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Egypt, Ethiopia Headed For War Over Water

Posted by addisethiopia on April 1, 2013

To illustrate the Nile’s importance, we should remember that Egypt is the largest desert oasis in the world. Life in Egypt is concentrated on the river banks where 90 million people live. In short, any Egyptian government should have one eye on the Horn of Africa — on Ethiopia, where the source of the Nile lies — and another eye on the Sinai Peninsula and the Levant, and the balance of power there. History has shown that most of Egypt’s invaders entered through that door.

Last week, the Lebanese website “As-Safir” expressed some interesting thoughts on questions related to the NILE issue. The writing begins with a prophetic remark about a possible war between Ethiopia and – after highlighting the importance of the river Nile for Egypt, the writer went on to outline, that, unlike in the past, the current geopolitical framework strengthens Ethiopia’s position, and gave six key indicators, and a recommendation for it:

First, the disintegration of Somalia, Ethiopia’s traditional rival with which it fought a tough war over the Ogaden region, removed the geopolitical balance facing Ethiopia’s political ambitions in the region. Ethiopia exploited Somalia’s disintegration to strengthen its regional presence in the Horn of Africa. For years, Ethiopia has been “fighting terrorism” emerging from Somalia. Ethiopia has been doing that under an American umbrella from 2006 to 2009 and then again since 2011 until now.

The second indicator is represented by the partition of Sudan into two states: Sudan and South Sudan. That development has weakened Sudan (and thus Egypt) in the Horn of Africa and allowed Ethiopia to participate, since 2012, in the UN peacekeeping forces in the Abyei region, which is disputed between Sudan and South Sudan.

The third indicator is the following: the weakening of Sudan has shifted the balance of power in Ethiopia’s favor. The crisis in Darfur and the international isolation of the Sudanese president (an international arrest warrant was issued against him by the International Court of Justice in The Hague in 2009) has significantly limited Khartoum’s ability to maneuver in the Nile conflict.

The fourth indicator is the improved relationship between Ethiopia and the West in general, and between Ethiopia and the US in particular, after Addis Ababa emerged as a reliable partner in the Horn of Africa. Every year, Ethiopia gets $4 billion in military, development and food assistance. But the matter is not limited to direct aid. The West has started looking at Ethiopia differently in regard to development projects, such as the construction of dams in Ethiopia. The West had opposed such projects for decades because they were considered a threat to regional security.

The fifth indicator is about China. China is Ethiopia’s primary trade partner and Beijing has expressed willingness to finance a dam construction in Ethiopia and offered Chinese expertise in building large dams. China wishes to have a foothold in the region. There is oil in South Sudan and the Congo has mineral resources.

The sixth indicator is the weakening of Egypt’s political weight in the Horn of Africa. Egypt has no role in Somalia and was not even a key party in the negotiations between Sudan and South Sudan. Egypt’s preoccupation with internal matters is weakening its ability to confront regional and international players, such as China. Even though Egypt is the biggest market for Chinese goods among the 11 basin countries, China has favored other considerations over Egyptian priorities and Egypt’s rights in the Nile waters. So much so that China has offered its technological expertise in constructing dams, which is a complete disregard to Egyptian rights. What will Egypt do about all that? Only God knows.

In the coming years, Egypt and Ethiopia may be forced to fight a “water war” because Ethiopia’s ambitions contradict Egypt’s historical and legal rights in the Nile waters. Ethiopia can only be deterred by the regional and international balance of powers, which in recent years has favored Ethiopia.

A recommendation

In the coming years, Egypt and Ethiopia may be forced to fight a “water war” because Ethiopia’s ambitions contradict Egypt’s historical and legal rights in river waters. Ethiopia can only be deterred by the regional and international balance of powers, which in recent years has favored Ethiopia.

The government of Hisham Qandil (an irrigation expert, not a diplomat, legal expert or strategist) seems unable to manage such a complex issue with legal, political, economic, military and international aspects. His government is unable to solve everyday problems that are less complex, such as security, traffic, and fuel and food supplies. This portends dire consequences for Egypt.

What is needed is a way to manage the crisis and use Egyptian soft power toward Ethiopia, especially the Coptic Orthodox Church, which is the Ethiopian Church’s mother church. It is necessary to form a fixed Egyptian team to manage this highly sensitive issue. The team should go beyond party affiliation and include leading Egyptian Nile specialists. Ideological or religious affiliation should not be a factor in choosing that Egyptian crisis team. What is important should be the capabilities and competencies of the team members, who will come from the “clay” of the country, not from a particular group, party or political current. Clay, to those who don’t know, is what Egyptians call their country’s soil, which is a fertile soil resulting from the mixing with the Nile water.

Will Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi realize the seriousness of the situation and deal with that issue as a major national matter and quickly implement the required policies and procedures, or will he hesitate, as usual, and go down in history as someone who squandered the historic rights of Egypt and its future generations?

What is missing in the article is:

  • Egypt’s old-fashioned way (ignore the woman if you want to get her) to make its lifeline, top national security priority of its government less publicized, while conducting secretive operations to affect the development and stability of Ethiopia will not work this time. If I ware an Egyptian leader, I would have made official visits every other month to Addis Abeba, to beg Ethiopia to drink shared waters, or they will remain sited in Cairo drinking their empty pride. During the tragic years of famine and sufferings in Ethiopia, Egyptians, even the richest ones, were nowhere to show a single gesture of compassion and solidarity towards the starving children of Ethiopia. Mind you, these people are drinking and eating Ethiopian water and soil. Well, they will be begging soon!

  • Egypt already has to import 60% of its grain to feed its current population of 90. By 2050, its population is expected to increase to 115 million, greatly increasing its demand for already scarce water

Indeed, Egypt’s options are to

  • go to war with Ethiopia to obtain more water

  • cut population growth

  • improve irrigation efficiency

  • dismantle the Aswan High Dam, as 20% of the water is lost to evaporation

  • buy water from Ethiopia

  • import more grain to reduce the need for irrigation water

  • work out honest water-sharing agreements with Ethiopia and other Nile riparian countries

  • suffer the harsh economic and human consequences of extreme hydrologic poverty

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