While Egypt’s transitional government finds itself roiled in one domestic snafu after another, it is easy to forget that its foreign ministry (or what is left of it) has a slew of issues to resolve across its borders. The most recent dispute with Ethiopia has been a conflict more than eight decades in the making, revolving around both nations’ most sacred resource: the Nile River. Fewer than a thousand miles south of the Egyptian city of Aswan, Ethiopia has begun construction on what is to be the largest hydroelectric dam in East Africa, aptly named the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. The ensuing consequences, according to Egypt, would make the Revolution of 2011 a mere blip in the country’s history by comparison. While the dam is unmistakably a massive undertaking, is Egypt simply wringing its hands in overly sensitive histrionics, or is its livelihood genuinely at stake?
This conflict’s roots stem back to 1929 when the Nile Water Agreement, a thorny vestige of the colonial era that still bears legitimacy, was first established. The Agreement, brokered by the British, granted the Nile’s downstream nations (Sudan and Egypt) extensive rights over the river’s use and, more significantly, exclusive veto power concerning any public infrastructure projects built on or along the Nile by any of the upstream nations, much to the chagrin of countries like Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and Ethiopia. Sudan and Egypt’s concern is that any sort of upstream construction threatens the unimpeded flow of nutrient-rich river water.
Ethiopia counters that the Agreement rests upon an antiquated division that grants the downstream states a de facto monopoly over the rights and usage of the Nile’s waters, a view summed up by its Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, in a 2010 interview: “Some people in Egypt have old-fashioned ideas based on the assumption the Nile water belongs to Egypt…The circumstances have changed and changed forever.”
Both upstream and downstream states have valid points. Still, recent history has shown that the technology exists to allow for the responsible construction of non-environmentally damning infrastructure, while ensuring the flow of water downstream, as seen in transregional bodies of water like the Amazon, the Niger River, and the Mississippi. Yet in this case, reconciliation remains elusive.
What is becoming increasingly evident are the consequences of a history of Egyptian foreign policy that flouted the Nile Basin states for well over three decades, and instead embarked on an agenda of placating its neighbor east of the Sinai, Israel. The dispute surrounding the Nile need not be an intractable one. Far from being a problem steeped in the limitations of nature or technology, Egypt’s answer may be as simple as glancing to the south, rather than west.