The politics of water: Ethiopia, Egypt and Israel
Unfortunately, only about three per cent of the water found on earth is fresh and we have contaminated most of it. We now heavily rely on mining water. But what are we doing about it? We definitely have not found a safe way to produce it. At least 17 countries are under high water stress, which means the supply of water is low and the use is high. The high use of water can be attributed to poor economies and infrastructure in most cases. Exacerbated by climate change, erratic rainfall and much higher temperatures, droughts in the future will be much worse than anything seen today.
In 1995, then World Bank vice president Ismail Serageldin said,
“If the wars of this century were fought over oil, the wars of the next century will be fought over water.”
Two thirds of the world already suffers from water scarcity during at least a month during the year, which could intensify to the extent where it would leave at least 700 million people displaced globally. The United Nations has also identified five hotspots of hydro-political interactions may take place in the future. These include,
- The Nile (Egypt)
- The Ganges Brahmaputra(India)
- Indus (Pakistan)
- Tigris- Euphrates (Iraq)
- Colorado (USA)
Historically water disputes have triggered political tensions at most till now. Let’s look at Kashmir and the water that runs through it. There are many analysts who say that India is trying to use water as a weapon against Pakistan, which is complicated especially since both the countries are signatories of a 59-year-old treaty. In recent times, after an attack on Indian soil on 14th February 2019, India alleged that Pakistan was behind the terror attack, despite Islamabad refusing all allegations. India tried to isolate Pakistan using diplomacy and also mulled over using water as a weapon. India already uses about 94 per cent of the water shared between the two countries, only releasing whatever it does not us into Pakistan. This is not the only region in the world that using water as a political tactic.
Despite Egypt agreeing in 2008 that the World Bank will fund a feasibility study for a Border Dam between Egypt and Ethiopia, the latter took advantage of the Egyptian revolution in January 2011, replacing the Border Dam with the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam or GERD. The capacity of the dam was increased to 74 billion cubic metres while the design and construction was undertaken by Ethiopia and reports state that the other ten countries, especially those downstream that share the river, were not informed of the risks and results involved. The 74bn cubic meter reservoir could bring dire consequences for Egyptian farmers. To put it in perspective, a 1bn kilo litre of reduction in Nile’s water will cause 200,000 acres of land to go out of production consequently affecting the livelihood of more than 2.5 million families.
Many talks have gone by with no action while the situation has continued to get more complicated with Sudan and Israel supporting the Ethiopian mega project. It’s a ticking time bomb with Israel, taking advantage of this situation, to penetrate this region, while also taking a hit at Arab national security.
During the Arab Spring situation, Israel found a valuable opportunity to engage in broad cooperation with East Africa and to establish security, military and economic bases. For as long as relations have existed between Israel and East African countries, the former has taken advantage of the existence of regional security threats. It’s possible that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Ethiopia indicates Israel’s covert support for Addis Ababa at a time when the GERD has begun to store water without Egypt’s approval; this emphasises the seriousness of the challenge Egypt faces, demonstrating that its argument with Ethiopia over the dam is not technical but rather related to significant regional political goals.
At the same time, Israel is attempting to guarantee its own water security for the future and acquire a guaranteed share of the river’s water through its support for the dam project. Netanyahu’s promises during the last tour in 2016, revolved around helping Ethiopia benefit from its water resources in developing agriculture and supplying the country with Israeli technology. Israel went as far as to install its latest air defence system called Spyder MR, which can shoot down multiple fighter aircrafts up to a distance of 40 kms with utmost accuracy.
Netanyahu’s visits raised a lot of questions about not only the objectives and consequences but especially about the timing, which coincided with the signing of contracts concerning technical studies on the GERD. Israel's recent strategy in East Africa constitutes part of the Arab–Israeli conflict and part of the Israeli security doctrine based on legitimate acquisition, dominion and control of the region. It is also based on encircling the Arab countries as well as depriving them of influence within any region considered promising in the fields of trade and investment. So far despite all provocation, and no hope of Ethiopia coming to the negotiating table, Egypt has still decided to stay away from a military response.
The GERD will supposedly generate 12,000 gigawatts of electricity annually, meaning that the annual electricity production will touch 12 billion kilowatt per hour. The price of electricity in Ethiopia for household use is only US1 cent, and the commercial price is 1.8 cents per kilowatt-hour, making the average local price (domestic and commercial) about 1.4 cents/ kilowatts-hour. This means that if the electricity from GERD is used solely within Ethiopia, then the total revenue of electricity production is about $160 million annually, which will not be enough to cover the expected annual expenses for operating and maintaining the dam and paying the annual instalments for loans taken against it.
Also, in order to be able to afford the operation and maintenance costs of the dam, the Ethiopian government must raise the local electricity price and export part of the electricity abroad. The economic feasibility study of the electrical connection with Egypt and Sudan was based on the export of more than three megawatts to Egypt and Sudan (about more than half of the dam's electricity, one-third for Sudan and two-thirds for Egypt) at a price of US8 cents per kilowatt-hour, bringing the dam’s annual income to about $550 million. This would cover the costs of operation and maintenance while providing an annual premium for dam loans to be repaid over the next 15 to 20 years.
It may be necessary to double the internal price several times and increase the export price to 9-10 cents per kilowatt to be able to pay off the dam debt quicker.
For now, Ethiopia seems to be in a win-win situation, not only did it slide in its dam plans without involving necessary stakeholders and the support of Israel, if the construction of GERD goes badly and the dam has flaws which provoke Egypt to take a military stance, Ethiopia can save its face in front of its people and brush the GERD’s flaws aside, blaming Egypt for the entire catastrophe. Here is hoping that this situation does not give rise to a river of blood.