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A Framework for Ending The Egypt-Ethiopia Nile Water War

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
(AP Photo/Elias Asmare, File)

Whiskey is for drinking. Water is for fighting. In less colorful words, securing water is worth going to war for.
Ethiopia and Egypt are now engaged in a vicious struggle over Nile River water rights. Their confrontation began well over a decade ago.

If the opening epigram strikes you as cliche Hollywood western dialogue, then there is a good chance you've never suffered from thirst with a sandpaper throat, been a farmer watching crops wither or scratched it out as a pastoralist (a fancy term for animal herder anywhere in any era, Mesopotamia to Oklahoma), watching sheep, cattle or goats die from lack of H2O.

Human survival, individual and societal, requires water. Just ask the Egyptians. At least 7,000 years of life on the Nile has proven the adage "Egypt is the Nile" to be true. From Aswan and north to Alexandria, the green band bordering the great river is home to 90 percent of Egypt's population. 

Twenty-first-century Egypt still confronts pharaoh-era East African geographic and climatic facts. Egypt gets 80 to 90 percent of its annual water needs from the Nile. The Blue Nile River originates in Ethiopia's watered highlands. Tributary? The Blue Nile provides roughly 85 percent of all Nile water. The Blue Nile meets the White Nile near Sudan's capital, Khartoum. Enriched in Sudan, the world's longest river rolls north through Egypt and into the Mediterranean.

Regional politics add complexity. Ethiopia objects to the 1929 Nile Waters Agreement, a colonial document engineered by Great Britain that gives Egypt the right to veto upstream water projects. Ethiopia signed the agreement, but the agreement also affects Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania, whose water feeds the White Nile. In 2010, Ethiopia authored the Entebbe Agreement, which would give Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania a diplomatic mechanism for altering the 1929 division of Nile water rights. Rwanda and Burundi also support the Entebbe agreement.

So Ethiopia built the GERD, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. The GERD now dams the Blue Nile River near the Sudan border. This month, Ethiopia began filling the dam's reservoir, which could ultimately hold 75 billion cubic meters of water.

Ethiopia says GERD provides water for its own growing population and produces hydroelectric power, enough to light Ethiopia, with excess to be sold throughout Africa. The GERD has the physical potential to become Africa's largest hydroelectric power plant. 

But as far as Cairo is concerned, the GERD is an Ethiopian weapon capable of denying Egypt 75 percent or more of its annual water supply. It's an existential threat far greater than the COVID-19/Wuhan pandemic or a border war. It represents systemic societal death from thirst.

Where is the U.S.? During a 2013 regional trip, then-President Barack Obama deplored sub-Saharan Africa's lack of electrical generation capacity. Obama strictly focused on improving African electrical generation capacity and grids. However, that isn't how Ethiopians and Egyptians heard him. In both countries, the president's comments were heard as supportive of Ethiopia. Egyptians noted Obama's father was a Kenyan, and Kenya and Ethiopia are close allies.

In 2013, the Ethiopian government promised Egypt it would fill the reservoir so slowly it would not affect Egypt's water allotment. Ethiopia has also reiterated its offer to sell Egypt partial ownership of the dam and guarantee Egypt a share of the electricity generated by the dam. Egypt didn't accept the offer, but 2013 was the year the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood dictatorship fell.

What is to be done? A war between East Africa's two most powerful nations would be a disaster for both, but especially for Sudan, which lies between them.

In late January 2020, the Trump administration, acting as an "external mediator," tried to hammer out a "joint responsibility agreement" for managing drought crises. The U.S. has good relations with Egypt and Ethiopia. The deal didn't gel -- but the idea of guaranteeing Egypt water during a drought is a rational approach.

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