There is a crisis flowing downstream towards the mouth of arguably the world’s longest river. The Nile has been the source of Egypt’s water supply – and therefore the basis of agriculture in the country – for many thousands of years.
Through a complex system of dykes and man-made basins in the flood plains of Upper Egypt, and of canals in the Nile Delta, Egyptians have managed to wield this marvel of nature for their own ends, allowing agricultural production to thrive in otherwise inhospitable conditions. In modern times, first the Aswan Low Dam, and then more significantly the Aswan High Dam, have taken Egypt’s mastery of the Nile to a higher stage. At one point, the High Dam generated half of the country’s electrical power (around 10-15% today), and its water reserves have helped supplement irrigation to overcome potential crop failures during years of drought.
Now, a situation is developing upstream in Ethiopia, which carries an existential threat to the Egyptian Nile’s fundamental place in the country’s economy. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) situated on the Blue Nile, which is set to house the largest hydroelectric plant in Africa, is nearing completion. Once construction of the dam is finished, the reservoir it will contain will be filled over a three to five-year period, massively depleting the volume of water flowing into Egypt during that time.
The Nile water supply is already struggling to sustain the growing Egyptian population, and issues such as water contamination and salinisation caused by rising sea levels are badly affecting farming in the Delta. The added factor of a dramatic drop in the amount of river water arriving in Egypt could be catastrophic. As well as leading to the ruin of huge swathes of farmland, it could result in a shortage of water for personal consumption affecting millions of Egyptians.
Ethiopia stands to benefit enormously from the opening of the dam, which should actually produce a more electricity than the country needs during the rainy seasons. This will be sold on to Sudan, which will have a power line connected to the Ethiopia’s national grid. Sudanese farmers will also benefit from the regulation of flooding that the dam will bring about, which should reduce the damage to crop production occasionally caused by the Nile.
In theory, surplus electricity generated by the GERD could also be directed to Egypt. Given the devastating effect that the dam could have on Egypt’s water supplies, however, the Egyptian government has been wholly opposed to the project from the beginning. As the construction process nears its conclusion, the GERD is becoming a major source of tension between Egypt and several North African countries.
The Nile and Egypt’s position in North Africa
Egypt has one of the largest economies in Africa, and for historical reasons has for a long time been able to assert its dominance over the sub-Saharan countries with whom it shares the Nile’s water supply. Up until 1952, the Egyptian administration played a part in governing Sudan on behalf of the British Empire. Because of its strategic importance to British imperialism, Egypt was guaranteed control over the lion’s share of Nile water, as signified in a 1929 agreement with Sudan. This meant that there was no question of the river’s water supply being siphoned off before it reached Egypt.
In the 1950s, however, a group of revolutionary officers took power in Egypt and overthrew British colonial rule. Their leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, initiated a programme of industrialisation, which included the building of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s. Under Nasser, Egypt’s position towards Sudan changed from declaring unilateral rule over the country to calling for Sudanese independence from Britain.
This was achieved through an anti-colonial revolution in Sudan in 1958, which led to discussions with Nasser’s Egypt regarding the division of the Nile waters on a more equal political footing. Nasser aimed to gain the approval of the Sudanese government for the construction of the new dam by offering compensation for any potential flooding of northern Sudan, as well as the rights to a portion of the Nile waters. The conciliatory hand extended to Sudan also reflected the vision of Pan-Arab Socialism which Nasser, taking his anti-imperialist stance to its logical conclusion, was being driven towards.
However, although the nature of the Nile Water Agreement of 1959 was completely different from the previous diktats of British imperialism, it still reflected Egypt’s dominant position in relation to Sudan. Egypt was apportioned 55.5bn cubic metres of Nile water to Sudan’s 18.5bn cubic metres. The industrialisation under Nasser raised the Egyptian economy further above its North African neighbours, and with this came political seniority. During the regimes that followed in Egypt, this relationship shifted more and more to its advantage.
Throughout the 20th century, Ethiopia, which, in theory, being far upstream controls the flow of 86% of Nile water, was nowhere to be found in any political discussions about use of the river. This is because the country figured as an economic non-entity in the region. Still one of the poorest countries in the world, there was no question of it having the financial or political clout to muscle in on any discussions regarding the division of the Nile’s water supply.
