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June 19, 2013

The Nile: Egypt must start a Blue Revolution, Part 2/2

Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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In 2011, Ethiopia seizing on Egypt's post-revolution political uncertainty put into motion its plans to build a massive $4.8 billion hydropower dam - known as the Grand Renaissance Dam - along the Blue Nile river within its own borders despite Egypt's opposition to the project. When built, the dam could mean massive food, water and electric power shortages for Egypt.

A colonial-era treaty brokered by Great Britain gave Egypt, a desert country, “historic rights” over the Nile River’s resources. The treaty gave Egypt the right to veto any project in upstream countries affecting Egypt’s share of water flowing to it. The 1929 agreement is binding for the three upstream countries — Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda — on the grounds that Britain, which colonized these countries, was their legal representative and could sign binding international agreements on their behalf.

In 1959 Egypt codified its legal status in an agreement with Sudan. The agreement gave Cairo 55.5 billion cubic meters of water (or 66% of the total water flow) and Sudan received 18.5 billion cubic meters (22%). The remainder is lost to evaporation.

Egypt's population has more than doubled since the 1960s. But Ethiopia, with its 93 millions, is also facing similar demographic pressures. Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi says the current division of water use along the river is anything but fair.

About 2.5 million Ethiopian farmers depend on food aid to survive. The Ethiopian government says this state of affairs continues because it has not been able to meaningfully exploit the massive natural resource which passes largely untapped through its territory. This means the agriculture on which so much of the population depends is at the mercy of seasonal rains which are becoming increasingly erratic.

The UN's World Food Program says there are up to nine million Ethiopians in need of food aid as rain in the country is becoming ever more unreliable.

"While Egypt is taking the Nile water to transform the Sahara Desert into something green, we in Ethiopia - who are the source of 85% of that water - are denied the possibility of using it to feed ourselves. And we are being forced to beg for food every year," Mr. Zenawi said.

He said he is becoming increasingly angry at Egypt's long running objections to requests from other Nile basin nations to use the river's waters for major irrigation projects.

And he warns that his government, along with those of Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania - who share the White Nile with Egypt - will no longer be intimidated by past threats, principally by the late President Anwar Sadat, to use force to maintain its grip on the Nile.

Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam along the Nile River will not affect Egypt’s share of the Nile water, said the Ethiopian Minister of Foreign affairs Berhane Gebre Christos.

“The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project is created to generate electricity and not for agricultural purposes,” he added, “We do not seek to harm Egypt by building this dam, Ethiopia does not claim one bit that it possesses the Nile River alone.”

While hydropower dams — used to generate electricity — in theory eventually allow the dammed water to flow through, Egyptian officials remain wary of Ethiopia’s intentions. The dam is built along the Blue Nile; the river that provides Egypt with about 60 percent of its annual 55 billion cubic meters of Nile water, used for drinking and food production. At The dam generates 6,000 megawatts of hydroelectric power with a reservoir capable of holding roughly 65 billion cubic meters of water.

Downstream countries, Egypt and Sudan have not signed a new sharing agreement drafted by Ethiopia. The agreement would strip Egypt of its majority share of the river’s water. But the upstream countries which include Ethiopia, Eritrea, Uganda, Congo, Burundi, Tanzania, Rwanda, Kenya and most recently South Sudan have all signed.

The 2010 Entebbe Agreement would modify the historical and legal basis for the sharing of the Nile water. Although it is not legally binding for Egypt and Sudan, it does show that Ethiopia is aware of the balance of power and it is trying to impose facts on the ground regarding the construction of dams by all upstream countries.

Oil was the defining resource of the twentieth century, but it was an exception; for most human history water has been the crucial resource and it will still be for this century and beyond.

By 2025, the global demand for domestic and industrial water use is predicted to rise by two-thirds. Between 2010 and 2025, the world population is expected to grow from 6.7 billion to 9 billion. Yet water scarcity in that same period is expected to cut global food production by 385 million tons a year.

Security in general and water security in particular require hard work. Will Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi realize the seriousness of the situation and deal with that issue as a major national matter instead of trying to score brownie points against his political opposition as the fiasco of his presidential meeting, which was aired on live-TV without informing the participants, testify?

Instead of fighting a “water war” what Egypt needs is to lead an African “Blue Revolution” which is friendly to water resources including that of the Nile as much as the “Green Revolution” is friendly to the environment. This should include active engagement of the Nile basin states in mutually fair and acceptable agreement incorporating equitable distribution of all water resources, not just the Nile, with ambition targets for reducing water consumption and an institutional framework for their implantation.

The time is now.

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