The ecological roots of the current strife in Egypt
The bloodletting in Egypt, which was triggered by the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi on July 3, has foreshadowed its deeper ecological roots. Egypt cannot get past its present turmoil, at least in the long run, without spotlighting and comprehending its sub-surface causes. Commentators, for their wilful neglect or blissful ignorance, tend to cast the Egyptian conflict as an imbalance in civil-military relations. Although ecological dimensions of this conflict predate its present incarnation, they have been one of the major sticking points that deepened the divide between what observers saw as Morsi’s growingly autocratic-theocratic regime and its secular antithesis in Egypt’s all-powerful military. Nonetheless, the real wedge between the two, came shrouded in Ethiopia’s public announcement on May 28 that it was diverting a portion of the Nile, the world’s longest river, for constructing what it exuberantly named as the “Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.” This multibillion-dollar project is billed to produce 6,000 megawatts of electricity, making Ethiopia the lighthouse of northeast Africa and bringing it out of the long and dark shadows of poverty.
Ecological divide between Morsi and the military
Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, who deposed Morsi to become Egypt’s de facto ruler, told in an extensive interview with the Washington Post on August 3 that President Morsi was ignoring the military’s advice on Ethiopia. This was a fatal mistake as the Egyptian defense establishment views the Nile and its uninterrupted flow to Egypt as the “national strategic interest.” In its reckoning, any decline in Egypt’s share of Nile water is, as one observer put it, the “existential threat,” and “non-negotiable.” Morsi’s insouciant attitude to the urgency of securing Egypt’s historical right to Nile water made the military wary of him. He didn’t do much to calm its concerns beyond serving up occasional broadsides.
Impulsive and ill-thought-out, these broadsides had rather shaken the military’s faith in the president and his ability to bring his leadership to bear on a rising chorus of demand by upstream countries for reapportioning the Nile, which means a cut in Egypt’s share of the waters. Five upstream riparian states -- Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda – have already signed an accord and have it ratified by their respective parliaments to strip Egypt of its veto power against any water development project on the Nile. In June, Ethiopian parliament signed off on this accord, and stamped its approval for continuing with the Renaissance Dam that is located on the Ethiopian-Sudanese border. Also, Congo and south Sudan are next in line itching for endorsing this accord. Of 11 shoreline states in the Nile Basin, Eretria and Sudan are the only two exceptions that sided with Egypt, although Khartoum has a long history of troubled relations with Cairo over the use of Nile water.
Consumed by power struggle at home
While these overseas developments had the military worried, President Morsi was consumed by what he regarded as the gathering threat to his power from his democratic-secular opposition at home. Gen. Sisi, in his August 3 interview, cited President’s fight with the judiciary, al-Azhar, the Coptic Church, the media, political opposition and even public opinion as reasons for his neglect of stewarding Egypt’s strategic interests. The military advised him to resolve homegrown conflicts and concentrate more on “foreign threats,” a diplomatic construction to refer to riparian nations that were getting louder and louder in their gripes about what they saw as Egypt’s unjust share of Nile water. In the military’s perceptions, democratic uprisings at home, first against Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and now against Morsi himself, had emboldened newer and more strident claimants to Nile water, of which Ethiopia was in the lead. It is no coincidence that Ethiopia began the construction of Renaissance Dam shortly after Mubarak was overthrown in a democratic uprising. For decades, Mubarak was watchful of Ethiopian move on the Dam. As revealed in WikiLeaks report, he once planned to base an air combat mission in Sudan as a reminder to Ethiopia of the price it would have to pay if it had pressed ahead with a dam on the Nile. With the fall of Mubarak, however, Ethiopia saw an opening to move ahead with its construction project. Asharq-al-Awsat, an influential Arabic newspaper in London, highlights Ethiopia’s calculated gamble: “Ethiopia would not have dared challenge Egypt, which has the largest army on the continent, were it not for Cairo’s political disarray,” wrote its former Editor-in-chief Tariq Alhomayed.
Morsi tries to make amends
In his apparent bid to appease the military, Morsi convened a meeting on June 3 in his Presidential Palace of leaders of all political persuasions to discuss a report on the impact of diverting Nile water by Ethiopia. The report was delivered to him a day earlier on June 2. The meeting was to formulate a response to Ethiopia’s unilateral move. Attendees at the meeting thought aloud some unsavory choices to take the sting out of Ethiopian public daring that galled most Egyptians. The range of choices they went through included an airstrike on the construction site of the Renaissance Dam, guerilla sabotage, or even destabilizing the Ethiopian government. At this stage of discussions, President and his guests were reminded by their minders that their deliberations were going live on television. But, by then, the horse had already bolted the barn door. Ethiopia reacted sternly and swiftly to these deliberations with a demarche to the Egyptian envoy in Addis Ababa to have his government explain what transpired at the meeting.
Humbled and infuriated, Morsi set aside diplomatic niceties and warned Ethiopia on June 11 that “all options are open,” a reference to the air strike, guerrilla sabotage, or destabilizing the government. This “in your face aggression” was supposedly a cutting message for Ethiopia, but the way it rolled off Morsi’s tongue left Egypt and its military embarrassingly on the defensive. A military spokesperson attempted to turn down the temperature saying that Ethiopia’s announced diversion of the Nile “is not a military issue at this stage.” Military strategists found even this calming attempt fraught with dire implications of its own. Dissatisfied, Addis Ababa openly questioned the sanity of Egyptian leaders. On June 13, Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn declared the threat of war unfounded unless Egyptian leaders “go mad.” The same day, Ethiopian parliament unanimously green-lighted the Renaissance Dam, and rejected Egypt’s power to veto damming or diverting of Nile water.
