The drums along the Nile

Students of geopolitics are familiar with the legend that Egypt has privately warned all the governments upstream on the Nile

Students of geopolitics are familiar with the legend that Egypt has privately warned all the governments upstream on the Nile it will start bombing if they build dams on the river without its permission. The truth of that story is about to be tested.

Ethiopia has started diverting the waters of the Blue Nile to build the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a $4.7 billion project that is the centrepiece of the country’s plan to become Africa’s largest exporter of power. Egypt instantly objected. “We have a strong legal case to insist that our share of the Nile water is preserved,” said a government source — but he didn’t mention bombers.

Egypt depends utterly on irrigation water from the Nile to grow its food. Even now there is not enough: it already imports almost 40 per cent of its food. If less water comes down the Nile, Egyptians will go hungry.

A 1929 treaty gave 90 per cent of the Nile’s water to the downstream countries, Egypt and Sudan, even though it all starts as rain in the upstream countries: Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. After all, the 20 million people in the downstream countries depended heavily on irrigation, while the 27 million in the upstream countries had plenty of rain-fed land.

That treaty was imposed when all the countries involved except Ethiopia were under British rule but things have changed since then. There are now six times as many people in Egypt and Sudan and eight times as many people in the African countries upstream. Egypt is using all of its share of the water — and the upstream countries are starting to use the water for irrigation too.

This dam is just the start. Ethiopia plans to spend a total of $12 billion on dams on the Blue Nile for electricity and irrigation, and Uganda is negotiating with China for financing for a 600-megawatt dam on the White Nile. More dams and irrigation projects will follow — and the upstream states are in no mood to let Egypt exercise its veto under the 1929 treaty.

In 2010 the upstream countries signed a Cooperative Framework Agreement to seek more water from the Nile, rejecting the colonial-era treaty and demanding Egypt relinquish its veto and accept a lower water quota. But that’s not going to happen.

The issue will probably be kicked down the road for a couple of years because the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam will not be completed until 2015 at the earliest. But there is big trouble for Egypt — and Sudan — further down the road.

By 2025 Egypt will be trying to feed 96 million people, which would be hard even with its current giant’s share of the Nile’s water. The upstream countries will have 300 million people, so by then they will be extracting large amounts of water from the Nile Basin for irrigation.

Without that water, Egypt’s only options are beggaring itself with massive food imports, or famine. Unless it decides on war — but its options are not good on that front either.

The upstream countries will have strong support from China, which is financing most of the dams they are now building or planning. Egypt, by contrast, can no longer rely on the support of the United States. So there probably won’t be a war — and Egypt will probably face an apocalyptic food shortage in 10 or 15 years.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.