Taming the Nile's Serpents

By Dawoud, Khaled | UNESCO Courier, October 2001 | Go to article overview

Taming the Nile's Serpents


Dawoud, Khaled, UNESCO Courier


Guzzled by Egypt but generated in Ethiopia, the waters of the Blue Nile have long been a source of sabre-rattling. A new plan might finally put an end to the spectre of a river war

Legend has it that at the time of the pharaohs, the people of Egypt sent gifts up the Nile to the kingdom of Ethiopia to placate the Gods that fed the rivers source. Egypt had, and remains to have, good reason to be grateful: some 86 percent of the water that flows down the Blue Nile to irrigate the arid North African country emanates from floodplains on Ethiopian territory.

Yet the one-way river flow between Egypt and Ethiopia--as might be expected between a country that craves water and a country that supplies it for free--has not always resulted in such harmonious exchanges of gifts. In 1979, Egypt's then president Anwar Sadat made the Nile's fate into an urgent issue of national security. "The only matter that could take Egypt to war again is water," he said in reference to Ethiopia's plans to tap into its one precious natural asset.

The potential for conflict over the water is undeniable. Some 95 percent of the Egyptian population is packed onto the fertile ribbon of land along the banks of the Nile and its delta, the country's only water sources of note. Desperately poor and underdeveloped Ethiopia, in contrast, has suffered periodic droughts since the 1970s, causing the loss of millions of lives. The Blue [Nile.sup.1], emerging largely from Lake Tana in the Ethiopian highlands, has long been eyed as a possible source for irrigation, hydroelectricity and general economic growth in a country whose population is set to boom. At present, Ethiopia consumes a mere two percent of the water available to it.

Water distribution between the two African neighbours has always had a political edge, but by the time of Sadat's sabre-rattling remarks, a different rivalry was poisoning relations. After flirting for a decade with the United States, Ethiopia found itself ruled in the 1970s by Colonel Mengistu Haile-Mariam's Marxist regime. Soviet experts invited by the colonel began studying the feasibility of damming the Nile's tributaries and exploiting its water, provoking Egypt into threatening that any dams built would be destroyed by military force.

"Although such threats gave rise to the commonly held notion that future African wars would be over water, the fact is that these tensions were a spin-off of the Cold War," argues Rushdie Saeed, one of Egypt's most prominent experts on water issues.

Since the end of the Cold War, however, the Nile waters have continued to prompt regular diplomatic spats. The early 1990s, for example, saw Sudan and Egypt at loggerheads following alleged efforts by the Sudanese government to overthrow Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak. Sudan and Ethiopia formed a joint Blue Nile Valley Organization and pledged to study several major infrastructure projects with or without Egypt's approval. Once again, Mubarak resorted to threats of military intervention.

Though a marked improvement in relations between Cairo and Khartoum has since calmed nerves, diplomats and experts are convinced that only a lasting settlement will bring peace to the Nile's coveted waters. Until now, only one agreement has been signed by Egypt and its neighbours--the Nile Waters Agreement of 1959 between Sudan and Egypt, itself based on a deal made by the region's colonial powers in 1929. Ethiopia was not even mentioned in the accord.

Yet the case for some more equitable distribution of the river waters is mounting by the day. Besides Ethiopia's traumatic droughts and destitution, studies point to a staggering rise in the country's population: current data suggest that the population will increase from 61.4 million at present to 186 million in 2050. Given that only 1.7 percent of the country's arable land is irrigated (compared to 100 percent of Egypt's), an exponential rise in demand for water is only to be expected. …

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