with dire calls of national emergency, led by its president, Mohammed Morsi. This week Morsi said that his country reserved the right to militarily defend its vital national interests.
“All options are on the table,” he said, adding that any drop of water lost would be replaced by Egyptian blood. Morsi has since toned down the war rhetoric towards Ethiopia.
But, nevertheless, the relations between Africa’s second and third most populous countries remain extremely fraught, especially in light of the latest move by Ethiopia’s lawmakers to push ahead with the dam. Some Salafist members of Egypt’s parliament have even called for covert sabotage of the dam, which at this stage is about 20 per cent complete. Those calls prompted the Ethiopians this week to summon the Egyptian ambassador in Addis Ababa to explain his country’s declared baleful intentions.
Ethiopia’s concerns will have only been underscored by talking points released also this week by the Pentagon-aligned think-tank, Stratfor, which weighed up Egypt’s options of military sabotage, including air strikes and demolition by Special Forces.
So, what is going on here? Nobody is denying that the Nile is a vital national interest for Egypt. But it seems a reckless and outrageous leap of hysteria by Egypt to launch threats of war against Ethiopia over the issue.
Ethiopia’s prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, has vowed that the Blue Nile hydroelectric scheme is not intended to adversely affect the flow of water to Egypt or Sudan. His view is supported by a recent study conducted by technical people from Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, which concluded that there would be no significant long-term reduction in downstream water supply as a result the dam.
However, without presenting contrary expert evidence, Egypt’s Morsi asserts that his country’s water supply will be curtailed by 20 per cent - a reduction that would indeed be catastrophic for the already drought-prone North African country. But this is the big question: is Egypt’s supply of fresh water really threatened? The scientific study so far would say not.
That raises the further question: why is president Morsi making such a big deal about Ethiopia’s Blue Nile project? The answer may be less to do with Ethiopia diverting water and more to do with Morsi diverting political problems within his own country.
Later this month, on 30 June, there is a mass opposition rally planned in Cairo to mark the first anniversary of Morsi taking office. The Muslim Brotherhood president has seen a very rocky first year in power, with many Egyptians not happy with his policies since he took over from the ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak.
Top of the popular grievances against Morsi is his support for Salafist extremists in NATO’s covert regime-change war in Syria; his continuing collusion with Israel in its oppression of Palestinians; and, domestically, Morsi has been accused of doing little to improve the living standards of Egypt’s majority of impoverished workers and
Morsi’s belligerent rhetoric over Ethiopia’s Blue Nile project has sought to divert internal opposition to his government into an international dispute with a neighbouring African country.
In his fiery speeches recently, Morsi has been working the crowds with jingoism and nationalism, stressing that Egyptians are “at one” over their claimed rights to the Nile water. The obvious theme here by Morsi is to convince Egyptians to put aside their objections to his dubious governance and to focus instead on an ostensible external enemy - Ethiopia.
Let’s look at the issue from Ethiopia’s point of view. The Blue Nile is geographically a national resource of Ethiopia. It originates from the country’s northern highlands, which drain into Lake Tana, one of Africa’s largest lakes. From there, the Blue Nile meanders northwards on its long journey to the Mediterranean.
The river might be more accurately called the Brown Nile because of its muddy colour owing to the fertile minerals and organic matter that it leaches from the Ethiopian land. This is partly why the Nile has sustained Egypt’s agriculture for millennia - it is a river of natural goodness courtesy of Ethiopia’s rich soil.
But the way Ethiopians see it - and they have just cause - is why should their country not be the first beneficiary of the powerful and fertile water of the Nile?
After all, ask Ethiopians, does Egypt give away its natural oil and gas wealth to other countries for free? No, so why should Ethiopia permit its primary water resource to be freely accessed by others at the cost of its own pressing development needs?
Egypt claims that it has historic and legal right to the Nile. This refers to a treaty signed in 1929 between the 11 countries that share the Nile water. They include the downstream countries of Egypt and Sudan (North and South) and the upstream lands of Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda.
That historic treaty gave Egypt and Sudan veto power over any of the upstream countries tapping water from the Blue and White Niles. The treaty also gave Egypt the lion’s share of the headwaters - some 70 per cent. Who instigated that 1929 Nile treaty? Well, wouldn’t you know? - It was the jolly-good-old British Empire.
It was the British who insisted that their former colonial territories of Egypt and Sudan should receive the abundance of the Nile from the sub-Saharan African countries - for free and forevermore.
The legal rights that modern-day Egypt refers to are, therefore, the legacy of British colonialism that was designed to disadvantage poor black African nations for the benefit of British capital in Egypt and Sudan. In other words, from a modern-day democratic and ethical point of view, the Nile treaty that Egypt lionizes is not worth the British blood-spattered colonial-era paper it is written.
Seen from this vantage, the Blue Nile is a vast natural resource that Ethiopia has not been allowed to avail of simply because of historic British-imposed laws.
While Egypt has for decades gained free water, soil fertility and has constructed its own hydroelectric dams on the river, Ethiopia and the other African source countries are barred from such benefits. And yet the needs of Ethiopia’s population are heartrendingly dire. The country of 85 million - on parity with Egypt - is one of the poorest in the world with some 70 per cent of the population subsisting on less than $2 a day.
A major factor in Ethiopia’s underdevelopment is the lack of electricity. Every day the country is subject to blackouts, a crippling impediment to humanitarian development. If the Blue Nile project goes ahead, it is projected to supply 6,000 megawatts of electricity - six times the output, for example, from Iran’s Bushehr power station working at full capacity.
But here is perhaps the winning argument. It is not just Ethiopia’s sovereign right to use its Blue Nile resource for the betterment of its people; and it’s not just the rejection of arbitrary unjust colonial-era laws. There is an all-important long-term ecological reason for why Ethiopia should go ahead with its hydroelectric plans. Ironically, this reason is also in Egypt’s long-term interest.
Meteorological data is backed up by anecdotal observations of Ethiopian elders that the country’s rainfall has been seriously declining over many years. The vital rainy season is becoming shorter and more erratic. This ominous climate change is directly connected with the fact that Ethiopia has lost some 90 per cent of its forests over recent decades.
This lack of tree cover has resulted in the land becoming more arid and barren posing a dangerous threat to not only food security in a famine-risk country, but also to the replenishment of Lake Tana and the Blue Nile. A primary reason for the deforestation in Ethiopia is the need for charcoal upon which most Ethiopians rely for cooking and daily sustenance. That need for charcoal and resultant destruction of forests and decline in rainfall arises because of the chronic lack of electricity.
If Ethiopia is to reverse its deforestation and dwindling rainfall that will require giving its people access to electricity in order to obviate the unsustainable use of charcoal as the primary domestic fuel.
The Blue Nile hydro-project gives Ethiopia a way out of that dilemma.
By allowing the country to develop electrical power and to repair its ecology and water management, the future of the Blue Nile will also be conserved. The present prevailing situation of deforestation and declining water supply to the Blue Nile is in nobody’s interest, including that of Egypt.
Instead of declaring war and threatening to send in commandos to blow up Ethiopia’s nascent dam project, Egypt’s president Morsi should step back and view the bigger picture, not just for the sake of Ethiopians, but also for the sake of his country’s long-term dependence on the continued viability of the Blue Nile. Then Morsi might realize that all his reckless bellicose rhetoric towards Ethiopia is ‘dam stupid’.