water war

How many wars can the world cope with at a time ? As global hot spots proliferate, Africa too appears on the brink of a major water war.  Unless global powers intervene to defuse the conflict, the consequences could reach far and wide.  

Talk in Cairo and Khartoum of a military response to “Ethiopian intransigence” has resurfaced again after the failure of the latest round of talks over how to mitigate the impact of the controversial Ethiopian dam, GERD, on the Nile on downstream Egypt and Sudan.

Both countries have been demanding a legally binding agreement on how to mitigate the impact of the dam, but Ethiopia rejects that, renewing fears that Addis Ababa wants to exercise total control over the Nile, which is, literally, a lifeline for Egypt and Sudan.    

By global powers  I mean the US, EU, Russia and China, which , understandably,  have a lot on their plate right now — the pandemic, the economic fall out while contending with a potential geopolitical conflict on their metaphorical doorsteps (Russia-Ukraine, South China Sea, North Korea and the rest etc)   

I assume – and hope – they all have a stake in stable Egypt, Sudan and the whole of East Africa.  Any major conflagration there would make the conflicts in Syria and Libya pale in comparison.  More than two hundred million people could be hurt if a military conflict breaks out.  Egypt alone has a population of more than one hundred million and a major destabilising conflict there or long lasting drought as a result of the Ethiopian dam would inevitably wash on the shores of Southern Europe — much like the turmoil in Libya and Syria have. Perhaps worse.       

Egypt and Sudan have agreed, albeit reluctantly, to the construction of the mega hydroelectric dam, Africa’s biggest, along the Blue Nile tributary – which is the main source of water for Sudan and Egypt. The main sticking point in the negotiations have been two issues : Egypt and Sudan – in particular the former – do not want the dam to affect their historically established shares of the waters, without which agriculture will be decimated  leading to widespread drought and famine. Ethiopia, sticking with its Pan-African card, has consistently refused international mediation other than by the African Union, which so far has proven to be hopelessly useless.

Egypt – most of which is arid — relies nearly totally on the Nile for drinking water and agriculture. It receives 55.5 billion cubic meters annually from the Nile, Sudan 18.5 — a tiny fraction of the total amount of water Ethiopia enjoys annually : nearly ONE BILLION cubic meters of water, from rain, lakes and other rivers.

The second point is regarding the management of the dam itself. Egypt and Sudan want a legally binding agreement on how to fill and manage the dam, but Ethiopia has stubbornly refused, sparking fears downstream that it wants to exercise exclusive control over the waters of the river, which flies in the face of established international conventions regarding transboundary rivers.  

On the diplomatic front, Ethiopia has sought to deploy two cards – race and history —   to undermine Egyptian and Sudanese demands.      

It has insisted that it will no longer abide by “colonial era” agreements and appear to have had some success in sub-Saharan Africa and among African Americans in the US.   A group of African-American Congressmen have come to its rescue and issued a statement in support of the Ethiopian narrative — without checking the underlying facts.

Ethiopia is the least colonised of African states. I only wish those Americans would check what their official government sources say on the matter : ” Unique among African countries, the ancient Ethiopian monarchy maintained its freedom from colonial rule with the exception of a short-lived Italian occupation from 1936-41. ” says the CIA Factbook.

Ethiopia’s insistence on keeping the dispute within the African Union and rejecting any “outside” mediation reinforces the same “race” card.

Ethiopia is wrong on both counts and those who bought into the self-serving narrative should consider this : the Sudanese are just as black as the rest of sub Saharan Africa, and the Egyptians are a mix of brown and black. Their history and culture are intertwined with that of sub-Saharan Africa.

Crucially, Ethiopia’s history with its immediate neighbours – Somalia, Kenya and Eritrea — has been riddled with war and conflict. Where was its Pan-African conscience back then !     

The Ethiopian argument about “colonial era agreements” is another red herring.  The treaty Egypt and Sudan invoke is the one signed between the Ethiopian “Emperor Menilik II, King of Kings of Ethiopia” and the British in 1902 – Ethiopia was not coerced into signing this document, it was an independent and sovereign state when it entered the agreement,  which obliged it not to undertake any major development on the Blue Nile that could affect the flow of the water to Sudan and Egypt.  In return, it got a piece of territory from what is today Sudan, and where the dam is being constructed. 

Even if one was to conceded the “colonial” nature of the agreement, just for the sake of the argument, imagine what would happen if African states were to tear up colonial era agreements and border demarcation! A recipe for total chaos.

Egypt has made many disastrous mistakes too. Successive leaders have ignored sensible advice and failed to reach out to Ethiopia to agree on joint management of the Nile waters. Instead, Cairo thought it could maintain the long stick approach for ever preventing Ethiopia from seeking to exploit the waters to its own exclusive advantage.  It has behaved arrogantly and short-sightedly. It’s paying the price of past mistakes.  

But we are where we are. Egypt is extremely water poor by international standards, and  cannot live without its current share of the Nile waters. If the Ethiopian dam leads to a reduction in that share, it may have no other option but to act to prevent that from happening.  

The world has to intervene before it’s too late.                                          


Magdi Abdelhadi

Writer, broadcaster, moderator, media consultant. I commute between London and Cairo. I am a former BBC journalist. All views here are only mine.

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