Water Politics On The Nile

Via the Orange County Register, commentary on the Nile water rift:

Egypt’s sense of nationhood is tied up in control of the Nile. So is energy self sufficiency for Ethiopia. The clash between these two realities can have deadly consequences. America will be tempted to intervene – on the wrong side.

The issue is a major dam proposed by Ethiopia on the Blue Nile River, the source of over 80 percent of the water that eventually enters the Nile River system. The Blue Nile starts in Lake Tana in Ethiopia, and flows through tall, narrow chasms to the Sudan border. Within Sudan, the Blue Nile meets the White Nile in Khartoum, and from there flows into Egypt.

For many years, all the Nile’s water has been divided between Sudan and Egypt; any other country that dared to touch the Nile was met with stern threats from Egypt and its protectors: first England, then America. When Ethiopia sought World Bank financing for this dam more than 20 years ago, the U.S. leaned on the bank to say no. Egypt was at peace with Israel at America’s request, and Egypt demanded America’s help with the Nile question (and $2 billion a year) in return. The calculus was clear: Ethiopia brought us nothing, Egypt, under Mubarak, brought peace with Israel. So we did Egypt’s bidding with the World Bank.

The last several years, however, have brought Ethiopia into a partnership with the U.S. in attacking al-Qaida and similar groups in Somalia. Meantime, Egypt deposed longtime U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak, and we were not enthusiastic about his replacement, Mohamed Morsi. Trying to stir up nationalist sentiment, Morsi focused on Ethiopia’s announcement that it would start to divert the Blue Nile so dam construction could begin. He said, “We will defend each drop of Nile water with our blood if necessary,” and summoned leaders of the Islamic parties to discuss Egypt’s likely responses.

Infamously, a leader of one of those parties, not knowing the meeting was being broadcast, said on live television that the “real enemies” were America and Israel. Talk included a military strike.

Morsi is gone. Secretary of State John Kerry has embraced the new military government. The danger is that the U.S., in its effort to prop up the Egyptian military successors to Morsi, will try to give them a victory over the dam issue.

When has the U.S. managed to play the internal politics of another country with any success? It is so much more likely that, if we go down this route, we will alienate our ally in the fight against extremism in Somalia, and do nothing to appease the widely held belief in Egypt, voiced at that televised meeting, that somehow all wrongs are due to America. We’ll choose the wrong side – once again.

Why do we need to take sides at all? We can’t stop Ethiopia by cutting off its financing: Ethiopia has come up with the funding for this project from the sale of bonds, and loans from China. The dam, once finished, will produce tremendous amounts of electricity that can be sold to neighboring countries to retire the bonds.

And if the new Egyptian regime wants to show it is at least as nationalistic as the deposed Morsi government, and threatens to bomb the dam, will we be proud to be associated with that?

If we do take sides, the dam is the right thing to do for environmental and humanitarian reasons. Ethiopia will become a net energy exporter in a part of the world chronically lacking in electricity. The stored water can alleviate the droughts that occur every seven years, filling world newspapers with horrifying pictures of starvation in Sudan and Ethiopia. Once the reservoir is filled, the flow of the Nile won’t be diminished. The time to fill the reservoir can be during the wet seasons, and spread out over many years.

There are many ways for America to signal its support of the new regime in Egypt. Shutting down Ethiopia’s dam, or looking the other way while Egypt does so, is not one of them.

This entry was posted on Saturday, August 31st, 2013 at 4:05 pm and is filed under Egypt, Ethiopia, Nile.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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