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On Point

No Denial on the Nile: Egypt Threatens Ethiopian Dams


by Austin Bay
June 11, 2013

In a humiliating example of self-inflicted electronic bugging, last week a live broadcast television microphone in Egyptian President Muhammed Morsi's Cairo office caught the president and Egypt's most senior political leaders plotting sneak attacks on the upstream Nile's biggest dam builder, Ethiopia.

No denial on the Nile. When an audience of millions overhears pious Egyptian Islamists and well-heeled Egyptian liberals mull classic covert warfare options -- such as having Ethiopian rebels sabotage Ethiopia's new Blue Nile dams or deploying shady political agents to agitate in Addis Ababa -- the usual diplomatic salve, plausible denial, isn't an option.

In point of fact, the Egyptian government's initial embarrassment has given way to hard-edged declaration. Egyptians will fight Ethiopia for every drop of Nile River water!

For politically fractured and factionalized Egypt, war talk is a unifying tonic and a distraction from Egypt's endless miseries. Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood government has simply failed to address the enormous economic and social problems afflicting Egypt.

Solving embedded societal ills requires a national unity of purpose. Morsi has been a national divider. His sharia-based constitution delighted Muslim Brothers but dismayed Egypt's liberals. His attempt to invoke emergency rule (reminiscent of Hosni Mubarak) splintered Egypt's Arab Spring revolutionary front. Muslim moderates joined with secular liberals and demanded he resign.

But Nile water sustains all Egyptians. The trite adage, "Egypt is the Nile," is true. From Aswan north to Alexandria on the Mediterranean Sea, the green band bordering the great river is home to 90 percent of Egypt's population.

Morsi needs a route to national reconciliation. The Nile Water War (temporarily) solves Egypt's broken puzzle: Us Downstream Egyptians versus Them Upstream Ethiopians.

But Ethiopia's dams did not suddenly appear. For two decades every nation in east Africa has known Ethiopia intended to build several large hydro-electric dams and become Africa's biggest power exporter.

Ethiopia has been waging a steady diplomatic campaign asserting its rights to Nile water. Ethiopia's case is as passionately essential as Egypt's. One word defines the basic case: famine. Water in reservoirs is a hedge against famines induced by drought. Electrical power sums Ethiopia's expanded case.

Ethiopia contends the traditional division of Nile water distribution rights are based on an antiquated colonial artifact that unfairly favors Egypt. The 1929 Nile Waters agreement (engineered by Great Britain) gave Anglo-Egyptian Egypt 90 percent of the Nile's annual flow. Egypt could also veto upstream water projects. In 1957 Ethiopia announced it would utilize Nile water resources within its territory. The Blue Nile and its Ethiopian tributaries generate 75 to 85 percent of the Nile's annual flow. The White Nile, from Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania, generates the rest.

A war between east Africa's two most powerful nations would be a disaster for both. That's so obvious I'll wager even Mohammed Morsi knows it. The war options Egyptian leaders vetted included buying new long-range strike aircraft. Egypt's air force can handle border conflicts, but hitting the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is a long-range operation. Sudan separates Egypt from Ethiopia. One parliamentarian thought credible strike aircraft might give Ethiopia political pause. Ethiopia's already credible air and ground forces should give Egyptian sword rattlers pause.

In April 2011 StrategyPage.com reported that Ethiopian diplomats had proposed an interesting win-win solution. Ethiopia would sell Egypt a partnership interest in its dams. Egypt would have ownership input in the operations. Ownership guaranteed Egypt reliable hydro-electric power. Egypt would also split the profits from selling electricity throughout Africa. Hey, Cairo. For the dams to generate electricity, water must flown downstream.

Ethiopia's proposal at least creates the possibility of a win-win political deal. In time cool heads in Cairo should accept it. 

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