In 1979, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat said: “The only matter that could take Egypt to war again is water, ”and in 1988, then Egyptian Foreign Minister, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who later became the United Nations’ Secretary-General, predicted that the next war in the Middle East would be fought over the waters of the Nile, not politics . Since then Egypt has threatened to bomb dam development in Sudan. It has also challenged Kenya’s rhetoric denouncing the 1929 and 1959 agreements and desire to withdraw from them as acts of war, as well as warned Tanzania over its plans to drain the Lake Victoria. These Egyptian concerns may justify the cries of water wars. However, rather than accept these frightening predictions, we must examine them within the context of the Nile River basin and the relationships forged among the states that share its waters.
The Nile River is 6850km long. It is the world’s longest river and flows from the east and central African plains to the Mediterranean sea in a south to north movement with a catchments basin covering 10% of the African continent. The Nile River spreads across 10 states with an area of approximately 3x106 square kilometers . All the waters in Burundi and Rwanda and more than half the waters in Uganda are produced within their boundaries, while most of the water resources of Egypt and Sudan originate outside their territories, 77% and 97% respectively. The river has 3 tributaries: the White Nile, the Blue Nile and the Atbara. The upper White Nile originates in the East African highlands in Burundi and flows through Owen falls, Lake Kyoga, Kabalega (Murchison) and Lake Mobuttu as it drains out of Lake Victoria. The Blue Nile is 1529 km long and rises upstream of Lake Tana in Ethiopia and provides more than 53% of Nile’s water. The Atbara also originates in the Ethiopian highlands and is joined by the White Nile which merges with the Nile at Khartoum from the Atbara confluence. The Nile then flows through the Nubian Desert through Egypt, draining into the Mediterranean. The Nile River thus represents one of the critical and most important shared water basins in the world. Recently, upstream states have begun to consider the control of more of the Nile waters to initiate economic development and to sustain their populations 70% of whom live in the Nile basin and the other30% of the Nile basin population benefit less directly. The Nile River as a Source of Conflict
Conflict over the Nile’s waters could fan existing conflicts in the Greater Horn of Africa, making them more complex and harder to address. Tensions in the Greater Horn of Africa are of great concern to the international community, due to its volatility and proximity to the Middle East. Conflicts emerging here might spread political, social, and economic instability into the surrounding areas. In a river basin, conflict is most likely to emerge when the downstream nation is militarily stronger than nations upstream, and the downstream nation believes its interests in the shared water resource are threatened by actions of the upstream nations. In the Nile basin, the downstream nation, Egypt, controls the region’s most powerful military, and fears that its upstream neighbors will reduce its water supply by constructing dams without its consent. Egypt claims a natural historical right on the Nile River, and principles of its acquired rights have been a focal point of negotiations with the upstream states. The fact that this claim exists means that any perceived reduction of the Nile water supply to Egypt is seen as tampering with their national security and thus could trigger conflict including armed conflict. There have been occasions when Egypt has threatened to go to war over Nile water. This is not always simply because of a threat to Egypt's water supply by neighboring states, but it is also based on action taken by Egypt itself. Since the 1990's steps have been taken by the Egyptian Government to divert...
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