Without the Nile, Egypt would be a scarcely habitable desert, Sudan a parched wilderness. The world’s longest river flows for more than 4,000 miles through northeast Africa; it irrigates farmland, provides water for drinking and sanitation and drives hydroelectric power stations.The Nile supplies almost all of Egypt’s fresh water and three quarters of Sudan’s. Both countries claim historic rights over it but neither controls its sources. For thousands of years Egypt has jealously defended its right to use the Nile’s waters as it pleases.
Now, amid warnings of conflict and crop failure, the balance of power is starting to change as other countries make new claims on the water.
Last month most of the countries that occupy the Nile’s headwaters signed an agreement granting themselves greater control of the river and removing a colonial-era veto, held by Egypt for more than 50 years, over how it is used. Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda have already signed up, disregarding a refusal by Egypt and its ally, Sudan, to co-operate. Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo are expected to follow.
Egypt has threatened legal action and said it will not sacrifice a drop of its historic entitlement. Yet a new Ethiopian hydroelectric dam, which opened last month, further emphasises Egypt’s diminishing control over the river that is its lifeblood.
The new World Bank-backed Nile Basin Initiative agreement was a decade in the making. It is intended to replace two existing Nile treaties that ignore the upstream countries.
In 1929 Britain, as the colonial power, signed a deal in the name of its colonies giving Egypt almost all of the Nile water and the veto power over its use upstream. In 1959 a revised treaty gave three quarters of the Nile waters to Egypt with Sudan taking the rest.
However, in recent years the countries to the south have grown more vocal in their demands for a greater share of the water and an end to Egypt’s veto, which includes stopping hydroelectric and irrigation projects that might disrupt the river’s flow.
The Nile Basin Initiative proposes the formation of a new regional commission to decide on hydropower and irrigation projects on the Nile. It has become a focus for tensions in the region, raising fears of a looming water war.
Thirty years ago Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian President at the time, said: “The only matter that could take Egypt to war again is water.” During the famine that afflicted this part of Africa in the 1980s, Boutros Boutros Ghali, Egypt’s Foreign Minister who became UN Secretary-General, warned: “The next war in our region will be over water, not politics.”
Since the agreement was signed last month, angry Egyptian officials have echoed this sentiment. Ahmed Aboul Gheit, the Foreign Minister, described the Nile waters as a matter of national security and a “red line” not to be crossed. Some Egyptian newspapers even discussed tactics that would prove effective if war erupts.
High in the Ethiopian mountains an ancient monastery watches over the sacred Gish Abbai spring. The waters bubbling out of the ground feed Lake Tana, then spill into a gorge to become the Blue Nile. In the Sudanese capital Khartoum it meets the White Nile, which gushes northwards out of Lake Victoria, and together they flow on through Egypt to the Mediterranean.
Much of the White Nile’s waters evaporate in the vast Sudd swamp of Sudan, so it is the waters of the Blue Nile that are most at stake. Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, is intransigent in defence of his right to use this water to drive development.
In an interview soon after the opening of the controversial new Tana Beles hydroelectric dam on the Blue Nile last month, Mr Meles dismissed Egyptian complaints that the move was provocative. “Some people in Egypt have old-fashioned ideas based on the assumption that the Nile water belongs to Egypt, and that Egypt has a right to decide who gets what,” said Mr Meles.
Ethiopia, he added, had “the necessary resources to build whatever infrastructure and dams it wants on the Nile water. The way forward is not for Egypt to try and stop the unstoppable.”
It is unclear how Tana Beles was financed. China is investing billions of pounds in the larger African countries, including some of the world’s poorest nations. Last year a Chinese company completed the Tekeze Dam on a tributary of the Nile in western Ethiopia, which is now the largest dam in Africa.
“The China factor is one of the most worrisome in the new debates over water in Africa,” said Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, a California-based environmental and economic research centre. “They are pursuing unilateral water development projects that are going to affect downstream countries and regional politics.”
Behind the intensifying competition is rapid population growth, running at 2 to 3 per cent in the countries that line the Nile. This means the water that barely sustains 200 million people today will have to provide for half a billion within a generation. Farmers in northern Egypt took to the streets this week to protest against a lack of water for their crops but their seasonal water shortages garner little sympathy from a country such as Ethiopia, where millions face drought and famine.
The old treaties need to be renegotiated. If they are not — or if disputes cannot be resolved — analysts warn that conflict is all but inevitable. Dr Gleick said: “Without some kind of negotiated agreement on how to share the waters, the risk is growing that conflicts will occur and those conflicts will be violent.”
Water rivalry is most acute in poor, arid regions such as northeast Africa but are not confined to Africa.
Experts point to hotspots between India and Pakistan over the Indus, in the Middle East over the Tigris and Euphrates, and in South-East Asia over the Mekong. “Conflict over water is becoming a huge issue globally,” said Steven Solomon, author of Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power and Civilisation.
Yet most analysts say that neither Ethiopia nor Egypt wants to go to war over water. “Water wars are not inevitable,” said Dr Gleick. “I’m optimistic that the Nile Basin countries are still negotiating, despite the rhetoric.”