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On May 28, Egyptian media reported that Ethiopia had started diverting the Blue Nile as it prepared to build the Grand Renaissance Dam – a project Addis Ababa says will help meet its energy needs.
Egypt and Sudan, both downstream countries, would stand to lose a lot of volume of water should the dam be completed.
Egyptian authorities, apparently caught off guard, immediately summoned the Ethiopian ambassador to express their objection to the dam’s construction.
This has been a recurring back-and-forth between Egypt and Ethiopia. Shortly after the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in the January 25 Uprising in early 2011, the newly formed cabinet strongly objected to Ethiopia’s dam project.
“[This] is a violation of the rights of Sudan and Egypt,” a cabinet statement said at the time.
But Ethiopia’s most recent move appears to come shortly after it’s erstwhile adversary Eritrea, one of the 10 African nations that share Nile River waters, last month announced its support of Egypt and Sudan’s ‘historical’ rights over the valuable resource.
Colonial agreement defunct?
Tensions have been simmering since 2010 after countries that share the Nile river basin moved to revise the colonial-era treaties that not only allocate the bulk of the river’s water to Egypt but also allow Cairo to veto upstream dam projects.
Under the current 1929 agreement, Egypt currently controls 55 billion of the 88 billion cubic meters of water derived from the Nile every year.
But African nations, which have gained independence from colonialism in the past six decades and have undergone population growth, say the agreement needs revising.
Ethiopia has taken the initiative in this regard by pushing for construction of the Grand Renaissance Dam.
Estimated to cost $4.8 billion and generate 5250 MW of electricity, the dam – Egyptians fear – will threaten their country’s only substantial water resource in the region.
Now, Eritrea’s position puts it at loggerheads with other Riparian countries who have challenged Egypt and Sudan for the Nile.
Former foes, Ethiopia and Eritrea, fought a two-year war between 1998 and 2000. According to observers, Eritrea’s statement might lead to growing conflict between the African neighbors.
Ibrahim El Nur, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo, says Eritrea’s position is a reaction to Ethiopia’s continued occupation of Eritrean land despite a verdict by the International Court on their conflagration.
“When it comes to the Nile issue, Eritrea is a minor player and the three major players are Ethiopia which provides 86 percent of the Nile water, and Sudan and Egypt who consume 99 percent of the water provided,” said El-Nur.
The two agreements formulated in 1929 and 1959 had provided Egypt and Sudan – better known as the downstream countries – with the largest share of the Nile throughout history. The 1929 treaty signed by the colonizers provided Egypt with veto power over the upstream states.
The second treaty, also formed and signed by the colonizers, granted Egypt and Sudan with the largest share of the river.
Egypt’s Nile share is an essential component for its sustainability especially with the growing population increasing Egypt’s need of water.
“Nile Basin populations increased five-fold thus the common pool became intensely populated and the fragile non-riparian zones are increasingly integrating into the Nile region adding further pressures,” added El-Nur.
Today, the eight African neighbors – known as the upstream countries – are demanding the redistribution of the Nile water.
Entebbe Agreement rising
In 2010 they managed to enact the Entebbe Agreement, signed by six nations. South Sudan said earlier this year it would sign the Agreement. Only Egypt, Sudan and now Eritrea have refused to sign.
Ethiopia and other riparian countries believe the agreement between seven of the Nile Basin states will help advance the upstream countries.
According to Hamid Ali, a Public Policy and Administration professor at the American University in Cairo, is not surprised that Ethiopia moved to more escalation after Eritrea announced its support of Cairo’s position.
On the question of the building of dams, Hamid said: “Egypt should vigorously engage with Ethiopia in a constructive dialogue and create partnership to avoid its impact on its share [of the Nile].”
Hamid’s proposal could gain Cairo some tract.
Several ministers in the post-Mubarak era have already made attempts to woo African countries to Cairo’s position. During one ministerial visit to Uganda last year, Yoweri Museveni, the Ugandan president, told Egyptian media that it is environmental dangers, and not politics, that are threatening the Nile.
