The Nile Saga: the Reason behind the Rhetoric

19 June 2013 FDI Team

While the war of words continues, Egypt is failing to recognise the reality of recent Nile developments- Egypt will face reduced water supplies in coming years, and threats of war are not a viable method for dealing with the issue.


In the past fortnight, since Ethiopia diverted the Blue Nile to continue work on its Grand Renaissance Dam, global attention has focused on Egypt’s unfavourable reaction and the potential for ‘water wars’ in the region. Following the announcement of the diversion, the international impact assessment was released to the concerned governments, with the finding that the dam will not significantly impact either Egypt or Sudan. Despite this, Egypt has been vocal about its objection to the dam; during a televised meeting, Egyptian officials were heard discussing ways of sabotaging the dam. Ethiopia has maintained a firm stance that the dam will not harm Egypt and that it welcomes discussion of the topic, but it will not consider delaying or ceasing construction of the dam. Speculation about the outcome of the disagreement has been rife, but has thus far failed to consider the long-term implications for Egypt’s water-security.


Egypt has spent the past three decades propagating a myth of Egyptian ownership of the Nile, based on “historic rights”. This has been punctuated by threats of a military response against any upstream country that disrupts its flow. Egypt’s position has been one of hegemonic confrontation, in its efforts to maintain the status quo in regional patterns of water distribution. Its response to Ethiopia’s diversion of the Nile has prompted speculation about the potential for water wars. Given the current geo-strategic currents within the region and Egypt’s internal situation, it is highly doubtful that this course of action will be pursued.

Military analysts have highlighted the operational difficulties involved in any attack on the dam. Such an action would be difficult, highly risky and close to impossible without the cooperation of Sudan. If Egypt were to attempt an attack, it would earn the condemnation of the international community. The geostrategic tide in the region is shifting towards the upstream nations, as the CFA gains international recognition. Egypt cannot afford to risk the ire of the international community; its ailing economy is currently relying on loans from regional neighbours to avert fiscal collapse. Underlying these factors, is the fact that the Egyptian government lacks the resources and the internal strength to engage in external military operations at present.

Against this context, the provocative comments from Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood politicians can best be understood as an effort to divert attention from strong ongoing domestic opposition. In the past fortnight, President Morsi has balanced between denying the heavily incendiary stance taken by some Egyptian commentators, while still attempting to leverage the issue for his political benefit. In a press conference last week, Morsi claimed that he did not want to go to war, but that ‘our blood substitutes any decrease of the flow of the river waters, even a single drop.’ This “last-ditch” effort to maintain a hegemonic stance on the Nile, reveals the limits of Egypt’s capacity to act and is ultimately damaging to Egypt’s long-term water-security interests.

Egypt is heavily reliant on the Nile for its national livelihood; 97 per cent of the country’s water supply originates from the river, which is a key strategic priority. It is probable that Egypt’s current share of the Nile’s flow will reduce over the coming decades. Rapid population growth is projected for the region; estimates indicate that Egypt and Ethiopia’s combined population will increase by 100 million by 2050. Even if Egypt were to maintain its current share, its per capita water supply would fall. Furthermore, geostrategic power is shifting in favour of the upstream nations, which are eager for the economic growth and development that hydropower projects could offer. While the Renaissance dam is not expected to reduce water flow, proposed dams at Baro, Karadobi, Mabil, Mandaia and Border may do so. Electricity sales and irrigation potential place developments within the mutual interests of upstream states; the Ugandan president this week released a statement in support of Ethiopia’s dam. While in past decades unrest, disasters and economic collapse have made large infrastructure developments in upstream states impossible, strong regional growth and interest from China as a finance source, have removed former barriers.

Egypt already experiences serious water-stress and uses close to its full water entitlement; thus the prospect of reduced future water supplies poses a serious water security risk. Reduced supplies would have serious implications for the country’s, already strained, agricultural sector, as well as for industry and household consumption. Egypt must recognise that it no longer operates in an internal, regional or global environment, where hegemonic threats are a realistic or effective option for dealing with water security issues. Rather, it must accept that maintaining its control of the Nile is unlikely and that its long-term interests lie in cooperation and consensus with upstream nations.

Lauren Power
Research Analyst
Global Food and Water Crises Research Programme

[email protected]

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