In the midst of the chaos across the Middle East, has no one noticed that Egypt has just lost control of its most significant and valuable resource? No, not oil – not everything’s about oil, and besides, Egypt doesn’t have that much of the black gold. No, it’s not tourism either – the hotels might be hurting but the pyramids aren’t going anywhere, unless Gaddafi decides to bomb them in a fit of retaliatory pique.
It’s water. Egypt needs a lot of it, being a desert country and all, and gets what it needs from the life-giving waters of the Nile. Despite the fact that the great river flows through ten African countries, Egypt – along with Sudan – gets most of the water. 90% of it, in fact, is shared between Sudan and Egypt under the terms of a colonial-era treaty.
But this treaty is being challenged by a coalition of five Nile-bordering countries, spearheaded by Ethiopia, who have set up the Nile Basin Initiative to renegotiate its terms. This week, under the cover of popular revolutions, Burundi became the sixth member of the group, giving it enough legal weight to scrap the treaty without Egypt’s consent, under the provisions of international law. They haven’t done so – yet.
Egypt is obviously in no position to respond – this is further demonstrated by the fact that Al Masry Al Youm, Egypt’s leading independent newspaper, had to seek comment from the former Minister of Water and Irrigation, who made the nonsensical statement that any decisions coming from the new coalition are only binding on the members of the new coalition, and would not apply to Egypt or Sudan. All true; but if they decide to use dam the water upstream, it will suddenly start looking very applicable indeed.
This is Egypt’s – and Sudan’s – most serious foreign policy consideration, as we’ve commented on before. Don’t be surprised if this causes the next revolution or war. Egypt is a fundamentally unbalanced, with not nearly enough fertile land to support its population, even if the water supply remains constant. Take away the water and there will be problems.
VERDICT: This is bad news for Egypt, but the existing treaty is very unfair and deserves to be replaced with something more thoughtful. And we always like to see African regional integration. So the Nile Basin Initiative goes forth.