Analysts say a massive dam being built in Ethiopia could destabilise Egypt in a way that would make the last year of political upheaval look minuscule.
Ethiopia's giant dam muddies the waters downstream in Egypt
ASWAN, EGYPT // About 1,287 kilometres south of this Egyptian city where the Nile river pours into Egypt, construction has begun on a massive dam being built in Ethiopia that could destabilise Egypt in a way that would make the last year of political upheaval look minuscule, analysts say.
If constructed at specifications revealed last year, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam would result in cuts in electricity, a reduction in agricultural lands and water shortages across major cities in Egypt, new studies say.
"In short, it would lead to political, economic and social instability," said Mohamed Nasr El Din Allam, who was Egypt's minister of water and irrigation until early last year. He edited a book-length collection of studies on the dam published last month. "Millions of people would go hungry. There would be water shortages everywhere. It's huge."
Those dire forecasts stem from Ethiopia's decision last year to announce an increase in the size of the dam, which is already under construction 40 kilometres from the Sudanese border. Ethiopian officials revealed the depth of the dam would be enlarged to 150 metres from 90m, alongside plans to boost electricity production and use water pooling behind the dam to irrigate more than 500,000 hectares of new agricultural lands.
Ethiopia's announcement has created new tensions in water-rights negotiations among the 10 countries that form the Nile Basin and emerged as one of the biggest diplomatic challenges for a growing Egypt.
More than any of the other countries along the basin, Egypt and Sudan are dependent on the water from the river because of their lack of secondary water resources and little rainfall. Egypt receives 55 billion cubic metres and Sudan receives 18.5bn cubic metres per year, under a series of agreements that date back to a 1929 treaty drawn up by Britain when it held power over much of North Africa.
Those agreements have long irked upstream countries, which they describe as a colonial-era injustice because of treaties' favourable distribution of water to Egypt and Sudan, as well as giving them the right to veto projects that would be "harmful" to their national interests.
The Nile Basin Initiative was established in 1999 to establish an equitable agreement among the countries. But divisions emerged from the start, hinging on Egypt's and Sudan's unwillingness to negotiate their share of the water and insistence on retaining veto rights. Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Kenya signed their own deal, known as the Entebbe Agreement, that said projects could be built as long as they don't "significantly" affect the water flow. Egypt, which sees the wording as a precursor to cuts of its share, called the agreement a "national security" threat.
Ethiopia in particular has struck a defiant stance, with Prime Minister Meles Zenawi saying in a television interview in 2010 that "some people in Egypt have old-fashioned ideas based on the assumption that the Nile water belongs to Egypt… The circumstances have changed and changed forever".
Just a month after the uprising in Egypt forced Hosni Mubarak to resign and hand power over to the military, the Nile river tensions escalated to new levels when Ethiopia announced new details of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Ethiopian officials said there would be no impact on Egypt, but analysts and officials in Egypt argue the impact would range from bad to devastating.
The problems would start with the filling of the 62bn cubic metre reservoir behind the dam, which would immediately reduce the flow of water to Egypt and Sudan. How bad the impact would be depends on the rate they decide to fill it.
Egypt already has one of the highest rates of recycling water on the continent, reusing water in the Nile delta region as many as four or five times to meet its total needs of 75bn cubic metres a year. Kidney disease in those areas is on the rise and the country's northern lakes are becoming increasingly polluted from water reuse, which is hurting fish populations.
Mr Allam, the former water minister of Egypt, said the country needs solutions to bring even more water to Egypt and cannot sustain on less than its current allotment.
"I believe in the full right of Nile Basin countries, especially Ethiopia, to develop and increase their economies," he said. "But they shouldn't do this if it causes significant damage to their sister countries."
A new panel, with representatives from Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, as well as international water experts, is now tasked with assessing the impacts of the dam. They are expected to begin their work in mid-May.
Egypt's main diplomatic tool, analysts say, will be to lobby the World Bank and other donors not to provide financing to projects that hurt its share of the water. Ethiopia has started issuing bonds to raise money, but it would be unable to finance the US$4.8bn (Dh17.63bn) dam without help.
The sabre-rattling among the Nile basin countries has to do with two competing views: upstream countries are looking for development projects that benefit their growing populations quickly, such as dams that increase electricity production and agricultural expansion, while Egypt and Sudan are pushing for a longer term approach that would first enhance the flow of the river before agreeing to projects that will cut back the flow.
"We don't have a crisis in water, but we have a problem in managing it," said Hani Raslan, the director of the Sudan and Nile basin studies programme at the state-run Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.
Observers in Egypt blame the dispute with Ethiopia - and the wider dispute with the lower basin countries - on Mubarak's neglect of African relations during his more than 30 years of rule that ended last year during a popular uprising.
"We used to have beautiful relations with the African countries," said Fathi El Taher, in the city of Abu Simbel on Lake Nasser near the Sudanese border. "But we abandoned them for Israel and the United States. We need long-term diplomatic solutions and that means going back to our brothers and investing in their countries."
Mr El Taher, 73, was one of the first mayors of Abu Simbel, which is famous for an ancient Egyptian tomb with huge carved statues of Pharoah Ramses II. The entire tomb had to be moved piece-by-piece to higher ground and reconstructed after the completion of the Aswan High Dam that created Lake Nasser and modern Abu Simbel.
"We know about the power of the river," he said. "It is everything to us."