The Politics of Nile

By Alula Yohannes

(Presented To  East African Forum)

        There is no doubt that the Nile is the life of Egypt. Without the waters of the Nile, all living beings in Egypt will be declared endangered species, but sharing water by the riparian states of the Nile Basin does not necessarily drastically affect Egypt. What is then Egypt's concern in the context of the hydropolitics of the Nile? A brief historicalanecdote is called forth to crtically examine and reasonably appreciate the underpinnings of Ethio-Egyptian relations vis-a-vis other Nile countries.

        The founder of modern Egypt, Muhammed Ali [an Albanian serving At the behest of the Ottoman Empire] involved Egypt in a series of wars in the Hijaz (1811-1818), the Sudan (1820-1822), Crete and Cyprus (1824-1828) and Syria (1831-1833 and again 1837-1840). All these wars were conducted  in the name of modernization, but while Muhammed Ali sought political andeconomic independence for Egypt, he was unable to sever his cultural ties with the Ottoman. By contrast, his son Ibrahim Pasha wanted complete independence from his Turkish patrons and was successful, to some degree, in creating an Egyptian state that he could control.

        Muhammed Ali was expansionist; his son Ibrahim Pasha in-ward looking, and his grandson Khedive Ismail (1863-1879) was more like his grandfather but different in his geopolitical interest. He was interested in the control of the Nile Valley and the Red Sea coast, and by 1872 he attempted to connect Massawa with Sudan and even claimed Berbera and Harar as part of the Ottoman Empire adminstered by Egypt. To make sure he is in firm control of his hypothetical territory, Ismail further encroached into Ethiopian territory and fought with the Ethiopian forces at Gundet in November 1875 and Gura in March 1876 where his forces were annihilated byAlula's army.

        Ismail failed to take over Ethiopian territory but was successful in developing the Nile Valley by expanding irrigation canals in order to pay the debt he incurred to the French in the construction of the Suez Canal. However, Ismail was unable to pay back his debt, and out of desperation he called upon European powers to extricate him from his financial crisis. He naively but tacitly allowed Europeans to exercise a defacto control over Egypt. In fact, by 1876 an investigative body amed Caisse de la Dette Publique, composed of France, Britain, Austria and Italy was set up. Ultimately, the Dual Control (French and English) of Egypt's income and expenditure declared the country bunkrupt by  879, And the same year Ismail was deposed. He was succeeded by his son Twafiq who was only a figurehead, and the English increasingly entrenched themselves in Egypt between 1879 and 1884.

        Ironically, Isamil's dream of controlling the Nile Valley was fulfilled by the British. With the exception of Ethiopia, the Nile countries of Egypt, Sudan, Uganda and Tanganyika [Tanzania] became British colonies. The White Nile [5584 km] was effectivelly controlled by the English.

THE NILE (THE WHITE AND BLUE NILES) The source of the White Nile is one of its tributaries, the Kagara river in Tanzania. The Kagara flows northward on the boundary of Uganda, cuts through Lake Victoria and turns into the Ripon Falls. When it reaches the Sudan border, it is locally known as Bahr al-Jabal and after joining  the Bahr al-Ghazal further north, it becomes the Bahr al-Abyad or the White Nile.

        At Khartoum, the White Nile is joined by the Bahr al-Azraq or the Blue Nile which is 1529 km long and rises from the Lake Tana district of Western Ethiopia. From Khartoum, the Nile flows northeast and is joined by the Atbara (known as Tekezze in Ethiopia) 200 miles north of the city.

Both the Blue Nile (known as Abbay in Ethiopia) and the Tekezze bring Tons of alluvial soil to the Sudan and Egypt. After the city of Atbara, the Nile drains into the Nubian Dessert and into Egypt, and before it enters the Mediterranean Sea, it forms the Delta and is separated into the Rosetta and Damietta distributaries.

        As pointed above, the White Nile was effectively controlled by The British in the last quarter of the 19th century, but the hydropolitics of the Nile had begun much earlier when European explorers mapped out the waterways of the major rivers of Africa.

        In 1769, the Scottish traveller James Bruce was in Ethiopia in search of the source of the Blue Nile. Other British explorers like John Hanning Speke reached Lake Victoria in 1858, and in 1868 the German Georg Schweinfurth explored the Western tributaries of the White Nile.

Likewise, Henry Stanley, the British-American sailed around Lake Victoria in 1875.

        By the end of the 19th century, although the British ambition of connecting 'Cairo with Cape' [Cecil Rhodes' idea] was not realized, they

effectively controlled the Nile Basin and had begun projects in earnest.

