Play a game of word association almost anywhere in the world, and if you try the word “Nile”, the answer will be “Egypt”. Herodotus famously said the country was a gift of the fabled river, and it’s no exaggeration – given that Egypt is almost totally dependent on the Nile for water and agriculture.
But upstream of Cairo, there’s a country where the answer to the word association wouldn’t be Egypt – where the people don’t even call the it the Nile, and where more than 85 percent of the river’s water originates. That place is Ethiopia, and it has enraged Egypt by starting to build a huge dam on the river.
The dam itself, which will be used to generate hydropower, is a beast. It will produce 6,000 megawatts of electricity and stand 170 metres high and 1,800 metres wide, making it the biggest in Africa and the 13th biggest in the world. Ethiopia calls it the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, and its government and people see it as just that – a reassertion of historic Ethiopian wealth and influence.
Upriver from the construction site in northwestern Ethiopia sits the small hamlet of Gish Abay. There you can find the three small trickles of water, hidden behind a few tufts of grass, that are believed to be the source of the Blue Nile, the tributary from which the vast majority of Nile water flows.
Al Jazeera visited those trickles shortly after Ethiopia announced plans for the dam in 2011 and saw lines of priests and locals snake up and down a field leading to the springs, clutching jerrycans and bottles filled with water they believe to be holy – even magic. Here, they called the river “Tis Abbay”, fully understood its strategic importance and said they proudly backed the government’s plan to harness its power.
New government, new meetings
Construction has been underway for about two years, and though Egypt, Ethiopia and the other nine countries that share the Nile have been bickering about its waters for much longer, things became particularly heated when Ethiopia began diverting a stretch of the river last May. And, though the situation has since calmed down, the dispute has not gone away and construction is still forging ahead.
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The water ministers of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan are to meet again in Khartoum on Monday, this time to argue over the composition of a committee of experts who have been looking into the potential impact of the project on Egypt and Sudan, which have long taken an overwhelming share of the Nile’s water. Though the panel, which is made up of experts from all three nations, has already compiled a report, Egypt was not happy and wants international consultants to be brought onboard.
Sudan, which has traditionally supported Egypt on Nile issues, now says it backs the mega-project, leaving Cairo out on its own with its sometimes sabre-rattling rhetoric.
Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir and Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn met this week, underlined that support and, crucially, inaugurated a cross-border electricity link so Ethiopia can sell more power to Sudan – those power exports a key element in Addis Ababa’s attempts to convince its neighbours the dam could be good for all of their economies.
With Egyptian officials not long in their jobs since former president Mohamed Morsi was toppled and the new military-backed authorities installed, to a certain extent, all three governments are feeling each other out again in these new meetings and a more constructive tone has been adopted of late.
But there is also much institutional memory of animosity, both long-running and recent.
In May, in one of his last acts in power, Morsi claimed that “all options” were on the table to protect his country’s water supply. “We are not calling for war, but we will never permit our water security … to be threatened,” he said, adding that “our blood is the alternative” to losing one drop of water.
Ethiopia, growing in diplomatic and economic clout, was unfazed. Aware of the famous Herodotus quote, they’ve always shot back: “If Egypt is a gift of the Nile, then the Nile is a gift of Ethiopia.”
Responding to Morsi, Addis Ababa officials said the dam’s existence was non-negotiable. The Egyptians won’t consider war “unless they go mad”, Hailemariam said at the time.
If Ethiopian officials have allowed themselves a smirk at Egypt’s woes since and thought that, with Morsi gone, they had been gifted time to work on the dam unhindered, they were wrong.
Even as pitched battles were fought in Cairo and the administration struggled to restore order, it managed to sound dark warnings to Ethiopia. With the political situation steadier now, the Egyptian government can pay more attention to its foreign policy. And, relations with its closest allies aside, the Nile is the priority.
The bellicose exchanges between the two nations are nothing new. In 1979, then Egyptian president Anwar Sadat said, “The only matter that could take Egypt to war again is water.”