That is, until 2009, when the Ethiopian government surveyed a site proposed by the United States Bureau of Reclamation in 1964 for building a dam to rival the High Aswan Dam, which was then being funded by the Soviet Union. The government has evidently been successful in its campaign for foreign investment, with Chinese banks funding the turbines and electrical equipment of the power plant to the tune of $1.8bn.
The advent of this project points to two things. Firstly, the need for imperialist powers – in particular a Chinese ruling class with a massive excess of capital accumulation which it cannot invest internally – to seek new markets for investment. These new markets necessarily include the most backward economies in the world, which were previously a no-go area for the most costly infrastructure developments. And secondly, the grave decline of Egypt as the dominant power in North-East Africa.
Egypt’s crippling economic crises of the past decade, along with the weakness and instability of its regime, has meant that it cannot impose its political will on a situation such as this one as before. This was made clear when the Egyptian government effectively signed away any rights guaranteed by the 1929 and 1959 agreements in a declaration with Sudan and Ethiopia, proposed on Ethiopia’s terms, in Khartoum in March 2015.
Lately, in a laughable attempt to show that they will not be pushed around by their supposedly weaker neighbours, the Egyptian regime has deliberately reignited tensions with Sudan over the Hala’ib Triangle, a long-disputed territory on the borders of the two countries. In January this year, Sudan recalled its ambassador from Cairo, citing these tensions. Egypt then sent troops to an Emirati military base in Eritrea, which led to Sudan closing their border with the country.
Any military, or even serious diplomatic action, against Sudan at this stage would be an adventure too foolish for even this senile Egyptian presidency to consider an option. Such a conflict would almost certainly spell a hasty exit for the Sisi regime from the scene of history. However, the hysterical ramping-up of tensions being conducted by the regime demonstrates the extent to which they have been humiliated over the GERD. They are trying to distract the Egyptian people from this humiliation by appearing to take significant measures regarding an unrelated issue.
Nevertheless, this regime cannot help but expose itself at every turn. This June, in front of the world’s media, President Sisi asked the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to “swear to God that Ethiopia will not do any harm to Egypt’s water.” Ahmed gladly obliged, and Sisi returned triumphantly to Cairo, looking rather like Neville Chamberlain as he stepped off a plane waving a piece of paper proclaiming peace with Hitler.
The construction of the GERD puts Egypt in a difficult position politically. But this situation only serves to underline the complete bankruptcy of the regime, which is at a total loss as to how they can stem the tide. Now, yet another crisis heading their way, this time from the source of their country’s greatest natural asset.
The socialist solution
The building of this new dam will undoubtedly help the economies of Ethiopia and Sudan, and may well lead to some improvements in the lives of people afflicted by the most awful poverty. But these improvements will almost certainly come at great cost to the lives of millions of Egyptians, as is being predicted. Coupled with the desperate economic predicament already being suffered by the majority of Egyptians, and the ecological problems already damaging Egyptian farming, the arrival of a Nile crisis at the river’s mouth could cause an all-out social crisis in Egypt.
This situation makes clear, above all else, the utterly inefficient and deeply destructive nature of capitalism. Three countries could share a wonderful and indispensable natural resource, planning the distribution and use of this resource for the benefit of all, aided by international support on the basis of necessity. Instead, the governments of these countries are pitted against one another in a scrap to appropriate Nile water for the gains of their own states and at the expense of others. Meanwhile, international investors look to facilitate this dispute by piling ever-greater levels of debt on the backs of one of these peoples. This is to be paid back with interest to the detriment of public assets in that country.
The overthrow of capitalism and the successful struggle for a socialist society would remove the need for crises such as this one. The Nile water would not be divided up or appropriated on a national basis. Any decisions taken on how best to exploit the resource for human consumption would be taken democratically in the interests of all ordinary workers and peasants, and would ultimately have to be arrived at according to human need. The whole world economy could be run by planning under democratic workers’ control, with key decisions affecting workers in many countries at once necessarily taken with transnational agreement. In this way, any negative side effects of a particular decision, such as farming in one area being affected by the decision to build a dam in another, could be offset by a reorganisation of relevant production and distribution on an international scale.
It is examples like the developing Nile crisis which, provide us with a stark reminder of the disastrous future that awaits humanity under capitalism. That’s why it is imperative that in all countries, from northern Europe to Egypt to Ethiopia, we must continue the fight for socialism.