Startled by the worsening situation, the military rushed the Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr, a holdover from the Mubarak era who was retained in the Morsi government, to douse the flames of diplomatic conflagration kindled by President’s inept remarks. Minister Amr cajoled his hosts by disassociating his government from the President’s utterances that he found irrational and ill-thought-out. “Some pronouncements were made in the heat of the moment because of emotions. They are behind us,” he told a news conference in Addis Ababa with his Ethiopian counterpart Tedros Adhanom by his side. While welcoming Egypt’s willingness to move on, Ethiopia refused to suspend construction work on the Renaissance Dam. Ethiopia’s defiance can be explained by its ecological advantage as the point of origin of the Nile’s largest tributary – Blue Nile. Blue Nile is one of the two largest tributaries that feed into the Nile. It originates in the highlands of Ethiopia and meets White Nile, the second largest tributary to the Nile, in the Sudan to become the river Nile. Blue Nile is estimated to account for 75-80% of the Nile’s total volume of water.
Why Nile is so critical to Egypt
Nile is Egypt’s lifeline. And Egypt, as Greek historian Herodotus wrote, is the gift of Nile. Without Nile, Egypt will be a diminished presence as a dustbowl country in North and East Africa, and an unrecognizable blip in the Arab world. It is because of the Nile that Egypt sways a large swath of Africa, and towers over the Arab world for its political heft. Yet Egypt’s land ecology is generally inhospitable to human habitation. As a result, 97% of its landmass is unpopulated. Its 84 million citizens are packed in just 3% of the country’s geographical space that largely spans the Nile Valley and Nile Delta. Its farmland accounts for only 6% of the total landmass. Drained by the Nile, the 6% green patch supports Egypt’s some of the most water-guzzling crops such as cotton. Dry and rainless, Egypt’s agriculture is 100% dependent upon artificial irrigation that consumes 88% of Nile’s supplies.
Egypt, however, inherited the lion’s share of Nile from its colonial past. The 1929 treaty, which governs the distribution of Nile water, was crafted by the British that gave Egypt up to 90% of the Nile waters, the annual flow of which runs around 84 billion cubic meters (bcm). On top of it, they awarded Egypt a veto power against upstream construction of water dams that could interrupt Nile’s flow. Under another treaty in 1959, Egypt has a rightful claim to 55.5 bcm of Nile’s total volume. Egypt’s share of Nile still falls short of its annual water needs that hover around 64 billion bcm. By 2020, Egypt will need 20% additional water to meet the needs of its projected population that, by then, will have grown to 100 million. Consistent increase in demand for water and proportionate decrease in its supply makes the future of Egypt even grimmer.
According to the United Nations, Egypt could become a “water scarce” country (i.e., water availability dropping below 1,000 cubic meters per person per year) by 2025. Anticipating such a dry future, Egypt’s second president Gamal Abdel Nasser moved to build the Aswan High Dam with the help of the former Soviet Union. Sitting on the Egyptian-Sudanese border, the Aswan Dam stores the Nile water for a year-round supply of the Egyptians’ needs and the needs of their growing economy. It has since become Nasser's legacy project in which he lives on. More importantly, it is one of the rarest human interventions in the natural flow of larger bodies of water, such as Nile, that kept Egypt hydrated to this day. The dam regulates more than 18,000 miles of canals and subcanals. Once Anwar-al-Sadat, a former President of Egypt, after signing the Camp David Accords in 1978, offered to extend one of these canals to Israel, but Ethiopia and Sudan scuttled his move with a threat to cut off Nile supplies to if it went ahead with the El-Salaam (Peace) Canal project. Sadat backed down.
Ecological conflicts, if left untended, can have lethal consequences both within and between nations. The case of Egypt amplifies this lethality in a symbiotic relationship between the domestic and foreign tropes of its continuing conflict that most observers have cast as a civil-military spat. When 30 million Egyptians, failed by an anemic economy, took to the streets in protest against an autocratic regime, President Morsi was left with nothing to offer but smell conspiracies. His rivals abroad challenged him on an even bigger issue of reapportioning the Nile, and here too he failed to bring them around to his position. This is how a failed political economy made way to a failed political ecology, which each are organically bound. Political ecology will further strain the political economy as demands on ever dwindling water resources grow in intensity, making the Nile one of the hotly contested rivers. These contestations, however, will continue to shift as the region’s balance of power shifts. A case in point, again, is Egypt that is weakened by internal chaos, and is thus on the defensive. Ethiopia, on the other hand, is flush from its military successes in single-handedly clearing Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Shabab out of Somalia and propping up a government of sorts in Mogadishu, which each have raised its profile in northeast Africa. Hence it remains defiant.
However, these contestations do not have to be violent to make a larger claim to the Nile. Whether they recognize or not, Egypt and Ethiopia, and for that matter all riparian states, are bound by a shared ecological destiny of sailing and sinking together. Sailing together, nevertheless, requires ecological diplomacy, not geopolitical or geostrategic calculations that have thus far defined the region. Ecological diplomacy is sensitive to shared costs and shared benefits. In this spirit, Egypt should be open to the possibility that the Grand Renaissance Dam and its projected production of 6,000 megawatts of electricity can serve its own interests by meeting its soaring power needs. At the same time, Ethiopia should be receptive to redesigning the dam project to make it less water-intensive and less costly to Egypt and downstream nations without compromising its own electrical generation needs. Most importantly, ecology should serve as a barometer of political change within and outside nations.
Biography: Tarique Niazi, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Environmental Sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire. He specializes in resource-based conflicts. He has published his work in the International Journal of Contemporary Sociology, Journal of Environment and Development. Journal of Peasant Studies, Economic and Political Weekly, Societies without Borders, Harvard International Review, China and Eurasia Forum Quarterly, the Journal of Asia-Pacific Affairs-Japan Focus, and Foreign Policy in Focus.