The Nile River – river of legend – is not just a river in Egypt. It is the lifeblood of 11 different African nations and the longest river in the world, extending over 6,500 kilometers long and draining a watershed of over 3 million square kilometers. The eleven nations that share the Nile are Egypt, Ethiopia, the Sudan and South Sudan, Kenya, Eritrea, the DR of Congo, Tanzania, Uganda, Burundi, and Rwanda.
The river is really two major rivers: the White Nile and the Blue Nile, which meet near Khartoum and become the mainstem of the Nile, flowing north to Egypt and the Mediterranean. The White Nile originates in the highlands of the Great Lakes region of Rwanda and Burundi. The Blue Nile originates in the Lake Tana region of Ethiopia. Of all of the water that reaches Egypt, the majority comes in the Blue Nile.
Over the past centuries, indeed over the past millennia, the waters of the Nile have been captured and harnessed by the people of Egypt, who depended initially on the ebb and flow of the river for recession agriculture, and in modern times, on hydropower and irrigation waters pulled from the massive Aswan Dam or from downstream diversion systems. By some estimates, 97% of all of Egypt’s water comes from the Nile, and to say that the nation is critically dependent upon it – with a population of more than 80 million people — is an understatement.
It should be no surprise then that Egypt, as the most downstream nation on the Nile, is extremely sensitive to what happens upstream of its borders. As long ago as the1970s and 1980s, statements from senior Egyptian officials warned upstream countries to keep their hands off of the Nile. In 1978 President Anwar Sadat said
“We depend upon the Nile 100 per cent in our life, so if anyone, at any moment, thinks of depriving us of our life we shall never hesitate to go to war. . . . The only matter that would take Egypt to war is water.”
Egyptian Foreign Minister and later UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali stated in 1985:
“The next war in the Middle East will be fought over water, not politics.”
Some have argued that such statements are simple rhetoric and that Egypt would never go to war over water. Perhaps. Political statements are always simple rhetoric — until actions replace words. But the rhetoric is now getting its most severe test ever.
Ethiopia, which has never had the economic, political, or technical ability to exploit the waters of the Blue Nile except in a simple way, has begun building what will be the largest hydroelectric dam in Africa, the Grand Renaissance Dam, very close to the Ethiopian/Sudanese border. The massive reservoir behind the dam will be capable of storing more than an entire year’s flow of the Nile. Like any major energy project, this one has complicated advantages and disadvantages. But the political and hydrological implications for Sudan and Egypt are potentially the most explosive. [A later post may discuss the environmental, social, and economic pros and cons of the dam, the complicated international political story behind the dam’s construction and financing, and the implications for the region’s development. My focus here is the geopolitical challenges posed by the dam.]