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Over the Water of the Nile


Last week, Africa took another step towards what could become a terribly bloody war. The government of Ethiopia announced its plans to increase defense spending by 15 percent, claiming that the increase matches economic growth. The militarization, however, comes at a time of rising tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia over the water of the Nile.

The origin of the Blue Nile lies in Lake Tana, which sits among the mountains of the Ethiopian Highlands—the so-called Roof of Africa. The Blue Nile descends through the Misraq Gojjam and into the embattled grasslands of southern Sudan, before meeting the White Nile at Khartoum and flowing through the Nubian Desert, Lake Nasser, and Lower Egypt into the Mediterranean Sea. Beyond the crocodiles and impalas, millions of people have, throughout history, lived off the bountiful flood plains of the Nile. However, the river simply cannot sustain development in East Africa.

Due to shocks of famine caused by climate change-induced drought along with land speculation, the entire region has seen widespread revolt. In spite of the revolt, the government of Ethiopia seeking capital investment over popular consent is driving people from house and home throughout the countryside to make room for vast infrastructure projects to become Africa’s number one energy producer. One of these projects is called the Renaissance Dam, which would divert the flow of the Nile in order to provide hydroelectric power and the irrigation necessary to enhance agricultural development in Ethiopia.

The Renaissance Dam would serve the GDP, but not the people of Ethiopia. The dam would provide electricity to Ethiopians while also enabling Ethiopia to sell excess electricity to Egypt and Sudan (a promise that rings tinny in the ears of Egyptians who have always relied on the steady flow of the Nile). At the same time, Ethiopia’s agricultural development calls for greater irrigation as part and parcel to the New Alliance forged between the US, multinational corporations such as Monsanto and Yarra, and several other African countries. The plan may wind up sourcing water for monocrop plantations dedicated strictly to food commodities for export, while also generating a huge amount of electricity.

Still, the government of Ethiopia has held fast against threats from downstream Egypt, which worries that it may lose valuable water to the Renaissance Dam. Relying on accords from the colonial era and beyond (1929, 1959), 90 percent of the Nile’s water is siphoned off for use in Sudan and Egypt. The latter country receives over 90 percent of its water from the Nile. In 2011, however, upstream Nile countries such as Tanzania, Uganda, Sudan and Kenya signed a Cooperative Framework Agreement to enfranchise a Nile Commission that will divvy up the water more democratically. Egypt not only refused to sign on to the agreement, but has even threatened war should a drop of water be taken without its consent.

In 2010, a diplomatic cable uncovered by Wikileaks suggested that Egypt intends to put a military base in Darfur, Sudan, so that it can strike Ethiopian dams at will, if need be. Egypt vehemently denied the report, but major Egyptian politicians were caught on tape shortly thereafter discussing the possibility of air strikes and even proxy war using Ethiopian rebels as saboteurs.

Morsi would admit in early June that Egypt did not want war, but “would keep all options open.” He warned, “Our blood will replace any decrease of the flow of the river waters, even a single drop.” Within three weeks, it was Morsi himself who would be replaced. That the Egyptian military remains in power does not necessarily bode well, however.

As minister of water and irrigation Mohamed Nasr El Din Allam explained “The dam would lead to political, economic, and social instability. Millions of people would go hungry. There would be water shortages everywhere. It’s huge.” The major concern is not only that the dam would “regulate” the flow of the Nile, but that the water withheld from the natural stream would evaporate rapidly due to climate change (and may also be utilized for irrigation purposes if Ethiopia’s government so desires).

It was Mubarak’s military that in 2010 had already raised the ire of Ethiopia. Although Sudan has come out in favor of the Renaissance Dam, since it will inhibit siltation from compromising its own dams, Egypt’s bellicosity will likely not subside with Morsi’s decline.

The Nile is a large part of Egyptian nationalism. In 1979, the putatively peaceable Anwar Sadat exclaimed, “We depend upon the Nile 100 percent in our life, so if anyone, at any moment, thinks of depriving us of our life we shall never hesitate to go to war.” Even Boutros Boutros Gahali, as the Egyptian Foreign State Minister, prophesized that “the next war in our region will be over the water of the Nile, not politics.”

The Deputy Defense Minister of Saudi Arabia, Prince Khalid Bin Sultan, joined in the fray in March, declaring that “There are fingers messing with water resources of Sudan and Egypt which are rooted in the mind and body of Ethiopia. They do not forsake an opportunity to harm Arabs without taking advantage of it.” While it is not clear exactly whose fingers the Prince sees messing around with Ethiopia’s water (even the World Bank refuses to finance the dam), the Saudi ambassador to Ethiopia disavowed the Prince’s words, opening up a kind of empty rhetorical space of international hegemony.

On June 12, 2013, the Chairperson of the African Union Commission, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, tried to even out the situation: “Both countries need to use the Nile and I think it is important to just have discussions that are open… not in the context of colonial power, but in context of pan-Africanism and African renaissance.” Yet the notion of sharing the Nile may completely alter the Egyptian water plans, requiring vast bureaucratic adjustments that will prove all but impossible in the interim years between revolution and the brass ring of stability.

According to a Cairo University study written by the Group of Nile Basin, Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam project “in the eyes of the majority of Egyptians amounts to a flagrant assault on all the basic fundamental laws and the international norms.”

Given popular animus against the Renaissance Dam, as well as Ethiopia’s steadfast pursuit of the project, there is worry that the current military government of Egypt will see a fight as a chance to rally a politically tumultuous climate. It is in fact very possible that Eastern Africa is on the brink of war over the same resource that brought life to the first humans—the water of the Nile.

Sasha Ross is a moderator of the Earth First! Newswire, the coordinator of the Earth First! Journal—Cascadia Field Office, and an activist with Bark. His recent writings can be found in continent., The Singapore Review of Books, and Life During Wartime (AK Press 2013). He is also the editor of the forthcoming anthology, Grabbing Back: Resistance Against the Global Land Grab (AK Press 2014). This article is also being published at

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