Sharing the Nile

Posted September 27th, 2010 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

Especially in the Middle East, there are always people uttering dark apocalyptic warnings about the coming water wars. Competition over scarce oil is nothing, the thinking goes, compared to what people and their governments will do when water starts running out.

Scarcity, of course, is nothing new, and “water wars” have already been happening for some time. They’re not cataclysmic (and usually not entirely binary) like wars over a specific piece of land, which either you control, or you don’t. Israel and Lebanon have fought over a contested border with at least one eye on the watersheds and rivers on both sides. Iraq, Syria and Turkey have had problems over the Tigris and Euphrates, the present result being that the two great rivers are muddy trickles by the time they reach southern Iraq. I imagine there are countless other examples.

Egypt is now contending with the end of its own era of water abundance. A colonial-era treaty gave Egypt and Sudan 80 percent of Nile’s water. The upstream African countries are now sufficiently stable — and eager for economic development — that they have challenged this arrangement. Negotiations collapsed and now Egypt has until next May to rejoin talks, or face a new regime designed by the upstream nations in the Nile watershed.

This isn’t the kind of conflict that I would expect to spark a traditional war, but it’s uncharted, and fascinating territory. You can read more in my story from this Sunday’s New York Times.

One place to begin to understand why this parched country has nearly ruptured relations with its upstream neighbors on the Nile is ankle-deep in mud in the cotton and maize fields of Mohammed Abdallah Sharkawi. The price he pays for the precious resource flooding his farm? Nothing.

“Thanks be to God,” Mr. Sharkawi said of the Nile River water. He raised his hands to the sky, then gestured toward a state functionary visiting his farm. “Everything is from God, and from the ministry.”

But perhaps not for much longer. Upstream countries, looking to right what they say are historic wrongs, have joined in an attempt to break Egypt and Sudan’s near-monopoly on the water, threatening a crisis that Egyptian experts said could, at its most extreme, lead to war.

“Not only is Egypt the gift of the Nile, this is a country that is almost completely dependent on Nile water resources,” said a spokesman for the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, Hossam Zaki. “We have a growing population and growing needs. There is no way we can accept this kind of threat.”