Water war: Ethiopia's new dam could mean a crisis for Egypt
A sharpening dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia about Nile River water reminds the world how much does not change across the centuries in international politics and conflict.
The plot of "Aida," the Giuseppe Verdi opera currently being presented by the Pittsburgh Opera, is set in ancient Egypt and turns on a war between Egypt and Ethiopia. Today the two countries don't even have a common border, but the crux of a serious problem lies in the fact that the Nile River rises in part in Ethiopia. That country has already completed 30 percent of the work on a dam that, according to the Egyptians, will draw heavily on water that feeds the Nile.
Egypt's population of 84 million draws an estimated 95 percent of its water from the Nile. It is generally agreed that without the Nile, there is no Egypt, dependent as its agriculture and general life are on the river. Egypt's claim to Nile water comes, first, from a 1959 treaty which recognizes its "natural and historic rights" to it; second, from Egypt's centuries-old pre-eminence; and, third, from its massive dependence on the river.
Ethiopia, an underdeveloped country, with Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda also serving as the watershed of the Nile, claims that it, too, has a right to the water and particularly to its hydroelectric capacity. On that basis Ethiopia is constructing a $4.3 billion plant called the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which is scheduled to come online in 2017. Ethiopia and the other headwater countries have also cooked up a new Nile River Framework treaty, which Ethiopia is putting forward to take the place of the 1959 accord.
The Egyptians are not only worried but also livid. Given the domestic political turmoil in the country, they are ill-equipped to take any military action to defend their position. Given the general vulnerability of their Aswan High Dam, they are not in a position to take military action against any country that has military aircraft.
Talks between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan are scheduled for next week in Khartoum, the Sudanese capital. These countries need to find agreement on Nile water-sharing to improve life and maintain peace in the northeast corner of Africa. It won't be easy. It never has been.