The Takeaway: Are Egypt, Ethiopia on brink of water war over Nile dam?
Highlights: Trump administration may be last, best bet to head off conflict; Also: Egypt’s fading hookah culture; Basra’s dirty water; Turkey’s currency dump; Amberin Zaman talks Syria, the Kurds and Turkey on new podcast!
This file photo taken on Dec. 26, 2019 shows a general view of the Blue Nile river as it passes through the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), near Guba in Ethiopia - Eduardo Soteras/AFP via Getty Images
The Lead: Nile Dam talks seek to head off Egypt-Ethiopia conflict
“Life and Death”: In an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor in September 2019, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry told me that “For Egypt, the matter of the Nile is a matter of life and death,” adding, “I don’t think anybody would agree that Ethiopian development should come at the expense of the lives of Egyptians.
Those are the stakes, as Egypt sees them, if Ethiopia goes ahead with filling the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) next month without complying with the technical arrangements agreed back in February among Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan, as mediated by the United States and World Bank in Washington.
“This is a watershed period for the Middle East. Its place in the world system will not be as it was, and it is now facing its destiny,” Kepel says.
Background: Ethiopia began building the GERD in 2011 to generate hydroelectric power. The dam is located in northwest Ethiopia, on the Blue Nile River near the Sudanese border. The Blue Nile joins the White Nile in Sudan and then flows into Egypt. The Nile is the only water source for Egypt, which has a population of approximately 100 million. Egyptians are concerned that the dam, absent provisions agreed upon in Washington, will dramatically reduce water flow to their country. For Ethiopia, though, the dam is crucial: Once completed, it will be the largest hydropower plant in Africa and the foundation of the country’s power needs.
“Irreversible”: Talk between the two sides is increasingly belligerent. “Egyptians and the rest of the world know too well how we conduct war whenever it comes,” Ethiopian Deputy Army Chief of Staff Gen. Birhanu Jula said last week. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was less threatening, but no less clear, that his country is committed to moving ahead with the dam as soon as possible. “We don’t want to hurt anyone else, and at the same time it will be difficult for us to accept the notion that we don’t deserve to have electricity,” he said. “The decision to fill the dam is irreversible.”
Last chance talks: The Egyptian, Ethiopian and Sudanese irrigation ministers have been meeting since June 9 to try to reach an agreement. Ethiopia refuses to sign the Washington agreements, and Egypt and Sudan have so far rejected Ethiopia’s counterproposals. For example, Ethiopia offered a “nonbinding document,” which included terms such as downstream countries relinquishing their water rights, while recognizing Ethiopia’s “unconditional right” to use Nile waters for the GERD based on its own discretion.
Our take: The United States, the European Union and South Africa are observers to this latest round of negotiations. The key player, in our view, is the United States. US Secretary of Treasury Steven Mnuchin was personally engaged in the Washington meetings, and the talks had the attention of President Donald Trump. Mnuchin said at the conclusion of the talks that the Washington agreement “provides for the resolution of all outstanding issues on the filling and operation of the GERD.” Both Egypt and Ethiopia are key US allies; it may take Washington’s voice to head off a potential conflict over Nile water.
Three quick takes on Egypt’s hookah culture, Basra’s dirty water and Turkey’s currency dump:
Women smoke water pipes in a public cafe in downtown Cairo, June 5, 2014. Photo by Reuters/Asmaa Waguih.
1. Egypt: Will COVID-19 end hookah culture?
Hookah cafes, once a mainstay of seemingly every busy street in Egypt, have been shut down by government decree since March 24 to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz immortalized hookah culture in his novels. There were an estimated 2 million cafes across Egypt offering hookah, or shisha, with tea, open long hours. The cafes employed millions. Egyptians spend about $2.5 billion on cigarettes and hookah molasses. Those days may be gone, at least as long as COVID-19 restrictions are enforced. Many of the cafes have been converted to grocery stores while closed to patrons. Ahmed Eleithy has the story here.
2. Iraq: Basra’s Dirty Water
It would be hard for anyone, including Basra’s residents, to believe that the third largest city in Iraq once was known as the “Venice of the East” because of its waterways, bridges and canals. That, as they say, is history. The Shatt al-Arab (“Stream of the Arabs”), which runs through Basra, is today a polluted mess of algae, bacteria, chemical toxins, human and animal waste, and factory overflow. The tap water is undrinkable. Azhar Al-Ruabie has the story here on why the Shatt al-Arab is so polluted and what is being done about it.
New podcast: Amberin Zaman talks Syria, Turkey, Kurds
Al-Monitor Senior Correspondent Amberin Zaman, speaking on the latest “On the Middle East” Al-Monitor podcast, explained how “Kurdish identity in Syria was very much shaped by what is going on in Turkey, where the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) was fighting the Turkish state.”
Other highlights of our conversation include:
Turkey’s invasion and occupation of northeast Syria “has removed quite a bit of the friction between the United States and Turkey” in Syria. Since then, Zaman explains, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has turned down the volume on his criticism of the United States over its support for the primarily Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which Turkey considers a terrorist group. Amberin says the SDF was “sacrificed” to improved US-Turkey ties.
While some in the US government may perceive Turkey as a bulwark against Russia in Syria, Amberin offers a more nuanced take, arguing that Erdogan does not see it that way, although this perception “creates a space where Turkey can pursue its own interests by encouraging the rivalry for its affection between Russia and the United States,” which has “worked out well” for Erdogan.
Offering advice to aspiring journalists in the field, Zaman suggests talking “to as many people as you can....There is no substitute for being on the ground doing that...always hold up what you’re told to scrutiny...and don’t allow yourself to bask in the glow of having managed to talk to very high level people” whose statements should be subject to the most scrutiny.
On women in journalism in conflict areas, Zaman says there is a “huge advantage to being a woman in this profession...this idea that men are physically stronger and therefore more resilient in war circumstances is totally overrated...women are every bit as resilient and more flexible.”
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