Egyptian politicians rattle swords over Nile dam

Mohamed Morsi's office did not discount action on Nile water. Picture: Getty
Mohamed Morsi's office did not discount action on Nile water. Picture: Getty
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EGYPTIAN politicians have proposed carrying out hostile acts against Ethiopia, including backing rebels and carrying out sabotage to stop it from building a dam on the Nile river.

The ideas were aired in a meeting called by president Mohammed Morsi to review the impact of Ethiopia’s $4.2 billion hydroelectric dam, which would be Africa’s largest.

Egypt in the past has threatened to go to war over its “historic rights” to Nile River water.

However, some of the politicians appeared unaware the Monday meeting with Mr Morsi was carried live on television.

Ethiopia late last week started diverting the flow of the Nile to make way for its hydroelectric plant, dubbed the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. On completion, it is expected to produce 6,000 megawatts, and its reservoir is scheduled to start filling next year.

An independent panel of experts has concluded that the dam will not significantly affect downstream Sudan and Egypt, which are highly dependent on the water of the world’s longest river, according to Ethiopia.

However, in the Cairo meeting, Younis Makhyoun, leader of an ultra-conservative Islamist party, said Egypt should back rebels in Ethiopia or, as a last resort, destroy the dam.

Mr Makhyoun said Ethiopia is “fragile” because of rebel movements inside the country. “We can communicate with them and use them as a bargaining chip against the Ethiopian government,” he 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,” said Mr Makhyoun, whose Nour party won about 25 per cent of parliament’s seats in elections in late 2011 and early 2012.

Another politician, liberal Ayman Nour, proposed spreading rumours about Egypt obtaining inflight refuelling aircraft to create the impression that it plans an airstrike to destroy the dam.

Abu al-Ila Madi, leader of the pro-Morsi Islamist Wasat party, suggested that a rumour that Egypt planned to destroy the dam could scare the Ethiopians into co-operating on the project.

Magdy Hussein, another Islamist politician, warned that talk of military action against Ethiopia is “very dangerous” and will only turn Ethiopians into enemies. He suggested soft diplomacy in dealing with the crisis, including organising a film festival in Ethiopia and dispatching researchers and translation missions.

Ethiopia’s decision to construct the dam challenges a British colonial-era agreement that had given Egypt and Sudan rights to the Nile water, with Egypt taking 55.5 billion cubic metres and Sudan 18.5 billion cubic metres of 84 billion cubic metres, with 10 billion lost to evaporation.

That agreement, signed in 1929, took no account of the eight other nations along the 4,160-mile river and its basin, which have been agitating for a decade for a more equitable accord.

Ethiopia’s minister of water and energy, Alemayehu Tegenu, has said Egypt should not worry about a diminished water share.

“We don’t have any irrigation projects around the dam. The dam is solely intended for electricity production … So there should not be any concerns about a diminished water flow,” he said at the weekend.

Eighty-five per cent of Nile waters originate in Ethiopia, yet the nation utilises very little of it, and the country has become synonymous with famine.

Mr Morsi did not directly react to the suggestions made at the meeting, but said in concluding remarks that Egypt respects Ethiopia and its people and will not engage in any aggressive acts against the east African nation.

However, his office’s closing statement included an ominous-sounding note, saying: “Egypt will never surrender its right to Nile water and all options [to safeguard it] are being considered.”