The pharaohs of Ancient Egypt recognised the Nile as the source of life; it watered crops, it watered people, and it was the only efficient means of transportation for a people yet to discover the wheel. In the thousands of years since, its function has changed little; it’s a little dirtier, perhaps, but it is still the lifeblood upon which Egypt relies, providing all the country’s irrigation and most of its energy.
The problem is this: the Nile is not Egypt’s alone. Indeed, the river fulfils much the same function for Sudan, and provides livelihoods to millions in the other eight African countries through which it passes. But Sudan and Egypt are the only countries among the ten Nile nations who are permitted, under international law, to make proper use of the water. Under a colonial-era treaty, Sudan and Egypt are guaranteed 90% of the water flow, and Egypt has an absolute veto on all project proposals from the upstream countries. In effect, this means that Eritrea, Ethiopia, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania and Burundi are unable to build dams and generate electricity from the flow of the Nile.
This is not as crazy as it sounds – being downstream, and being primarily desert countries, Egypt and Sudan rely on the Nile to a degree that the other countries do not. Also, they may as well dam the waters of the Nile by the time it gets to them because otherwise it will just flow uselessly into the seas. But profits generated by Nile projects in Egypt and Sudan are certainly not shared, and so it is an inherently unequal state of affairs.
This cosy arrangement – cosy for the North Africans – has recently been threatened in what is potentially the most dangerous political development of this year, anywhere. Ethiopia, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and now Kenya have signed a unilateral treaty which states, basically, that they will do whatever they like with the Nile water. The treaty seeks to ensure equitable use of the water, and was spearheaded by Ethiopia. Apparently, one Ethiopian government official was quoted as saying “If those Arabs can sell their oil, then we can sell our water”. He makes a good point. Water is a valuable commodity now, and it is only becoming more precious. There is certainly money to be made.
But I wonder if the treaty signatories appreciate just what a bold diplomatic step this is. Egypt is already facing appreciable water shortages, even with the Nile in full, uninterrupted flow; its massive population is just not sustainable. This is terrifying Hosni Mubarak and his ruling elite, because the root of their longevity has been a basic social contract – Egyptians may not have any rights or participation, but they will always have access to cheap, basic goods (water prices are negligible, and bread is massively subsidised). If the bread, and then the water, disappears, then Mubarak will too. Egypt will do whatever it takes to ensure it keeps what water it already has, including legal, diplomatic and even military action. Whatever happens, the stakes are high.
Keep an eye on this one, it is set to run and run.