Saturday, June 26, 2010

Battle for the Nile: Egypt puts river at heart of its security

Threatened by a cut in Nile water supply, Egypt sees its leading regional role draining away and its desert farms running dry

-Taken from the Guardian
-Aswan - June 2010

-Part of a Guardian package on the Nile, including Xan Rice in Uganda, John Vidal in London and an online interactive guide to the river.

-Original photography below by Ayman Farag


There’s only one way to appreciate the scale of Egypt’s monumental Aswan High Dam, and that’s by standing directly on top of it. Beneath your feet lies 43 million cubic metres of granite rock, construction material which took ten years and a billion dollars to assemble. To your south more than 5000 square kilometres of water stretch out towards the Sudanese border, forming Lake Nasser, one of the largest reservoirs on earth. And to your north, gurgling out quietly from deep within the bowels of the barrage, is the Nile – now tamed, steady, and ready for use by 80 million dependents downstream.

In terms of sheer technical ambition, not to mention its impact on Egypt’s economic fortunes, political might and cultural identity, nothing has rivalled the High Dam since the pyramids.

It’s obvious from the nationalist symbols plastered all over a nearby celebratory monument and from the spectacle of heavily-armed soldiers silently patrolling the dam’s walkways – the site is reportedly protected by an anti-missile system as extensive as the one that protects the seat of government in Cairo – that this vast structure means as much to Egypt today as it did when it was finally completed forty years ago. From its inception the dam was intended to stand as a symbol of the country’s historical mastery over the world’s longest river, control of which has determined the fate of every Egyptian ruler in history, from the earliest pharaoh to Gamal Abdel Nasser.

It’s also marks the spot where, should upstream African countries have their way, surrender of that control will first become visible.

The consequences of any reduction to Egypt’s share of the Nile’s flow will be felt across the whole length of the country, not least on the brackish fields of the Nile Delta some 800 km away where farmers are already struggling to find the freshwater needed to fight off underground intrusion from the Mediterranean. But one doesn’t have to travel far from the dam’s soaring concrete slopes to witness first hand just how important the Nile is to Egypt, which relies on the river for 90% of its water supplies.

Omar lives on the west bank of the nearby city of Aswan, on a narrow slither of verdant land that extends no more than 600 metres from the river at its widest point before quickly giving way to rocky desert. Temperatures here can reach up to 45°c in the summer but a network of irrigation canals and oxen-powered water pumps keeps Nile water streaming in all year round, allowing Omar and his fellow farmers to produce grapes, figs, watermelons and a wealth of other crops for export to the big food markets in Cairo.

“The Nile is everything to us, it’s liquid gold,” explained the 25 year old as he oversaw the day’s mango harvest. “Without it the land would die, the crops would die, the animals would die, and then we would die. We’re like fish here: take us from the water and we’ll perish.”

As with most of the predominantly Nubian communities in this area, discussions about Nile water politics have dominated conversation in Omar’s village recently. “It’s been all over the news channels,” he says. “Everyone’s talking about it, and everyone’s afraid. My family were one of those relocated when the High Dam was built and Lake Nasser flooded our homeland; now we fear our livelihoods will be taken away again if the water level drops and farming comes to an end.”

In the fishing and agricultural districts of Upper Egypt there is little sympathy to be found for the plight of upstream countries threatening to unilaterally increase their allocation of the Nile’s resources. It’s an uncompromising stance echoed by technical experts in Cairo, who claim that Egypt’s share of the overall water in the region is already dangerously small.

“Nile basin countries as a whole receive 7000 bcm [billion cubic metres] per year of rainfall,” says Khaled Abu Zeid, a regional water resources program manager at the environmental organisation CEDARE. “In the Nile basin itself, you’re looking at 1660 bcm of annual rainfall. And then from all this, you have Egypt taking 55.5 bcm a year from the Nile, our only source of fresh, renewable water. So we have to ask ourselves exactly what we’re talking about when terms like ‘water-sharing’ are used. Egypt is a desert environment, whereas some of the upstream countries could not get any greener.”

Given the already precarious state of Egypt’s water security, which is set to degenerate further as population growth accelerates, it’s little surprise that successive political leaders have described any possible alterations to the current distribution of the Nile as an existential threat to the nation. President Sadat famously declared himself ready to go to war over any attempt to limit Egypt’s dominance of the river; recently columnists in Egyptian newspapers have characterised the actions of upstream states as a ‘genocidal war’ against Egyptians and an attack on the country’s ‘history, future and existence.’

Some have suggested that Egypt’s strident rhetoric has hampered the spirit of cooperation between Nile states, all of whom are set to be hit by seismic demographic and climate changes over the next few decades.“Egypt sincerely wants to work with upstream countries, and I hope that those countries don’t look negatively upon these statements about the Nile being a ‘red line’ for Egypt,” counters Abu Zeid. “But regardless of what language you choose to employ, the fact is that the Nile is a national security issue for Egypt, it really is.”

As an indication of how seriously the Egyptian government is taking the present crisis, responsibility for the Nile Basin dispute was removed from the Water and Foreign Affairs ministries last month and instead put in the hands of Egypt’s powerful intelligence and security chief, Omar Suleiman.

Suleiman was in Uganda this week holding talks with the country's president about the Nile issue, as Egypt stepped up efforts to persuade other countries, such as Burundi, not to sign the rival River Nile basin co-operative framework agreement threatening Egypt's hegemony.

Egypt makes much of its water recycling and desalination programmes, arguing that the country’s barren environs have forced it to be far more proactive than more profligate upstream countries at finding ways to use slender water resources efficiently. But critics dispute these claims, pointing to the outskirts of big cities like Cairo where the dizzying growth of luxury residential developments has seen a rash of water-intensive landscaped gardens and luxury golf courses spring up out of the desert sand. Some analysts argue that decades of outdated grids and flawed domestic water policies are playing a bigger role in water scarcity in Egypt than any potential decrease in supply.

There are many though who believe that Egypt’s current Nile predicament reveals something far deeper as well: a long-term political malaise which has seen the country’s status as the preeminent regional power slowly drain away. “In the 1950s and ‘60s relations with African states were never better,” says Nabil Abdel Fattah, a research director at the Al-Ahram Centre. “President Nasser cultivated a sense of post-colonial solidarity with upstream states based around the Non-Aligned Movement, yet under the regimes of his successors Africa has been neglected.”

Both Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak went on to yoke Cairo’s foreign policy more firmly with the USA’s, precipitating a decline in Egyptian influence in sub-Saharan African and leaving other countries like China and Israel free to fill the void.

“Since Nasser we have seen a marginalisation of the African Affairs institutes at universities, a marginalisation of African news on our TV screens,” contends Abdel Fattah. “The problem here is ethnic politics and the perception we have of Egyptian identity. Our politicians see Africa as a backwater and its countries as underdeveloped, and this has been one of the primary mistakes in our foreign policy – to lose our standing in Africa just when we needed it most. Egypt is trying to escape from its black skin, and this secession from our ethnic heritage is coming back to haunt us over the Nile.”

Back in his mango groves, Omar could not agree more. “This would never have happened under Nasser; if he were still with us nobody would dare try and come and take our water.” As a diplomatic war of words over the Nile continues to echo across the capitals of north-east Africa, it’s those stuck in the middle like Omar who are watching closest – and fearing the worst.

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