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Egypt–Ethiopia crisis: “No Nile, No Egypt”

Long years of deadlock and bitter recrimination are now coming to a head as the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam threatens Egypt's water security.

A narrow branch of the Nile river in downtown Cairo. Photograph: Getty Images

The long-running dispute between Ethiopia and Egypt over the waters of the Nile is coming to a head. The Egyptian Prime Minister has been angrily denounced in parliament for failing to prevent the construction of a giant $4.7bn Ethiopian dam, which is threatening to leave Egypt dangerously short of water. Senior Egyptian politicians were caught on live television plotting the use of military force to halt the project.

Then, on Monday, President Mohammed Morsi told a cheering crowd that “all options are open” in dealing with the crisis.

Declaring that any threat to water security would not be accepted by Egypt, he said: “If it loses one drop, our blood is the alternative.” The president’s promise received a standing ovation.

The conflict over water goes back more than a century. Next to no rain falls on Egypt itself; its 85 million people depend, almost exclusively, on the waters of the Nile. They have relied on the sluggish brown waters of the river for all their needs. This has been guaranteed by a series of colonial treaties. First Italy and then Britain promised Egypt that it would have the vast majority of the Nile water in perpetuity. A 1959 agreement between Egypt and Sudan - following Sudan's independence in 1956 - allocated 55.5 billion cubic metres of the Nile to Egypt, and 18.5 billion to Sudan; a combined total of 87 per cent of the Nile flow.

This suited the Egyptians, but the treaties offered nothing to the states further upstream. Since 1998 the Nile Basin Initiative has been attempting to bring together the 10 states that border on the Nile to discuss the issue.

But the states - Burundi, D.R. Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda, plus Eritrea as an observer -  have failed to reach a consensus. Its laudable objective; “to achieve sustainable socio-economic development through the equitable utilization of, and benefit from, the common Nile Basin water resources" has been thwarted by Egyptian intransigence.

While Cairo has repeatedly promised co-operation, it has jealously guarded its historic treaties, with their assurances that water will continue to flow southwards. The Nile Basin is home to over 200 million people. This figure is set to double in the next 25 years, greatly increasing the demand for water. But since Egypt depends on the Nile for 98 per cent of its irrigation, it has little option but to fight its corner at almost any cost. The result has been deadlock and bitter recriminations.

The construction of the giant Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam has brought the crisis to a head. This vast project on the Blue Nile, close to the Sudanese border, is designed to produce hydro-electricity to be used inside Ethiopia and exported to its neighbours. But Egypt estimates that even if not a drop is used for irrigation, the dam will mean they will lose as much as 20 per cent of the Nile water during the three to five years needed for Ethiopia to fill a massive planned reservoir.

Egyptian members of parliament have denounced their own government for inaction in the face of this threat. "Egypt will turn to a graveyard" if the dam is completed, geologist and Egyptian MP, Khaled Ouda shouted in parliament. "The prime minister didn't provide anything." "We have to stop the construction of this dam first before entering negotiations," he said.

Egypt's foreign minister, Mohamed Kamel Amr, who has promised not to give up “a single drop of water from the Nile”, said on Sunday he would go to Addis Ababa to discuss the dam.

Speaking to Egypt's state news agency, MENA, two days after the Ethiopian government flatly rejected a request from Cairo to halt the project, Kamel Amr said Egyptians viewed any obstacle to the river's flow as a threat to national survival. “No Nile - no Egypt,” he said.

This is not the first time Egypt has threatened military force to protect its share of the Nile. But in the past it has generally resorted to indirect means. There is a firmly held Ethiopian view that Egypt is behind many of its troubles. When President Nasser excluded Ethiopia from the planning of the Aswan Dam in 1959, the Emperor Haile Selassie negotiated the separation of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church from its opposite number in Alexandria, ending a relationship that had lasted 1,600 years.

Nasser responded by backing the Eritrean revolt against Ethiopian rule and by encouraging Somali Muslims to fight for Ethiopia’s Ogaden region. Eritrea still backs the Egyptian position over the Nile. In April this year a message of support was sent from the Eritrean president and delivered to Egypt’s president by Eritrean Foreign Minister Osman Saleh and Presidential Adviser for Political Affairs, Yemane Gebreab.

Egypt’s problems with the Nile are only likely to intensify. In April 2010, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania signed a new agreement in Entebbe, Uganda, to overturn the colonial-era treaties and replace them with a more reasonable and equitable utilisation of the river. The deal was approved after Burundi signed the agreement and joined the group in March 2011. It is just a matter of time before these countries begin drawing on the Nile waters for their own purposes. The outlook for Egyptians is grim indeed.