Robert I. Rotberg

The threat of a water war

Egypt and Sudan draw battle lines with upstream nations over access to the Nile

By Robert I. Rotberg
July 2, 2010

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NATIONS FIGHT over water, especially when access is curtailed or threatened, and there are the ingredients for a battle over the 4,100-mile long Nile River. Egypt and Sudan have counted on the abundance of the Nile’s life-giving flow. Now upstream nations want to keep more of the abundance for themselves. Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Congo, Burundi, and Rwanda are asserting their rights to more of the river’s relentless flow. Washington needs to intervene to forestall hostilities between the countries.

Britain conquered Uganda and Kenya in the 19th century in part to protect the precious Nile waters from being diverted away from their critical possession of Egypt, the Suez Canal, and the Red Sea route to India. Without the yearly sustaining floods of the Nile, agriculture and settlement in the valley of the river from Luxor to Cairo and Alexandria would have been impossible.

When Britain in the 1920s controlled all of the waters of the Nile, bar those sluicing down the Blue Nile from Ethiopia, it signed a pact that gave Egypt and Sudan rights to nearly 75 percent of its annual flow. This 1929 agreement was confirmed in 1959, after Egypt and the Sudan had broken from Britain but while the East African countries were still colonies.

A new 2010 Cooperative Framework Agreement, now signed by most of the key upstream abutters, would give all riparian states (including the Congo, where a stream that flows into Lake Tanganyika is the acknowledged Nile source) equal access to the resources of the river. That would give preference to large scale upstream energy and industrial, as well as long-time agricultural and irrigation uses.

Egypt and Sudan have refused to sign the new agreement, despite years of discussions and many heated meetings. Given climate change, the drying up of water sources everywhere in Africa and the world, Egypt, which is guaranteed 56 billion of the annual flow of 84 billion cubic meters of Nile water each year, hardly wants to lose even a drop of its allocation. Nor does Sudan, guaranteed 15 billion cubic meters.

About 300 million people depend on the waters of the Nile. The upstream countries, with still growing populations, believe that their socio-economic development has long been unfairly constrained by Egypt’s colonial-era lock on the river. Ethiopia and Uganda have not been able to support agricultural schemes. Nor have they been able fully to harness the river or its tributaries for industry and power. Both have suffered from major hydroelectric shortages in recent years.

Egypt has declared the continued surge of the Nile waters a “red line’’ that affects its “national security.’’ There is discussion in Egypt about the use of air power to threaten upstream offenders, especially if Ethiopia becomes too demanding. In theory, Ethiopia could divert much of the Blue Nile to its own uses. Or Ethiopia and others could charge Egypt for water that has largely escaped modern pricing.

Egypt is sufficiently disturbed by Ethiopia’s potentially aggressive water designs that it has recently made friends with Eritrea, Ethiopia’s arch enemy. In 1998, Ethiopia and Eritrea went to war over slices of insignificant mountainous territory. Although the shooting ended in 2000, a peace settlement handed down by the World Court in 2006 has still not been observed by both sides. If Egypt attacks Ethiopia, Eritrea might join in. Egyptian generals claim that Israel is on the other side, helping the upstream nations by encouraging their thirst for water and by financing the construction of four hydroelectric projects in Ethiopia.

All these issues provide conditions for a war over water. Washington, Egypt’s largest donor, has significant leverage to de-escalate tensions and mediate between the haves and have-nots. After all, Washington supports both Egypt and Ethiopia lavishly and militarily. It needs to demand that all sides stand down.

Robert I. Rotberg directs Harvard Kennedy School’s Program on Intrastate Conflict and is president of the World Peace Foundation.

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