In 1902, they constructed the Aswan Dam which was further developed in 1936. Following WWI, the Makwar Dam [now renamed the Sennar Dam] was built on the Blue Nile to provide water for cotton plantation in the Sudan.

Another dam at Jabal Awliya (few miles south of Khartoum) was Constructed on the White Nile in 1937. In 1947, the Owen Falls Dam in Uganda was built following Egypt and Ugandan agreement where Egypt was guaranteed the smooth release of the Nile water on the Ugandan territory.

        In the 1950s, during Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt formally demonstrated its geopolitical stake in the Nile Valley although it could not directly control the headwaters of both the Blue and White Niles.

However, by the 1959 Nile Water Agreement Egypt secured the use of 76% of the water as opposed to 24% by Sudan. Ethiopia objected the Agreement and was presumed  a bystander in the Nile Valley although it contributes 85% of the water.

        By 1971, Egypt was using the High Aswan Dam, the world's largest reservoir [Lake Nasser] for major irrigation projects. Ethiopia, on the contrary was not using the Blue Nile for either irrigation or hydroelectric powers till the recent negligible utilization of the Abbay  valley.

        The latest Egyptian hydropolitics with respect to the Nile is the New Valley project where 415,000 acres at Abu Simbel and its environs Will be irrigated  and finished by the year 2001 and allow at least 7 million Egyptians a new home. Egypt may even divert the eastern delta of the Nile into the Sinai, perhaps with the help of other Middle East nations, and find additional new resettlement zone.

        Egypt seems adamant on the continuation of the 1959 agreement And does not want to permit new vistas and agreements on the sharing of the Nile waters. Instead of cooperating with Ethiopia and other Nile countries, Egypt resorts to subterfuge on a number of occasions to divert the attention of world public opinion and even went to the extent of sponsoring disgruntled political groupings such as the Somali factions and the Eritrean government as a form of deterrence and probabaly as political intimidation directed against Ethiopia.

        Egypt fails to recognize that ultimately it is only through negotiation and mutual understanding that it can secure its permanet interest; it also fails to understand that the present generation of Ethiopians will nonetheless exhibit resolve to use the waters of the Nile for the benefit of their people. Egypt cannot employ the old-fashioned Khedive Ismail strategy or British control of the headwaters of the Nile.

In fact, the present geopolitical policy of Egypt pertaining to the sharing of the Nile waters is counter productive, and it could have a boomerang effect.

SUGGESTED SOLUTIONS FOR THE PROBLEM OF THE POLITICS OF THE NILE        1. As mentioned above, although Egypt's geopolitical interest in the Nile was continued by successive Egyptian regimes, the Nasserite government was not backing mercenaries against sovereign African nations.

On the contrary, Nasser created a Supreme Committee and the African Association to monitor African affairs; he also established the Afro-Asian Peoples Solidarity Organization (AAPSO). Egypt, under Nasser, was haven to African progressive forces and nationalist leaders as opposed to Mubark's Egypt which is virtually harboring and nurturing reactionary political groups.

        Egyptians must reverse the present policy of their government, recapture Nasser's [short of threatening Ethiopia] ideal and promote the principle of sharing the Nile waters equally.

        2. The status quo of the 1959 Agreement must be repealed and a new agreement must be signed to accomodate the interests and development agendas of all Nile countries. In fact, the 1959 Agreement stipulates that Egypt and the Sudan must reduce their use of the Nile waters if the upstream countries begin to use the Nile for development. Egypt is suffereing from 'water stress' phobia, but in spite of the latter's perception, Egypt has no choice but to share the Nile with other riparian states.

        3. Egypt must respect the general agreement on cooperation and the use of the Nile reached between Ethiopia and itself on July 1, 1993. This agreement may not be binding, but it could serve as conduit toward more understanding and resolving the problem of the politics of the Nile.

        4. Egypt must also respect the interest and the need of the Ten Nile riparian countries that told the whole world, in the Fifth Nile 2002 Conference held in Addis Ababa, that they want to use the Nile for their respective socioeconomic development.

        5. The best solution for the politics of the Nile is accomodating the water needs of all Nile countries, including Ethiopia which is currently using a drop in the bucket of its Abbay, and Egypt which has maximized the use of the Nile from time to time.

        6. For a peaceful use of the Nile, the UN development agencies like the UNDP must be involved and if possible finance the development endeavors of respective riparian nations. The development of the Nile will then benefit all, resolve the contradiction between Egypt and other Nile countries. If Egypt resorts to the use of force and war, it is the one that will suffer most.