Saturday August 2, 2014
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01.08.2014
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Zalman Shoval

The swelling storm over the Nile

The armed clashes taking place across the Middle East could soon include Egypt and Ethiopia. Continual attempts to allay the differences diplomatically are being made, but the clouds of war have yet to dissipate.

The crisis is over water. The Nile River is Egypt's life artery, and Ethiopia is threatening to block it. The Nile's origins, as we know, are in eastern Africa, and before the giant river reaches Egypt's parched agricultural fields it passes through other countries, including Ethiopia, which also has vast areas with untapped agricultural potential in need of water. Ethiopia, like Egypt, has a population of some 90 million people.

This is not only about agriculture, but also about independence from foreign energy providers -- a challenge that, if solved, could move Ethiopia from a failed economy to a functioning one, perhaps even to a regional powerhouse. It would be perfect if not for that one small problem.

Ethiopia is building a large hydroelectric dam on the Nile, at a cost of nearly $5 billion, to store most of the water in its territory. Doing this could, in very short order, sentence Egypt to unprecedented famine and regular power outages. Despite Ethiopian assurances that it will take Egypt's needs into account, this growing issue is creating an impossible situation for Cairo, which already has enough difficulties providing for the country's 84 million residents.

The contradictory interests of two countries traversed by one river are a central issue in international law. Even Israel, in the past, has needed to make tough decisions, including military ones (until the Golan Heights were captured in 1967), over Syrian attempts to divert the Jordan River.

The conflict over the Nile is also not new. In 1929, the British, who ruled over most of the area at the time, sponsored a deal that designated how the river's water would be allocated. Because of Britain's special interest in Egypt, Cairo was given access to 60 percent of the water as well as veto power over any project involving the Nile by upstream countries. It is this situation that other countries in the region, which sit along the riverbed, are now seeking to change by signing a treaty that will significantly reduce Egypt's water supply.

In the latest development, the Ethiopian parliament unanimously endorsed the new Nile River Cooperative Framework Agreement, an accord already signed by five other Nile-basin countries -- Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya and Burundi -- making it Ethiopian law. The Egyptian reaction, as expected, was outrage. President Mohammed Morsi declared that even though he did not want war, "all the options are open."

Meanwhile, retired senior Egyptian army officer Gen. Talaat Musallam said, "Even though Cairo's ability to cast influence is at an all-time low, if a diplomatic solution is not found the military commanders in Egypt could decide that it is better to die in battle than to die of thirst."

The plot for Verdi's "Aida" deals with war between Egypt and Ethiopia, from which the Egyptians emerge victorious. Even now, Egypt's military power is apparently greater. But the Ethiopians are tough and brave fighters, and we should not forget that in the two wars they fought against Italy, they won the first and were barely defeated in the second, and then only after Italy employed the use of gas.

Ethiopia, however, is not eager for war either, but it could be that it feels that the current crises battering Egypt are rendering its military threats empty, and that Cairo will have no choice but to accept the new distribution of the Nile's water. Perhaps they are correct, perhaps not.

There is another matter to consider as well: If the Ethiopian initiative takes off, it will cause geopolitical aftershocks in the entire region that will shift the center of power from Egypt to Ethiopia, which will also have diplomatic consequences. The United States, which is in no need of more problems in the Middle East, will do its best to convince Egypt (its ally in principle) and Ethiopia (its ally in practice), to solve the problem peacefully. With that, Washington's diplomatic clout is diminished since the "Arab spring" revolution in Egypt, such that it is not clear its efforts will bear fruit.

Israel also finds itself in a dilemma: The agreements and ties with Egypt are the foundation of its diplomatic and security policy, but its growing and strengthening ties with Ethiopia are also an important part of its considerations. Until now Israel has refrained from any sort of involvement in the swelling storm, and we should hope this continues to be the case.

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