Dwindling Oasis: Egypt's Water Politics

Article excerpt

There isn't much to drink in the desert. Military conflict over water in the Middle East has long been the rule rather than the exception, and control of the resource was a major flashpoint during the Israeli-Arab wars of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Today's most dynamic water debate lies in Egypt, where its historic control of the waters of the Nile River is slowly eroding. Egypt's water security will be tested in the coming years, but the government must resist the temptation to take preemptive action.

For decades, Egypt maintained aggressive control over the Nile by demanding that no efforts be made to impede the river's flow downstream. In 1991, Cairo fueled regional tensions by declaring publicly that it would use force on any nation attempting to impede its utilization of the Nile's waters. Its stance appeared to soften in February 1999, when the ten countries that share the Nile Basin--Egypt, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda--formed the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), a toothless organization dedicated to discussing fair distribution of the river's waters. Since the NBI's formation, several projects have been started by the upstream nations to utilize water flow. Tanzania commenced a US$27.6 billion project to build a pipeline extracting freshwater from a source of the Nile, Lake Victoria. Meanwhile, Uganda and Kenya have expressed interest in building a hydroelectric dam along the river.

These are scary prospects for Egypt, especially considering the lack of information it has received on these projects in terms of water allocation. The state newspaper Al-Ahram has openly declared that their government has no details of how much of Egypt's water will be lost due to proposed Nile utilization projects. If other basin nations follow the lead of Tanzania and Uganda, the situation may put hardliners concerned with Egypt's water security on edge. Some 85 percent of the country's water comes from the Nile; a recent column in Al-Ahram warned that the agricultural way of life could come to an end with reduced water quotas.

A drop in water quotas by a small amount could actually be good for Egypt in that it would help hasten the conversion of the country's economy from agriculture to manufacturing and services. The nation's water security advocates, however, are not likely to see this argument in the face of a threat to Egypt's supply of a vital resource. …