More recently, Meles Zenawi, the late Ethiopian Prime Minister who made the Renaissance Dam something of a personal project, said in a 2011 interview that Egypt had been trying to destabilise Ethiopia for decades by supporting its rebels and enemies. He was derisive about Egypt’s chances of success if it stood in Ethiopia’s way. “I am not worried that the Egyptians will suddenly invade Ethiopia,” Meles said. “Nobody who has tried that has lived to tell the story.”
Some journalists and analysts have become so excited by the dispute that they predict the world will finally see its first proper, large-scale water war. Other analysts caution that co-operation, not conflict, is the only thing that can work for both countries.
And war does, for the forseeable future, look unlikely. Ethiopia timed the announcement that it was building the dam very cleverly – two months after the toppling of Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak, who had always been hawkish about the possibility of Ethiopia damming the Nile. “We knew he was uncomfortable with us even bathing in it,” an Ethiopian official told Al Jazeera.
According to emails from the US-based intelligence analysis firm Stratfor, which were obtained by Wikileaks, Mubarak had plans to launch airstrikes from Sudan on any dam Ethiopia might build.
Stratfor has recently pointed out, though, that Egypt would likely struggle if it tried to militarily thwart the project. Ethiopia is too far away, Stratfor says. Egypt would be reliant on Sudanese support, which it now appears not to have, and even sending in special forces would be difficult. Ethiopia has one of the biggest and most battle-hardened armies in Africa.
‘No Nile, no Egypt’
The dispute hinges on what looks, based on the numbers, like a glaringly unfair portion of water consumed by Egypt and Sudan – as well as on the fact that both countries’ claim to the water derives from colonial-era treaties brokered by the British and not signed by anyone upstream of Khartoum. As Meles put it back in 2010, “The Egyptians have yet to make up their minds as to whether they want to live in the 21st or the 19th century … So the process appears to be stuck.”
The Nile has two main tributaries – the Blue Nile and the White Nile. The Blue Nile, which originates in Ethiopia’s Lake Tana, contributes the vast majority of the water and fertile soil. The White Nile, which is longer, meets it at Sudan’s capital Khartoum, where they form the greater Nile and flow to Egypt.
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Under the 1929 pact, Egypt is entitled to 55.5 billion cubic metres of water a year, the lion’s share of the Nile’s total flow of around 84 billion cubic metres. Sudan gets 18.5 billion cubic metres. Both countries were given veto power over upstream projects and the views of the other countries through which the river passes were simply ignored.
But, as the upstream countries developed economic, military and diplomatic clout, they pushed back and drew up their own agreement allocating the water more equally and eliminating the veto power.
Though few would dispute that the numbers looks unfair, Egypt has a strong case, too. The Egyptians point out that they don’t benefit from rains like the upstream countries and that, having based their agriculture for centuries on access to the river water, they have little alternative. “No Nile, no Egypt,” Cairo says.
Credible analysts, though, say that agreement is the only thing that makes sense for all of the Nile Basin countries. Instead of an Ethiopian dam, they say, make it an African dam. Instead of an Egyptian river, recognise it as an African one. Ethiopia could certainly use some help to raise funds for the $4.3bn structure, which is being built by a private Italian firm.
The dam could generate much-needed electricity for all the countries in the Nile region, they say, boosting infrastructure, industry and trade. The Ethiopians are already striking deals on power exports. Addis Ababa also says dams upriver would help reduce evaporation from Egypt’s Aswan Dam and that the new Nile agreement has made water preservation more efficient, so that Egypt and Sudan will not lose out.
For now, the Egyptians remain sceptical and the Ethiopians remain determined, both governments representing nations who share an almost mystical attachment to the world’s longest river.
As the ministers meet in Khartoum on Monday, an army of workers in northwestern Ethiopia will be getting on with their jobs, piecing together the monster structure at the heart of the discussions, not stopping for a moment. The dam is 30 percent complete so far, the government says.
“The Abbay is Ethiopia,” one old priest, his finger wagging, said on Al Jazeera’s visit in 2011. “Ethiopia is Abbay. I am a holy man, so I wish that the Egyptians can share. But I am old and so I remember that we have never been friends. If we can’t agree now then it is dangerous for both of us.”
Follow Barry Malone on Twitter: @malonebarry