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Egypt media accuses Israel of zooming in on its water sources

By Zvi Bar’el - Samedi, 22 août 2009 - 8h51 AM

Saturday 22 August 2009


Source: Ha’aaretz

“One day, Anwar Sadat asked me to publish a fictitious report,” the journalist Anis Mansour, who was a close friend of the late Egyptian president, wrote two months ago. “He explained that in any case it would be impossible to do what the report said, because international agreements prohibited it. He wanted me to write that president Sadat was dreaming of the day the water of the Nile would reach Jerusalem, so that the Muslims could cleanse themselves with it before praying in Al-Aqsa. What an uproar there was in Egypt after the report appeared! ’Egypt breaks international agreements and gives water to the enemy,’ his critics screamed.”

Mansour went on to relate that, “After the report, Sadat asked me to go to Israel to hear its reaction, and there I was told, ’We don’t want Nile water because we don’t want bilharzia [a tropical disease].’ Sadat laughed and said, ’They’ll want the Nile water, even with the bilharzia.’”

It was not by chance that the 84-year-old Mansour recalled this peculiar story. From time to time, the claim is heard in Egypt that the government, in its search for additional sources of revenue, wants to sell water to Israel. Another contention stated by opponents of improved relations with Israel is that the latter is working with friends in Ethiopia to interfere with the sources of Egypt’s water. “We do not intend to sell water to Israel,” Ethiopian minister of water resources Asfaw Dingamo reassured the Egyptians at a press conference with his Egyptian counterpart late last month. “After all, water doesn’t have wings and it can’t fly to Israel.”

An Egyptian research institute has estimated that in 2017 the country will not have enough water to supply the needs of its growing population. By then it will need 86 billion cubic meters a year, but its resources will produce only 71 billion cubic meters. Furthermore, the institute predicted that the Nile Basin states - including Ethiopia, Rwanda, Tanzania the Democratic Republic of Congo - will also need more water, to handle their own growing populations. Accordingly, the institute estimated a decline in the amount of water that will be at the disposal of the downriver states of Sudan and Egypt.

The water ministers of the Nile Basin states met in Alexandria in late July to discuss the setting of new usage quotas in light of the developments of recent decades. The quotas would replace those set in 1929 in an agreement between Egypt and Britain, which was representing its colonies in the region. That agreement, and another signed in 1959, gave Egypt 88 percent, and Sudan the remainder, of the water reaching those two countries. It also gave Egypt veto power over any project in any other upriver state that might impinge on its own allocation.

The demands for increased allocations are not new. It was against this background that a dispute flared in 1964 between Egypt and Tanzania, whose president, Julius Nyerere, declared that any agreement signed before his country’s independence was null and void, including those covering the Nile waters.

But as long as the agreements exist, Egypt and Sudan will fight any proposed changes vociferously. The Alexandria talks ended only with a decision to reconvene in six months to try to reach an accord.

Notwithstanding these attempts, the Nile Basin states are working to set up a joint water administration in order to establish a protocol that would in effect bypass Egyptian and Sudanese objections. Egypt fears such an arrangement; the government realizes that, 1929 accord aside, its opposition to changing the allocations will not stand up to any examination that balances Egypt’s water requirements against those of the other states for electricity production and other development needs.

Egypt is not standing idly by on the matter. This week, soon after it was reported that Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, is planning to visit certain Nile Basin states, Egyptian media outlets reported that their country’s prime minister, Ahmed Nazif, would visit the same states in mid-October. And President Husni Mubarak, who has not been to Ethiopia since the attempt on his life in Addis Abbaba 14 years ago, is believed likely to go there in the near future. The goal is to try to persuade Ethiopia and the other Nile Basin states not to reduce the amount of water reaching Egypt by selling water to Israel or by launching projects that would use Nile River water.

Meanwhile, the Egyptian press is still saying that Israel might cause a water shortage in the country, recalling Lieberman’s anti-Egypt comments and his suggestion to strike the Aswan Dam. “The water wars have begun, and our wicked neighbors are busy destroying Egypt’s relations with the states of the Nile Basin,” wrote Jabar Ramadan in Al-Masry Al-Youm.

The Egyptian journalist and scholar Amru Mohammed, writing in Akhbar Al-Bashir, recalled that in 1903 Theodor Herzl submitted to the British a plan for diverting the waters of the Nile, and that years later Israel attempted to persuade Egypt to give it water from the river. The arguments were marshaled in order to warn of an ostensible threat of 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.”