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.

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.

 

 

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

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko
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Ruin porn: the art world’s awkward obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture

Deserted fairgrounds, disused factories and forgotten military bases may look cool, but are we fetishising the remnants of such a cruel history?

Armenia, where one side of my family is from, was one of the first members of the USSR, annexed by Russia in 1922. A few years ago, when I visited this little country that perches precariously in the south of the Caucasus, I was struck most by its Soviet architecture.

Although its landscape is a hotchpotch of medieval Orthodox churches, a smattering of Persian-era domes, and brutalist concrete, it was the latter that particularly stuck out. From unfelled statues of Stalin to giant tower blocks spelling out the letters “CCCP” from a bird’s-eye view (well, half spelt-out – construction stopped partway through, with the fall of the Soviet Union), I’ve never forgotten it.

Perhaps it was so compelling because such stark physical symbols make recent history all the more tangible. A history still profoundly affecting the country of my ancestors (and all post-Soviet and communist states). But also, it just looked really cool.


Mixed air corps, Mongolia. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Eric Losito

It’s a bit passé now to mock the hipster obsession with reclaimed industrial detritus, exposed pipes and bare concrete. An aesthetic – that of a post-industrial wasteland, but a chic one – which has gripped western cities for years, and crept worldwide.

But it could be this tendency to find disused stuff visually intriguing, and a morbid fascination with cruel regimes, which has led to the art world’s obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture. A whole wave of artists and photographers have been poking around the eastern bloc’s architectural graveyard in recent years.

Late last year, we saw the hugely popular disused Soviet bus stop series by photographer Christopher Herwig, echoing photographer Sergey Novikov’s equally absorbing collection of abandoned Soviet cinemas from 2013.

Following Russian filmmaker and photographer Maria Morina’s “Atomic Cities” project four years ago, London-based artist Nadav Kander explored the “aesthetics of destruction” in his exhibition, Dust, in 2014, snapping “radioactive ruins” of secret cities on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia. The same year, Moscow photographers Sasha Mademuaselle and Sergey Kostromin travelled to the disputed region of Abkhazia, capturing fragments of its deserted infrastructure.


Fighter aviation regiment, Mongolia. Photo: Eric Losito
 

And photojournalist Anton Petrus’ now iconic pictures of Chernobyl’s abandoned amusement park have long been an internet favourite, as have numerous haunting images of Pripyet – the city famous for lying deserted following the nuclear disaster.

Jamie Rann, a lecturer in Russian at Oxford University, has written that the quality and technical accomplishment of most of this photography make the style more “ruin erotica” than “ruin porn” (the tag being used by some critics), but argues: “The enormous online popularity of this genre . . . combined with their voyeuristic, almost exploitative feel, certainly has something porny about it.”

The latest exploration of Soviet society’s skeletons can be found at the Power & Architecture season at London’s Calvert 22 Foundation. In an exhibition called Dead Space and Ruins, we see abandoned military bases and formerly mighty monuments, forgotten space ports freezing in the tundra, the ghost of an entire unused, unfinished city in Armenia lying derelict.



The unfinished "ghost city" built in Armenia to house earthquake survivors (water added by artist). Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Vahram Aghasyan

The works are beautiful, but do they feed in to this zeitgeisty lust for Soviet ruins?

One of its curators, Will Strong, laments this trend. “I was keen that this didn’t become like a kind of ‘ruin lust’, ‘ruin porn’ thing; this slightly buzzwordy term that there is at the moment, this kind of fetishisation of dead space,” he tells me.

“This history is incredibly loaded, and it did not end in 1991. To sort of fetishise it in the very bourgeois western way of, ‘oh yeah, look at all this wonderful Soviet architecture, isn’t it fantastic?’ Obviously a lot of people who lived in that time hated it . . . a lot of people were very miserable under these regimes, so it’s important not to forget that.”


Gym at the Independent Radar Centre of Early Detection, Latvia. Photo: Eric Losito

He adds: “It’s more a point of reflection on how buildings were designed, what their legacy is, what their narrative is, and who the people are who live with that story. This show looks at the aftermaths of when utopia hasn’t been delivered.”

This view is echoed by the Moscow artist, Danila Tkachenko, whose work is featured in the exhibition. “It is rather a metaphor for the future, not the past,” he says. “It represents an image of a possible future. When there is a visualisation of this issue [utopia], it evokes a response in people; they see this utopia in their lives . . . There is disappointment in all utopias.”


The world's largest diesel submarine, in Russia's Samara region. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko

His Restricted Areas series explores great behemoths of European communism left to lie forgotten in the tundra of remote regions in and around Russia and Kazakhstan: the world’s largest diesel submarine, like a beached whale in the snow; a giant satellite, thatched with antennae, built to communicate with Soviet bases on other planets some day; the deserted flying saucer-like communist headquarters in a region of Bulgaria. The structures hover in blank, white space, making the photos appear black-and-white.


Deserted observatory, Kazakhstan's Almaty region. Photo: Danila Tkachenko
 

Anton Ginzburg is an artist who grew up in St Petersburg in the Eighties as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. He believes studies like his film, Turo, of disused modernist constructions in the post-Soviet bloc, appeal to people’s connection to history. After all, picking through the architectural carcasses of former societies isn’t exactly a new thing:

“Russian culture is still haunted by its Communist past, and constructivist architecture is a decaying shell for its ghosts. It is an active reminder of the recent history,” he reflects. “Perhaps [its appeal] is a mixture of memento mori, with its thrill of beauty and destruction, along with a Romantic tradition of contemplation of Greek and Roman ruins.”

(Anton Ginzburg Turo teaser from Visionaireworld on Vimeo.)

The Power & Architecture season is on at the Calvert 22 Foundation, London, from 10 June-9 October 2016. Entry is free.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.