Will the next Middle East war be about water?

by Claude Salhani

It is quite likely that the next major military flare-up in the Middle East will be fought not over oil or territory nor over religious beliefs or due to clashing political ideologies. No, the central cause could well be water.

Water is rapidly becoming the most important element for survival of countries as they are known today and no one country in the region is more aware of that than Egypt.

The Nile flows through 11 African countries but the river has always been regarded as principally Egypt’s domain. In many ways, the Nile is Egypt, just as Egypt is the Nile.

The Nile is one of the top two longest rivers in the world, with a course of 6,853km flowing north to the Mediterranean. The Amazon in South America is perhaps slightly longer but sources differ.

Without the waters of the Nile Egypt would cease to exist. Egypt and the Nile have been associated ever since history began to be recorded.

This is obvious to anyone flying over Egypt and seeing the greenish-blue slithery course of the river with vegetation on either bank extending no more than 20km at the widest part and then nothing but sand in all directions, with of course the exception of the delta.

So vital is the water of the Nile to Egyptians that Cairo has threatened to go to war with any country that meddles with the flow of the river. Egypt was ready to fight Sudan and Ethiopia when plans were made by those countries to divert the flow of the river.

Now, hundreds of kilometres up river from Egypt, Ethiopia is building a huge dam that will give it control of the Nile. How will Cairo respond to what has always been regarded as a clear and present threat to the national interest?

Construction on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam began in 2017 on the Blue Nile, the largest of the two tributaries that supply about 85% of water into Egypt. This is a $5 billion project near the border with Sudan.

Once completed it will be the largest dam in Africa, capable of producing 6,000 megawatts of electricity for domestic consumption and export, and a much-needed revenue source for Addis Ababa.

Ethiopia’s ambitious hydroelectric project is designed to lift its fast-growing population out of poverty. However, the dam puts management of the flow of the Blue Nile in Ethiopia’s hands, a concept that has sparked a power shift in the region.

Although neither of the Nile’s two branches — the Blue and the White — originate in Egypt, the single river they create reaches the Mediterranean at Egypt’s northern coast and it has long been Cairo that was the de facto authority policing the distribution of the Nile’s resources.

The Blue Nile has its source in Lake Victoria, between Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania, while the White Nile begins at Lake Tana in Ethiopia. It’s near Khartoum in central Sudan that the Blue and White have a confluence that results in the Nile.

The authority to police the precious waters of the Nile was granted to Egypt in 1929 through an agreement signed by Egypt and Great Britain, ignoring the other ten riparian countries concerned, which were then under British colonial rule. Another agreement, in 1959, involved Britain, Egypt and Sudan.

Those two accords, known as the Nile Waters Agreements, grant 18.5 billion cubic metres of water a year to Sudan and 55.5 billion cubic metres to Egypt. There is no mention of Ethiopia or the other riparian countries. The agreements granted Egypt veto power over construction projects on the Nile.

Egypt not only needs the Nile waters, it says it has a legal and historical right to them, a position disputed by the other countries.

The countries upstream from Egypt claim the agreements are outdated and do not apply any longer and that they are not bound by the agreements because they were never consulted.

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam was cause for concern but Egypt realised that the military option was not a realistic approach and switched to diplomacy, engaging in direct negotiations with Ethiopia. A scientific commission was established to study the needs of the countries concerned and exchange visits between Cairo and Addis Ababa have given hope that the Nile will continue to flow peacefully.

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