The El Salaam Canal (ESC) was a plan occasionally touted by Israelis and Egyptians throughout the 20th century. It involved the transfer of water from the Nile to Gaza and Israel, via an underground tunnel that crossed the Suez Canal and a pipeline running through the North Sinai desert. In fact, many believe that in 1979 it was Anwar Sadat, then Egypt’s president, who popularised the idea when he pledged to eventually transfer water to Israel as part of the peace process. The idea was eventually dropped when security and environmental concerns over powered the proponents of the plan.
Over the last five years, Egypt has been planning, building and opening tunnels that go under the Suez Canal into Northern Sinai. In 2016, the Middle East Observer claimed to have obtained exclusive photographs of six tunnels that Egypt was building in the Sinai. According to the Observer, ‘the Egyptian government has announced that they are building 4 tunnels, 1 for railway and 3 for cars but haven’t announced anything related to the other 6 tunnels.’
There was speculation that these six other tunnels were being built to allow the transfer of Nile water across the Sinai to the Negev Desert in southern Israel. Recent developments in the Israel-Egypt bilateral relationship have inspired such thinking. Although many Egyptians possess an openly hostile opinion toward Israel, the government-to-government relationship is, according to media sources, at its ‘highest level’ in history. The New York Times recently reported that the Egyptian and Israeli militaries have worked in tandem in North Sinai to defeat Islamic State militants harassing Egyptian forces. In addition to their security co-operation, the economic relationship has blossomed in recent years, especially under President Abdul Fattah el-Sisi. Last week, for instance, Egypt signed a US$15 billion ($19.25 billion) deal with an Israeli natural gas company to sell gas to Egypt.
An improvement in bilateral relations and the similarity of today’s tunnel building to past plans has encouraged the spread of an idea that likely to be disseminated throughout the region: water may be used, like gas and security agreements, as a confidence building measure between Egypt and Israel. Though water has been used in the Middle East in an effort to foster co-operation in the past, analysts seem to be jumping to conclusions in assuming that Egypt and Israel are on the brink of a similar moment.
It is, however, difficult to see why Egypt would want to transfer water from the Nile into Israel. If Egypt planned to use water to bolster its relations with Israel, as has been proposed, the pipelines would have to pass through Gaza on the way to appease the vast majority of Egyptians who still value the Palestinian cause. Egypt has an indifferent relationship with both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, parties that are both vying for control of Gaza. The rivalry between the two has complicated Egypt’s involvement in Gaza, and the idea of transferring water to a troublesome region is something Sisi is not prepared to do.
Israel may not even want water from Egypt if it has to conditionally pass through Gaza. The Jewish state has constantly improved its water technologies and has survived droughts, including one it is experiencing at present, since independence. It is not going to accept water that has to pass through a Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip that intermittently lobs rockets into its territories.
In addition to these geopolitical complications, Egypt simply does not have the water to transfer. When the ESC was under consideration decades ago, Egypt was, according to some, already using more water than was economically feasible. The same commentators explained that this shortage would be made worse in the long term due to the construction of dams in Ethiopia.
Today Egypt’s population is around 90 million, and the Nile River is under severe stress. Since more people are extracting water from the Nile the flow rate of the river needed to push any residual saline water away has slowed. Soil salinity poses a serious problem for Egyptian agriculture, particularly in the Nile Delta. Furthermore, the amount of fresh water is likely to further recede as Ethiopia strives to establish dams on the Blue Nile, altering the flow of water to Egypt.
Though the tunnels resemble a once popular plan to transfer water to Israel, Egypt faces too many environmental and security challenges to transport water to Israel without suffering serious shortages itself.