As hundreds of thousands of demonstrators flooded the streets of Cairo, the airwaves were awash with talking heads speculating about the security implications. Amid all the heady optimism that the thuggery of the Mubarak regime may be at an end (and having witnessed that thuggery at first hand some years ago, I couldn’t help but be caught up in the euphoria), there were dark warnings of instability.
What effect would a new regime, less tractable to Washington, have on the fragile peace process between Israel and Palestine? Were the pro-democracy protesters inadvertently lighting a fuse which would explode across Sinai?
Intriguingly, though, no-one mentioned another smouldering fuse. And this one runs not east of Cairo, but right through the middle of it. When the flag-waving crowds streamed over the 6th October Bridge, they were also crossing a potential causus belli for the whole region. Egypt, as Herodotus wrote, is the Gift of the Nile.
Without its waters, there is no country; it’s just a huge slab of desert with a few oases. To put it another way, Egypt isn’t a square, as on the map. It’s T-shaped: a narrow stem of the Nile Valley stretching north from the Sudanese border until it spreads out into the Delta, one of the world’s most fertile – and densely-populated – agricultural areas.
No Nile, no Egypt. It’s that simple.
But the Nile isn’t Egypt’s alone: its flow, and those of its tributaries, also waters the soils, and is fed by the rivers, of Sudan, Ethiopia, and several other African nations. From Victorian times onwards, various agreements have sought to guarantee adequate access to those waters for all concerned, and dissuade any diversions or dams which could disrupt the flow. So far, these accords have, more or less, held good. But they’ve done so largely because a combination of conflict and sheer lack of development have meant countries like Ethiopia haven’t exploited the headwaters to the full.
Now that could be changing. Recent years have seen some of the region’s more chronic conflicts, in Ethiopia, for example, and most recently, Sudan, come to a close. Meanwhile, African economies in general are, after years of stagnation, picking up speed. Welcome news, for sure – but it will also put increasing demand on water resources. And therein lie the seeds of conflict. Already, diplomatic wranglings over the latest Nile accords are pitting Egypt and Sudan against upstream nations. And in Cairo, officials have warned darkly that if Egypt ever lost the gift of the Nile, it would have little alternative but to recover it by whatever means necessary. At which point it’s worth remembering that one Old English meaning of the word ‘gift’ was…poison.
That said, alarmist talk of ‘water wars’ is probably premature. Indeed, it could even sound like crying wolf. Nearly 30 years ago, Egypt’s then foreign minister warned that “the next war in the Middle East will be fought over water, not politics.” Several wars later, there has, as yet, been barely a shot fired in anger over water. (Although Palestinian farmers struggling to irrigate their land complain bitterly that new Israeli settlements are in effect ‘stealing’ their supplies).
But there are no grounds for complacency. Egypt may be meeting part of its water needs by ‘importing’ it in the form of food from outside the country, but as prices rise, it’s unlikely that such substitution could prove sustainable in the longer term. It will have to rely on its own resources: its farmlands nourished by the Nile. Sooner or later, it is inevitable that tensions over the river’s flow will reach a knife edge – whether triggered by increasing demand, or a drought, or both. It will be the testing ground for a new form of crisis diplomacy, likely to be all too common in years to come, not just in Africa but across the world.
It may be that, staring down the barrel of the mother of all resource wars, governments discover a surprising appetite for compromise. The alternative doesn’t bear thinking about. Although Mark Twain managed it over a century ago, pithy as ever.
“Whisky is for drinking”, he wrote. “Water is for fighting over.”
Image credits: standby / istock