June 9, 2013 – - -
May 28, 2013, was a turning point in the brewing Nile water crisis when Ethiopia activated the diversion of the course of the Blue Nile in order to make way for the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (that will be very close to the Sudanese border). When completed in five years, the dam will be the largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa – producing about 6,000 MW. The reservoir will hold 63 billion cubic meters of water – making it one of Africa’s largest. The Blue Nile will return to its natural course after the completion of the dam’s construction in 2018.

Cairo and Khartoum have been warning Addis Ababa against building dams on the Blue Nile since the mid-1990′s, when Addis Ababa commissioned the first studies exploring such a possibility. Since late May 2013, once Addis Ababa undertook the first action toward building the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam – crisis has reigned in official Cairo.

The Egyptian government conducted numerous emergency meetings – all chaired by President Muhammad Morsi. In the June 3 strategy formulating meetings, Irrigation Minister Bahaa El-Din insisted that Ethiopia’s plan would lead to “disaster” for Egypt. “We will not allow anyone to touch Egypt’s share of Nile water” because “this is a matter of life and death for Egypt.” Nour Party leader Younis Makhyoun observed that Ethiopia is “fragile” because of the prevalence of rebels. “We can communicate with them [the rebels] and use them as a bargaining chip against the Ethiopian government,” Makhyoun said. “If all this fails, then there is no choice left for Egypt but to play the final card, which is using the intelligence service to destroy the dam.” Other participants also suggested that Egypt support Ethiopian insurgents with funds, weapons and explosives so that they could sabotage the dam project.

Other meetings that remained secret were even more explicit. Morsi instructed in the June 5 meeting that “a national committee will be formed to deal with this issue [and] will determine the steps that Egypt has to take.” Egypt plans to go beyond political. “Demanding that Ethiopia stop construction of the dam it plans to build on the Blue Nile will be our first step,” Pakinam el-Sharkawy, Morsi’s aide for political affairs, explained. Morsi’s adviser Ayman Ali anticipated resolute action in dealing with the Ethiopian threat to Egypt’s historic rights to Nile waters. “It is Egypt’s right to defend its interests, and other people have a right to follow their own interests. But there must be assurances the Ethiopian dam will not affect Egypt, otherwise all options are open,” Ayman said.

Cairo’s resolve and penchant for use of force need not surprise.

Back in the late-1970′s, Egypt committed to a new policy of peace and foreswearing war even with then sworn enemy Israel. However, within a very short time, Egyptian leaders rushed to identify one noticeable exception – the Nile waters. “The only matter that could take Egypt to war again is water,” President Anwar Sadat declared in 1979. In 1988, for example, then Foreign Minister Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who later became UN Secretary-General, warned of the coming water war. “The next war in our region will be over the waters of the Nile, not politics.” In 1995, Egyptian World Bank official Ismail Serageldin stressed that the Gulf Wars were the closing acts of a bygone era. “Many of the wars this century were about oil, but those of the next century will be over water,” he explained.

Egypt and close ally Sudan have always been committed to dominating the Nile waters. Starting the 1990′s, Ethiopia’s declared interest in building hydro-electric dams on the Blue Nile alarmed both Egypt and Sudan because they had always been loath to lose dominance over the Nile. The determined and defiant war for independence of South Sudan further complicated the challenge faced by Egypt and Sudan because some of the routes to the Blue Nile in Ethiopia were via areas claimed by the South Sudanese, and because an independent South Sudan would be sitting on the White Nile and might follow Ethiopia’s example of harnessing the Nile in order to further its own economy.

Egypt’s military planners always considered the eastern parts of South Sudan crucial to any future Egyptian-Sudanese military effort against Ethiopian Blue Nile dams. Therefore, during the late-2000′s, the most senior Egyptian officials repeatedly warned Washington, London, and other key Western capitals that “Egypt will do its utmost to prevent the southern Sudan from declaring its independence.” The Pentagon learned at the time that Egyptian military considers the States of Upper Nile and especially Jonglei the primary back-door routes for an offensive on Addis Ababa (should the main route via Kurmuk and Asosa be blocked by the Ethiopian military). Moreover, any support for, and sponsorship of, insurgencies inside Ethiopia will have to take place along the southern-most parts of what was then Sudan’s border with Ethiopia. South Sudan gained independence in July 2011 – further challenging the then accelerating Egyptian-Sudanese preparations for a possible war over the Nile water.

Sudan and Egypt reached an agreement back in mid-2010 to build another airbase in Kusti (Kenana Sufeiya), White Nile State, for “Egyptian commandos who might be sent to Ethiopia to destroy water facilities on the Blue Nile.” Starting fall 2011, soon after South Sudan gained independence, Sudanese military authorities began lengthening and upgrading the runways in Kurmuk and ad-Damazin airbases in Blue Nile State. These airbases serve as ideal launching sites for attacks on Ethiopia’s dam project. The Sudanese also started upgrading and expanding the El Obeid airbase in South Kordofan State – the main support base for the forward bases in Blue Nile State. In recent months, the Sudanese military has intensified the violent crackdown of the grassroots opposition in Blue Nile, White Nile and South Kordofan States – particularly against civilians living in areas of strategic importance and near strategic facilities. In late May 2013, for example, the Sudanese military intensified attacks on the SPLM-N forces in the Abu Karshola area in South Kordofan that are arrayed to recapture and hold onto the area’s important airbase.

Meanwhile, since South Sudan IS independent, it is now imperative for Egypt and Sudan to make the eastern states of South Sudan ungovernable. Hence, should Egypt and Sudan have to go to a Nile waters war – South Sudanese forces will not be able to stand in their way to Ethiopia. To be sure, there are numerous indigenous grassroots problems in these states – particularly Jonglei – from traditions of cattle theft to economic decay to regional rebellions by the likes of David Yau Yau. True, the absence of national infrastructure and resources complicates near-term economic recovery. However, the escalating violence throughout Jonglei makes any such effort extremely difficult. The primary reason for the rapid escalation and expansion of all local violence irrespective of the root causes is the easy and cheap availability of small arms and ammunition from across the Sudanese border. This is not by happenstance – this is one of the primary ways to make Jonglei and Upper Nile ungovernable. Simply put, many of the indigenous problems and crises in Jonglei could have been ameliorated and even resolved by now had it not been for the cross-border flow of weapons and the ensuing escalation of fratricidal violence.

Africa’s entire Greater Nile Basin – from the Equator to the shores of the Mediterranean – is fast becoming a crisis zone of global significance and ramifications. Ultimately, the faceoff between Egypt’s ultimatums and Ethiopia’s defiance will have to be decided – be it by agreement or by force. Till such time, tension in the entire region, including South Sudan, will keep escalating even if Egypt and Sudan do not go to war with Ethiopia. Grand strategic dynamics are already unfolding even in the absence of hostilities.

The crux of the matter for Cairo and Khartoum is NOT how much Nile waters will be lost to Ethiopia at a distant future if the construction of the dam is completed. Put in stark terms – Cairo and Khartoum cannot accept or tolerate that the African non-Moslem states will have a say on the Nile waters originating in, and running through, their own territories before reaching Sudan and Egypt. Both Cairo and Khartoum are adamant on exploiting the current crisis in order to ensure that their dominance over the entire Greater Nile Basin is accepted and unchallenged from hereon. Addis Ababa, in contrast, is adamant on capitalizing on the dam crisis in order to make the Entebe Agreement, by which the Nile Sources’ Basin states, including South Sudan, are masters of the Nile waters flowing through their lands, a viable and unchallengeable international posture. Thus, a major international crisis will ensue before these profound dichotomy and contradiction are resolved.