Nile Waters and Words of Water Wars
By: Berhe Habte-Giorgis
December 16, 2003

An Aljezeera article quoted the Egyptian Minister of Water Resources threatening that his country will sever diplomatic relations with Kenya, if Kenya unilaterally abrogates the Nile Water Treaty that binds the Nile riparian states. Egypt has threatened with military action, Ethiopia in 1978 and Sudan in 1995 (Michael T. Klare, "Resource Wars", 2002), for similar reasons.

Water conflicts exist in other parts of the world, but they may not be as crucial as in the Nile Basin. The demographic trend in this region, especially in Ethiopia, is set to lead to a confrontation with Egypt in the near future. A peaceful and equitable process may be found, but that will come at the cost of Ethiopia accepting a reality of a mighty Egyptian air-force bombing into rubble any dam construction that Egypt feels threaten the flow of water to the new settlement and irrigation schemes. The confrontation over Nile waters will most obviously be between Egypt and Ethiopia because 75% to 89% of the water comes from Ethiopia.

Ethiopia's population is projected to increase from 63 mn (1998) to 212 mn (2050), while Egypt's population will increase from 66 mn to 115 mn for the same period. Population of all the five major countries in the Nile Basin (Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan, Uganda) will increase from 200 mn to over 500 mn. (Klare). By the Ethiopian Prime Minster's own admission, poverty and famine, if unchecked, will threaten the country's existence. Such a statement necessitates some definite action on the part of the government. Part of the solution will have to come by improving agricultural production through improved technology and irrigation. The major constraint is that use of the Nile tributary waters is not solely within the jurisdiction of the country.

The Kenyan incident is an indication of the seriousness of the problem. Egypt's vast military capability is not intended to fight against Israel. That is passe. It will be there to safeguard the country's livelihood and existence. Water is the life of the country and the Nile is the lifeline. The most likely deployment of this military might will be against Nile Basin countries that threaten Egypt's survival.

Ethiopia, a runaway state both in terms of population growth and behavior of the government, will soon realize the limits to growth and arrogance. It may fall prey to the law-of-the-jungle "genie" it is unleashing by refusing to be bound by international law. In the complicated political and military situations that will develop in the future, the role of small but strategically located states like Eritrea will be much bigger than the size of their population. The Tigrigna saying, "don't tread on a snake, thinking it is thin and small" is worth remembering, because the little snake can give you a bite of your life.