Water, Poverty, and Saber-Rattling in North Africa

As if the region didn't have enough problems.

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Imagine you were the leaders of a very poor country. Imagine that your country is underdeveloped, mostly agricultural, and the price of its primary export crop has experienced rapidly dwindling prices, at least partially due to worldwide over-production. Imagine that you do have rivers that can be dammed to produce hydroelectric power and that your neighbors need power. Now imagine that one of your neighbors, the regional superpower, is highly dependent on the river that you’re planning to dam for supplying its own farmers and your neighbor is having trouble producing enough food for its growing population as it is. That’s the situation in North Africa and why Egypt is rattling its saber at Ethiopia:

Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi has said “all options are open” to deal with any threat to his country’s water supply posed by an Ethiopian dam.

Mr Morsi said he was not “calling for war”, but that he would not allow Egypt’s water supply to be endangered.

Egypt was apparently caught by surprise when Ethiopia started diverting the Blue Nile last month, amid works to construct a hydroelectric dam.

The river is a tributary of the Nile, on which Egypt is heavily dependent.

The Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is a $4.7bn (£3.1bn) project that Ethiopia says will eventually provide 6,000 megawatts of power.

It says the Blue Nile will be slightly diverted but will then be able to follow its natural course.

“Egypt’s water security cannot be violated at all,” Mr Morsi said on Monday. “As president of the state, I confirm to you that all options are open.”

“If Egypt is the Nile’s gift, then the Nile is a gift to Egypt,” he said, quoting popular sayings about the river in an emotive televised speech.

If it starts a war with poor little Ethiopia, Egypt may find itself very short on support. The relationship between Egypt and the United States has chilled. The primary contractor for the dam is an Italian company so there’s potential NATO involvement. The project is rumored to be funded largely by Chinese banks. My inference is that the Chinese want to sell the power generation equipment that will be used in the dam.

Still, it’s potentially a very dangerous situation. Beyond Egypt’s worries about the loss of Nile water Morsi really needs to distract Egyptian public opinion away from his own shortcomings. Wars that nobody wanted have started before over a lot less.

The picture above is an artist’s rendering of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

FILED UNDER: Africa, Uncategorized, , , ,
Dave Schuler
About Dave Schuler
Over the years Dave Schuler has worked as a martial arts instructor, a handyman, a musician, a cook, and a translator. He's owned his own company for the last thirty years and has a post-graduate degree in his field. He comes from a family of politicians, teachers, and vaudeville entertainers. All-in-all a pretty good preparation for blogging. He has contributed to OTB since November 2006 but mostly writes at his own blog, The Glittering Eye, which he started in March 2004.


  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Yes, invade Ethiopia. Because that worked out so well for Mussolini.

  2. CB says:

    Welcome to the future.

  3. Mu says:

    Egypt doesn’t seem to have a common border with Ethiopia. But I’m sure the Sudanese won’t mind if the Egyptian army uses their country as a staging area. It’s not like they have to worry about Dafur or South Sudan allying with Ethiopia. Of course they could go for a round of “I bomb your damn you bomb my damn” but I think Egypt is hurt more by damage to the Aswan damn than Egypt by damage to the new one.

  4. Dave Schuler says:

    Morsi and other Egyptian pols were caught on camera discussing an air attack against Ethiopia. They’re not talking about invading. Air attack is just as much an act of war as rolling tanks into Addis Ababa.

    But you’re right, CB. That’s what the zero polar world looks like.

    The Ethiopian Air Force consists of about 150 craft. The Egyptian force is about ten times that. Presumably, the Ethiopians have some ground defenses that would be taken out within about a day of the beginning of any attack. If Egypt decides to attack Ethiopia, there isn’t a great deal the Ethiopians can do about it.

  5. Neil Hudelson says:

    A war with Egypt–or any destabilizing force–and you could see the Ogaden area trying to break away. If they do try to break away, and ally themselves with the Jubaland area of Somalia, I think you might see a civil war between Jubaland and Puntland on one side, and Somaliland on the other. Since self determination has never landed independence for Somaliland, I can’t help but think an opportunity like this would be jumped on. (Somaliland and Puntland have come close to blows a few times in the past 5 years).

    If that happens, the Ogaden area of Kenya may destabilize that country as well.

    So this could be interesting.

  6. 11B40 says:


    Of course, Ethiopia’s lack of total Islamic bona fides should not be mentioned or allowed into the discussion lest someone think that the Religion of Peace isn’t living up to its favorite deceit. . Our Islamophilic, if not Islamist, President has recently helped fill Morsi Islamist sails with a couple of handfuls of F-16s which, no doubt, engenders more than a bit of souk cred in that misbegotten corner of our planet. And Muslim gratitude is a good thing to have plenty of. It reminds me of a Missouri-Warhol River: a verbal mile wide; an actual inch deep; and flowing for about 15 minutes, on a good day.

    Islam is the millstone. If your plan doesn’t include constraining, undermining, or eradicating Islam (and I’m pretty sure our President’s doesn’t), you don’t have a plan. What you have is a hope.

  7. Mu says:

    @Dave Schuler: While the Egyptians have a lot of air craft, none of them has the combat range to fly from Egypt to Ethiopia and back. AFAIK they lack both the long range bombers for direct strikes and the air tankers to inflight refuel their fighter bombers. They might try to rig a lot of buddy stores if they have the equipment to get a few aircraft in for a single strike, but that would seriously even out the odds between the forces.

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