JERUSALEM — Defying threats of war emanating from Egypt, Ethiopia’s parliament has endorsed an agreement with five other African countries refuting Egypt’s claim to near-exclusive rights to the waters of the Nile River.
The vote last Thursday was approved unanimously by the 547-member legislature after Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn said that Egypt’s leaders would not go to war unless they “go mad.”
The immediate issue is a dam that Ethiopia has been constructing on the Blue Nile River, which rises in Ethiopia itself and constitutes the bulk of the waters reaching Egypt. Egypt fears that the dam will significantly diminish the river’s flow. The previous regime of President Hosni Mubarak had planned to build an air base in Sudan in order to threaten the dam site, according to documents published by WikiLeaks.
Work on the dam began shortly after Mubarak was overthrown two years ago. A prominent Arab journalist, Tariq Alhomayed, former editor of Asharq Al-Awsat, wrote that Ethiopia would not have dared challenge Egypt, which has the largest army on the continent, were it not for Cairo’s political disarray.
This disarray was evident in the reaction of the current Egyptian regime headed by President Mohamed Morsi. It was evidently too distracted by its economic and political problems to formulate policy on the issue until Ethiopia announced nearly three weeks ago that it was diverting the flow of the river to permit further construction work on the dam.
Morsi held an emergency meeting of political leaders to discuss Egypt’s options. Some participants called for sending special forces to blow up the dam. Others suggested arming anti-government guerillas in Ethiopia or sending planes over its capital, Addis Ababa, as a warning.
The participants talked freely because they believed the meeting was secret. Midway, notes were handed around informing them that they were live on national television. When Ethiopian authorities, who saw the broadcast, asked for an explanation embarrassed Egyptian officials gave assurances that the problem would be resolved peacefully. Nevertheless, some officials said that no war was planned “at this time.”
Any threat to the water level of the Nile is of major significance to Egypt because of its population and economy depends on the river.
Eighty-eight percent of Egypt’s water supply goes to agriculture. Egypt’s population has quadrupled to 83 million in the past 50 years.
Egypt’s claim on the Nile’s waters rests on an agreement between the British colonial rulers and the Egyptian government in 1929 that allocated almost all the river’s flow to Egypt, with a minor portion going to Sudan, its immediate neighbor to the south.
No rights at all were recognized for the other upstream countries through which the river flows. This includes the White Nile, which rises in central Africa and joins the Blue Nile in Sudan.
The upstream countries have increasingly demanded abrogation of the 1929 agreement in recent years. Ethiopia has been the first to mount a major challenge by undertaking construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
The accord by the upstream countries nullifying the colonial agreement has also been signed thus far by Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Burundi. Congo and South Sudan say they also intend to join the new pact.
There has been no official assessment of the impact of the dam on the Nile’s flow but experts have said that filling the reservoir that will be created behind the dam would divert the equivalent of an entire year’s flow into Egypt spread over an unspecified number of years. Beyond that, evaporation of reservoir waters is expected to deplete the permanent flow.
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