Egypt-Ethiopia conflict over Nile waters flares

A speed boat sails on the River Nile in Cairo, Egypt, 29 May 2013. Photo by Khaled Elfiqi/EPA

A speed boat sails on the River Nile in Cairo, Egypt, 29 May 2013.

Photo by Khaled Elfiqi/EPA

CAIRO, Egypt/ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia - When an Egyptian officer said recently on national television that the conflict with Ethiopia over the waters of the Nile was "not yet" a military one, his words sounded more threatening than reassuring.

Colonel Ahmed Mohammed Ali may have been trying to calm tempers, but long-standing animosities between the two countries has flared up with renewed bitterness.

The Egyptians see the river as a gift from God - to them. Without the Nile there would have been no Ancient Egypt and its great heritage, only desert. The Nile remains a vital artery.

But Ethiopia, where most of the river's water originates, also wants to make use of it and has been planning a huge dam for years.

On completion the Renaissance dam, costing $4.3 billion and spanning the Blue Nile at the border with Sudan, is to generate 6,000 megawatts of electricity.

At the end of last month, Ethiopia began to change the course of the river, displacing it by several hundred meters, in a move that has outraged Egypt and generated near panic over future water supplies.

Egypt depends on the Nile for 98 per cent of its water - and water is in increasingly short supply. The Arab world's most populous country has seen its population soar from 53 million in 1990 to more than 80 million today.

Wasteful use of water, for example in agriculture, has caused demand to rise.

It is closely watching developments on the Blue Nile, which rises at Lake Tana in northern Ethiopia and which contributes some 80 per cent of the river's water. In Sudan the Blue Nile joins the White Nile, which has its source in Lake Victoria in Uganda and carries much less water.

Water concerns have taken center stage in Egyptian politics, with President Mohammed Morsi stating he does not wish to "lose a single drop of Nile water," and adding ominously that "all options remain open."

Ethiopia dismissed his remarks as "unconstructive propaganda" and "empty and violent rhetoric". Cairo's provocative comments constituted an attack on both Ethiopia's national interests and the attempts of its inhabitants to escape poverty, the Foreign Ministry said.

Egypt's Foreign Minister Mohammed Kamel Amr travelled to Addis Ababa for a two-day visit in attempt to ease the situation.

Egypt's attitude to "its" Nile has long caused irritation among other countries along the river's course, and Ethiopia has received support for its position on the dam project, from Uganda for example.

But Cairo is determined to uphold an agreement dating back to 1929 and the colonial era. This document provides for Egypt and Sudan to have rights to more than 80 per cent of the water, even though the Nile flows through 11 countries in all.

The two countries have right of veto on projects that could influence or change the river's course. The other countries aim to change this provision.

Ethiopia's parliament has now passed the ratification of a treaty intended to replace the old Nile Water Agreement, in terms of which a joint forum will decide on how the waters are used.

But Egypt has rejected this, insisting on its prior rights,

In the longer term, Cairo will have to make concessions to Addis Ababa. Military experts see the Egyptian army's options as limited, with US thin tank Stratfor noting the long distance to the proposed dam.

And as Egypt lacks refueling capabilities for its aircraft, it would be impossible to destroy the project from the air. -