"Without the Nile, there is no Egypt." For centuries, Egypt has done what it wants with that river, allowing it to build ancient empires and modern republics. However, something is changing, and the alert is so great that threats of war with Ethiopia are almost imminent. The latter, in fact, is completing the construction on the Blue Nile of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), the largest African dam for hydroelectric energy (a 4.5 billion dollar project, in which the Italian Salini Impregilo is participating), with inevitable repercussions downstream, along the entire Sudanese and Egyptian stretch. With the construction of another dam, Koysha on the Omo river ( always with the presence of Salini Impregilo), and the already completed Gibe III, Ethiopia is preparing to be one of the largest producers of renewable energy of the African continent. In fact, once operative, GERD will increase the energy currently produced by Ethiopia by 270%, allowing it to export electric power to neighboring countries.
Next July, Ethiopia will fill its basin, that has a size around that of London's urban area. Egypt trembles, and that dam has become responsible for its ‘water anxieties’. In fact, 95% of the Egyptian population lives along the Nile. It is growing 1 million people every 6 months, with an urban concentration in Cairo, in a way that today it is difficult to control and manage. For this reason al-Sisi has already announced the construction of a new administrative and ‘smart city’ (with a capacity of 18 million inhabitants) in order to lighten the pressure on the old capital. It will be in a completely deserted area, at the intersection of the main arteries towards the East and South of the country and, of course, along the Nile, with an important inhabited capacity in the future (it is estimated to have 40 million people in 2050) with inevitable intensive exploitation of the Nile waters.
However, national Egyptian wealth is already concentrated today along that river and in the Suez Canal for maritime traffic. They both represent economic and strategic factors that, if at risk, Cairo will not hesitate to defend militarily. Documents that spoke of the former Egyptian President Morsi's willingness to act with sabotage actions or even aerial bombings to prevent the construction of the Ethiopian dam, clearly demonstrated Egyptian fears and determination. GERD project was launched in 2011, just as the Arab Springs started. Cairo was then distracted by other priorities to undertake negotiations with Ethiopia in order to contain future inconveniences of the project. In Morsi’s opinion, therefore, the Egyptian response could and should be immediate and armed. Stopped for other reasons, Morsi’s bellicose intentions against Ethiopia faded.
It was not even the first time that Egypt had threatened to defend its claim to a full fruition of the Nile waters. Already in 1978, in response to the Ethiopian Mengistu Haile Mariam's proposal to build a series of dams along the Nile, President Sadat replied "We will not wait to die of thirst in Egypt. We will go to Ethiopia, and die there. " As if to say, clearly, that the Egyptian dominion over the full flow of the Nile waters was not negotiable at all. It is no coincidence that Ethiopia has always felt itself like a sort of Egypt’s "hydrological colony". Cairo, on the other hand, has always claimed old treaties - not recognized by Ethiopia - dating back to the colonial period and 1959, sustaining that any project over those waters requires Egyptian approval. Not even the establishment of the Nile Basin Initiative, at the beginning of the new millennium, and in which 9 other countries wet by those waters participate, has brought Egypt to a more moderate and conciliatory position over the years.
GERD, on the other hand, is synonymous of great wealth for Ethiopia. It is the possibility of selling electricity to their neighbors, supporting public finance. It is also a symbol of its rapid rise as one of the most important among the African economic powers. It has an immense political value because its realization also feeds patriotism and fights deep-rooted fears, such as poverty. It also supports the trust of the Ethiopian people for a new and young ruling class in the personage of the Premier Abiy Ahmed Ali, already Nobel Peace Prize winner in 2019 for the agreement (albeit still shaky) on the borders with Eritrea after years of war. However, there is no trace of peace in Abiy’s latest statements on GERD and Egypt. "Nothing will stand in the way of the dam construction", he said, adding that, in the event, "millions of dollars" would be ready for a resolutive war against Egypt.
Although al-Sisi said he wants a peaceful solution, Premier Abiy accuses him of sending weapons (documented by UN agencies reports) to the government of South Sudan - with whom he shares concerns about a reduction of Nile waters - in order to foment anti-government protests and armed rebellions in the Ethiopian territory. Cairo denies any accusations, but it is only the beginning of a new Great Game that is being played in the Horn of Africa, and has been for some time now. A game from which China, the United Arab Emirates and the United States are not exempt. Ethiopia, with 100 million inhabitants and its strong economic growth, has a fundamental and strategic role in that game. It is not a coincidence that President Trump proposed himself as a mediator in the Egyptian-Ethiopian question, but without currently reaching any agreement.
However, there are other variables, of a different nature, that create great concern.
The Great Game and the exploitation of the Nile waters must, in fact, take into account the progressive demographic increase in the African continent, in addition to the depletion, waste and abuse of its great wealth. The Nile waters, in Egypt, are polluted by sewage flows, and garbage navigates along irrigation canals: a situation that can only get worse due to the demographic increase and the slowness of public intervention to manage it.
A central role is also played by climate change. Rises in temperature are already raising sea’s levels, that ends up eroding beaches and pushing salty waters inland, compromising the sweet ones and consequently drying up portions of fertile lands. In addition, unusual weather conditions have been present for some years. For all these reasons, substantial water shortages are expected in that part of Africa until 2025.
The risk of water stress in strategic areas turns water into a formidable weapon of blackmail, and the threat of a war for its control is a plausible and next occurrence. The international diplomacy, that seems not to be fully aware of this risk, can do nothing. Today, in fact, the same strategic value is not given to waters as it is to gas or oil. This is a serious evaluation mistake, full of uncertainties for the future of African security. Warning alarms come precisely from highly unstable geographic areas, in which intra-state conflicts, albeit local and even of low intensity, are today mostly fought for the control of fertile lands and waters. Furthermore, other destabilizing actions are added by non-state actors, such as jihadist terrorists, widely present in the whole sub-Saharan area. They are used to control water for criminal activities (drug production, for example) using violence and reducing the possibilities of access to farmers and shepherds. It is a sort of blackmail against poor people. For them, in fact, water scarcity means that participation in criminal activities or terrorist actions are forced alternatives for gaining money and sustaining their families.
For all these reasons, threats or wars due to the control of water seem to become explosive with global repercussions even outside those territories, as demonstrated by illegal immigration flows of desperate people from Africa to Europe.
It is not the first time that waters have a strategic role, because many modern wars have been and others are now being fought for the access and control of hydro basins. To deny it means ignoring history. Becoming aware of it means anticipating the times.