Egypt and Ethiopia. Water and Climate. Competition or Conflict?


One of the more bizarre episodes of the short tenure of President Morsi, one which occasioned this author to think of him as a mortal danger to his country, occurred in the spring of 2013. Dr Morsi held a conclave of prominent Egyptians to discuss policy toward the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, during which many participants were heard to recommend ways to attack and destabilize their neighbor. The trouble was that Dr Morsi chose to broadcast the entire event live on Television. An Ethiopian acquaintance emailed a terse and chilling evaluation of the event; “Ahmed Gragn”. This was a reference to the Jihadist warlord who ravaged Ethiopia in the early 16th century during a failed attempt to convert it to Islam. The relationship between the two countries is a vital one for both, as they share a life-sustaining river and a history of close and occasionally fractious relations. Will Egypt and Ethiopia manage their relationship during the next decade as an example of effective collaboration or destructive competition? The fear is that the Nile basin may witness one of the first, and possibly most destructive, competitions of the new age of climate change.

The centuries long relations between the two countries are those of intimate, but not always loving, siblings. During the Middle Ages Ethiopia feared that Egypt was attempting to convert it to Islam; and as a result kept a wary eye on its northern neighbor. Egypt saw in Ethiopia a vital link in its trade routes. Ethiopia, predominantly Coptic in faith, recognized the Egyptian Church as its spiritual source, and often threatened to cut off the supply of the Nile waters whenever the notoriously brutal and sectarian Mamelukes leaned too heavily on the harried Copts. During the 19th century the nature of relations began to change. Ethiopia feared Muhammad Ali’s designs, while admiring his reforms, and wishing to emulate them. An Egyptian expedition to Ethiopia in the 1870s failed disastrously, due to the efforts of the great reforming Ethiopian Emperor Yohannes IV. That failure was instrumental in the formation of the ‘Urabi movement and the development of Egyptian nationalism and its inclination to favoring of the Army. The 20th Century saw an improvement in relations under the watchful eye of elites in both countries. Ethiopia had its share of philo-Egyptians who knew Egypt well and respected and admired its culture. Egypt, in turn, had many philo-Ethiopians who recognized the cultural kinship between the two countries. This closeness managed to smooth over the many crises of that time, such as Ethiopia’s suspicion of Nasser’s pan-Arabism, the discord between the Ethiopian and Egyptian Churches that led to the autocephaly of the Ethiopian Church, and the Ethiopian anger over Nasser’s High Dam plans. By the 1980s these elites had pretty much disappeared in both countries, victims of the Ethiopian revolutionary Derg and the rise of Islamists in Egypt. The latter kept up a barrage of demonization and insults toward “Al Habasha”, the common term for Ethiopia. As the two countries looked after the troubles at their borders, and internally, the relationship became one of ignorance and aloofness.

The construction of the “Renaissance Dam” in Ethiopia raises the spectre of discord again. Filling the dam will temporarily alter the river’s flow, but even a temporary alteration could be disastrous for Egypt. But more serious issues remain beyond the dam. Egypt and Ethiopia have identical populations, but Egypt uses 10 times as much water from the Nile as Ethiopia. The reasons are both historical and technological. Ethiopia enjoyed abundant rains, and the Blue Nile is difficult to harness. But with climate change and population growth Ethiopia will need to use more of the Blue Nile water, which supplies 85% of the Egyptian Nile. New technology, and a resurgent and reforming Ethiopia will suddenly make the ancient threat of withholding the Nile very real indeed. The picture is made worse, at least for Egypt, by the expectation that rising sea levels from climate change will place some of its low-lying arable land under the sea. Threats of force, as Morsi’s farce indicated, are unrealistic. Egypt, even at its strongest point, can not mount a foreign expedition, and in any case, few outsiders ever managed to win a war against Ethiopia. Ethiopia, stealing a page from Nasser’s High Dam adventure, has taken a “go-it-alone” approach without sufficient attention to the dangers of that approach. Egyptian leadership has, on the other hand, been largely absent; as the country is occupied by the pointless turmoil of its Arab and Islamic identity struggles. The latter has given Ethiopia scant reasons to be accommodating. This is a bad brew, and one with considerable danger for the world beyond the two countries. A water conflict between countries of a combined population of nearly 200 Million souls could send millions of refugees toward the shores of Europe, making the Syrian nightmare seem like a trickle. The involvement of China in acquiring water and land in Africa adds yet another dangerous international dimension to the equation. But what can be done?

We must recognize that the Nile basin issues can not be resolved solely by the countries involved. Climate change is a creation of the industrialized world and it has a responsibility to assist the affected countries. But beyond the moral imperative, there exists a practical necessity of not seeing a human crisis at the periphery of Europe and near the heart of Africa. The problems of the Nile basin resemble others previously managed by the United States during the first half of the 20th century, and by the Netherlands in its struggle with the North Sea. An international consortium, including all Nile countries, to manage the river waters for the people living alongside it, and funded partially by the developed nations is the best way forward., The cost will be small compared to the cost of managing crises and refugees. Such an achievable effort will radically alter the landscape of the basin, for the better, and provide a better life for nearly 300 Million people. Failure is unimaginably dire.

— Maged Atiya


Future Thirst

Climate change will affect Africa disproportionately. The Nile basin is 10% of the African landmass but contains 40% of its population, including some of the oldest African civilizations and states. Egypt, “The Gift of the Nile”, could experience serious water shortage by 2025, due to population growth, economic growth and climate change. This risk is aggravated by four distinct ongoing factors

1- The decline of the Sudan into a failed state. The Sudan has been Egypt’s “buffer” for use of the Nile.

2- The large scale purchases of land in the Nile basin by external powers. China, Gulf countries and Multi-nationals are all buying land in the African heartland south of the Sudan. No doubt the water use will increase.

3- The mismanagement of agricultural and water policy by inept governments. Ethiopia, with the encouragement of China, has been particularly inept in a combination of neglect, land sale and attempts to dam up the Nile.

4- The failure of the Nile basin governments to agree on common policies. Egypt, the largest country, has ignored this problem for decades.

The focus of Egyptian foreign policy since the 1940’s, when the Muslim Brothers stockpiled arms for expeditions into Palestine, has been the Arab world and Israel. This is a perversion of Egyptian interests. Israel is an emotional issue, but not an existential threat to Egypt. Egypt has little leverage over any of the Arab countries, nor Israel. The Arab-Israeli wars have drained Egypt, while most Arab countries sat on the sidelines and cheered.

While everyone is arguing about the exact nature of the Islamist society, no one is paying attention to the fact that Egypt’s future, indeed survival, is linked closely with Africa. Egyptians have always attempted to suppress their African links. Perhaps it is a desire to be accepted by the West, or the effect of Islamist thinking which emphasizes Arabian links. Whatever the reason, it is an unhealthy state.

Almost any attempt to engage with Africa will mean that Egypt needs to reassure African countries about the Islamist trends. The disasters of the Sudan(and now Nigeria) have made most African countries wary of Islamists. Egypt will need to both stabilize the Sudan (most likely by ditching its current pseudo-Islamists rulers) and create a sensible policy with Ethiopia, Uganda and Kenya to manage the Nile. Egypt also needs to displace some of the external actors, such as China, and can do so only with trust and a fair share of economic strength. This is a major administrative and executive shift, and will require innovative economic thinking and use of global capital and technology.  Are the Islamists the best candidates for this shift?