Neighbors / When the Nile Runs Dry

Egypt is embroiled in a water war over control of the Nile, and some claim Israel is stoking the flames.

Egypt's has more to worry about than just the steel wall it is building to stop smuggling from Sinai to the Gaza Strip, at least as far as Israel is concerned.

A young girl looking at flowing tap water in Egypt.

The country is also facing battles over the division of the waters of the Nile between Egypt and Sudan and the countries that lie alongside it. The framework agreement that was formulated and signed between five African countries - Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Uganda - and which is opposed by Egypt and Sudan, is likely to abrogate the historic distribution agreements from 1929 and 1959.

These agreements grant Egypt and Sudan some 87 percent of the water - about 55 million cubic meters and 18.5 million cubic meters respectively - and they state that Egypt has the right to veto any project involving diversion or retention of the Nile's waters in countries along the river.

The African nations claim that the agreements were drawn up at a time when their populations were small but now that they have grown many times over, it is necessary to change the agreements and fix new water allocations.

Some of the countries also say that the two agreements were made during the Colonial era and are no longer relevant.

There have been suggestions about making changes a few times in the past but these have met with strong Egyptian opposition, including threats that "all means will be adopted" to ensure the flow of water to its 85 million inhabitants.

On the other hand, there has been criticism of Egypt for not doing enough to diversify its water sources or to save the waters of the Nile on which some 90 percent of Egypt's population relies.

This week, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak invited some of the African heads of state to Cairo to try to prevent the adoption of a new agreement that might leave Egypt without enough water for all its inhabitants as early as the year 2017.

So where does Israel figure in? The threat of a new agreement is already giving rise to strong internal criticism of the Egyptian government. The opposition claims the agreement being formulated is the result of prolonged neglect, on the part of Cairo, of its relations with the African states, and that Egypt has allowed Israel to strengthen its ties with these nations, thus providing Israel with the leverage to influence what happens to the sources of Egypt's water.

They also accuse Israel of being responsible for pushing these African nations to formulate the new agreement, saying that Israel has economic interests in some of these countries to build planned dams there.

When the water agreement came up for discussion, about a year ago, Egyptian newspapers pointed to Israel as the chief enemy that was likely to bring about a shortage of water to Egypt, describing this as a direct continuation of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's declarations against Egypt and its president, and they did not fail to mention that Lieberman had proposed attacking the Aswan Dam.

"The water wars have begun and our wicked neighbors have been busy for a long time now undermining and destroying Egypt's relations with the countries of the Nile basin," Jabar Ramadan wrote at the time in the newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm.

The writer and researcher Amru Mohammed wrote that it had been Theodor Herzl who in 1930 proposed to the British a project for diverting the Nile and that years later the Israelis had tried in vain to persuade Egypt to reroute some of the water from the Nile to its territory.

The Egyptian "documentation" is aimed at convincing people that this is a genuine danger and not merely political intrigue, and that it could lead to war.

"The signs of the water war are already visible and the crisis will come against the background of the [water] agreements that are being signed between Israel and Ethiopia," Mohammed wrote. "Israel's meddling with the Nile's waters and its cooperation with the Nile Basin states signal a disaster, a water disaster."

In the face of this criticism, the Egyptian foreign ministry last week published a list detailing Egypt's relations with the African states as compared with Israel's relations. The report states, for example, just how many times official African representatives visited Egypt, how many diplomatic representatives Egypt has in the countries bordering on the Nile, and how many Israel has.

The report also notes the historical ties between Egypt and Ethiopia and points to a number of countries where Israel does not have diplomatic ties.

In short, it appears that the criticism against the Egyptian government was taken extremely seriously.

However, this report has still not convinced many of Egypt's parliamentarians and members of the opposition who believe that relations between states are not measured merely by the number of visits but rather by the way in which these countries act toward Egypt.

Not by charm alone

For his part, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak does not intend to convince the African leaders with charm alone. He has already turned to Italian Prime MInister Silvio Berlusconi for assistance in persuading the African nations, and Berlusconi promised him last week to do everything possible to help Egypt in this respect.

The Egyptian water affair should also be a particular worry for Israel. A country whose inhabitants are thirsty is a country that cannot ensure that its civilian population will remain quiet or that there will be stability in the regime. It is near-impossible to allay the suspicions against Israel that it is responsible for the expected threat to Egypt, but perhaps it would be politic to propose to Egypt some projects for desalination with international assistance.

So far Egypt has refrained from setting up projects of this kind on the grounds that they are too expensive, and this too has led the opposition in that country to criticize the regime.