Egypt has historically adopted an aggressive approach to the flow of the River Nile. Cairo considers the Nile a national security matter and statements continue to include threats of military action against Ethiopia should it interfere with the flow as set out in agreements signed in 1929 and another in 1959.
The first agreement was made between Great Britain, as the colonial power in eastern African, and Egypt. Cairo was favored over other riparian countries as an important agricultural asset. In addition, the Egyptian-run Suez Canal was vital for British imperial ambitions.
The British riparian colonies – Sudan, Uganda, Kenya and Tanganyika (now Tanzania) – as well as Ethiopia had no say.
Under the terms, Egypt would receive 48 billion cubic metres water annually and Sudan 4 billion cubic meters. Egypt would not need the consent of upstream states to undertake water projects in its own territories but could veto projects on any tributaries of the Nile in the upstream countries, including the 43,130 square kilometer Lake Victoria. The world’s second largest fresh water lake is fed by direct precipitation and by thousands of streams from Tanzania, Burundi, Uganda and Kenya, all located in the central east of Africa.
To this day Egypt argues that the 1929 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty and its modified version, the 1959 Agreement, are still valid. The 1959 agreement, signed by Egypt and an independent Sudan, increased Egypt’s share to 55.5 billion cubic meters and Sudan’s to 18.5 billion.
These bilateral agreements totally ignored the needs of other riparian countries including Ethiopia which supplies 70% to 80% of the Nile waters. Consequently, none of the other Nile basin countries has ever approved the agreements.
It’s my argument that the strength of past agreements in modern times and Egypt’s threats to use military force are questionable for two reasons. First, the former colonies are now independent nations and should be part of negotiating a new deal. Secondly, environmental circumstances have changed: precipitation is becoming more intermittent and periods of drought are getting longer.
Egypt’s security approach
The threat to use force to defend Egypt’s right to water from the Nile has been a common theme through successive governments.
The current president of Egypt Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has described the flow of Nile to Egypt as a matter of life and death. Badr Abdelatty, Egypt’s ambassador to Germany and former spokesman of the Foreign Ministry, has described the Nile as “a national security issue that can never be compromised on”.
Even Anwar el-Sadat, the president of Egypt in the 1980s, threatened the use of force. He stated that
if Ethiopia takes any action to block our right to the Nile waters, there will be no alternative for us but to use force. Tampering with the rights of a nation to water is tampering with its life, and a decision to go to war on this score is indisputable in the international community.
He believed that after signing the Camp David Peace Accords with Israel in 1979, no other problem could again take Egypt to war except water.
The threat of using force has continued. But a security mindset is not going to guarantee Egypt its past share of the waters.
Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam
Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam constitutes a recent but probably the biggest challenge to Egypt’s militaristic approach to the Nile flow. The dam is a huge project on the headwaters of the Blue Nile in Ethiopia in Benishangul-Gumuz region, 500 km North West of the capital Addis Ababa and about 32 km east of the border of Sudan.
The dam is considered to be the largest hydropower project in Africa and 8th-largest in the world. It’s designed to generate 6,000 megawatts of electricity. The reservoir can hold more than 70 billion cu metres of water which is nearly equal to the flow of the Nile in one year.
The Ethiopian government intends to fill the dam’s immense reservoir in five years. This will have considerable impact on the downstream countries. Even after the reservoir is filled there will not be too much hope for the normalization of the flow of the Nile because Ethiopia will hold the key to the dam. Normalization is also not expected because of evaporation in the reservoir.
Another challenge to the Nile is the fact that the river is shrinking due to less and more intermittent precipitation in Ethiopia and in other upstream countries. In addition, Lake Victoria, the source of 20%-30% of the Nile waters, is shrinking at an alarming rate.
What these developments mean is that Egypt’s insistence that the old agreements should remain untouched is no longer practical.
Normal bargaining process
Egypt needs to stop issuing threats and turn its attention to normal bargaining processes as the first step towards equitable and reasonable sharing for all the riparian states.
Egypt’s threatening stance doesn’t allow compromise because security is directly connected to people’s lives and their survival. But the growing challenges are unlikely to be met with force.
In addition, Ethiopia needs to recognize Egypt’s need for water too and use its large dam for the regulation of the Nile – not its blockage. And all the Nile basin states must cooperate for the peace and prosperity of Africa.