Museveni said that the lack of investment and development in upstream sources posed a real threat to the Nile. He mentioned that the unavailability of enough electricity urged farmers to cut trees to use them as fuel, which ultimately harmed the local ecosystem.
“Sixty percent of the rain reaching us comes from the Pacific Ocean and 30 percent is from inner rains. Cutting down trees intervenes with that 60 percent,” Museveni told Ahram Weekly.
He stated that the Nile is as important for the upstream countries as it is for Egypt. “Ethiopia is suffering from famines. The Nile is not a matter of life or death to Egypt only,” he said.
Development investment needed
Mahmoud El Gazzar, the CEO of Kibuli Muslim Hospital in the Ugandan capital Kampala, is an Egyptian who has been living in Uganda for 18 years.
He believes that Egypt has not been paying enough attention to African countries in the past decades, causing the Nile water dispute to damage relations with Uganda.
“Why couldn’t we have helped them before, or had good-will missions, projects, and businesses from people to people,” he added.
Shortly after Mubarak’s ouster, Egypt announced a $100-million joint investment to boost the Kampala’s electric power grid; only 11 percent of Ugandans currently have access to electric power
Cairo is also investing at least $27 million in improving Uganda’s rail transportation system.
But Egypt’s help to Uganda extends beyond merely offering economic assistance packages; it goes as far as to provide charity aid in the form of medical outreach.
Medical assistanceOrganizations such as International Continence Society (ICS) and its Egypt Fistula Committee have visited several areas in Uganda to perform necessary and life-sustaining surgeries for women who suffer from visceral vaginal fistulae.
A fistula is an abnormal hollow opening, created as a result of the prolonged thrusting of the baby’s head against the pelvic ball, which lies between the vagina and the urethra or bladder. Urine then leaks through the vaginal opening, instead of taking a straight path down the bladder.
More than 140,000 women in Uganda suffer from fistulae.
Nuriat Nakalwa, a 32-year-old who had given birth recently, started to immediately suffer from fistulae. She was living along the banks of the Nile River flowing through Uganda when our reporter recently met with her.
Young women such as Nuriat often find themselves unable to control their urine after they spend days at a time in obstructed labor; fistula complications normally affect women who gave birth at a very young age.
Some like Nuriat are raped in their early teens. She underwent the same surgery three times in the overwhelmed governmental referral hospital, but they failed time and again. Others like Betty Nalumansi, a 32-year-old teacher, tried to swerve around the poor public health system, and went to a private hospital; the doctors there, however, asked her to collect Sh1.5 million or $638 to repair her fistula.
Fistula complications are common in most African countries, but less widespread in Egypt.
The ICS’s fistula committee, launched in October 2009, aims to make visits to nine sub-continental world zones; in these areas, the committee, made up of a panel of urologists and gynecologists, help a large number of female fistula patients by operating on them free of charge. They also train local surgeons in the field.
So far, the committee carried its second zoning expedition, both times in African countries.
Cairo’s tight rope
But in trying to win allies for its cause, the Egyptian government could be walking on a tight rope. On one hand, it has to find the means to revitalize its own economy not only weakened by the January 25 Uprising, but also, by other neighboring Arab revolts in the region as well.
As a result, the Egyptian government’s economic strategy aimed at increasing investments in other Nile Basin countries – Ethiopia included – in the Construction, Industrial, and Agricultural sectors respectively, could find itself without sufficient funding. Egypt itself has for the past 18 months steadily faced dwindling energy supplies. Power cuts have become a near daily occurrence for tens of millions of Egyptians.
Ultimately, the Egyptian leadership may need to make concessions with regard to its Nile policy.
While political dialogue was missing during the Mubarak era, experts suggested alternative methods to solve the water issue between the neighboring states.
“The Nile Basin countries should think of ways to augment the Nile flow, especially from the White Nile [Uganda],” says Ali.
Ali urges regional financial institutions to invest and provide technology for water conservation and regulation of the Nile River flow to meet the growing demand for water.
By Randa El-Dieb and Nadeen Shaker for The BRICS Post