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Harry Verhoeven
harry verhoevenHarry Verhoeven was a participant in the ACUNS 2012 Summer Workshop on “Water, Environment and Health.” Verhoeven completed a doctorate at the University of Oxford, where he teaches African Politics. His research focuses on conflict, development and environment in the Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes Region and he is the Convenor of the Oxford University China-Africa Network (OUCAN).


Why a ‘water war’ over the Nile River won’t happen

This article was originally published by Al Jazeera on 13 June 2013. Click here to read the full article.

Is northeastern Africa heading for a bloody “water war” between its two most important countries, Egypt and Ethiopia? Judging by the rhetoric of the past two weeks, one could be forgiven for thinking so.

Ethiopia’s plans to build a multibillion dollar dam on the Nile River spurred Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi – whose country lies downstream from Ethiopia – to vow to protect Egypt’s water security at all costs. “As president of the republic, I confirm to you that all options are open,” he said on Monday. “If Egypt is the Nile’s gift, then the Nile is a gift to Egypt… If it diminishes by one drop, then our blood is the alternative.”

The following day Dina Mufti, Ethiopia’s foreign ministry spokesman, said that Ethiopia was “not intimidated by Egypt’s psychological warfare and won’t halt the dam’s construction, even for seconds”.

Morsi’s bellicose warnings followed the suggestions of leading Egyptian politicians on television last week that Cairo should prepare airstrikes and send special forces to uphold its God-given right to the lion’s share of Nile waters. The Ethiopian government of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn has signalled that it is not impressed and that it will carry on with work on the multibillion dollar Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam – a move seen by some as raising temperatures further, possibly triggering the “water wars” that pessimists have long predicted will characterise the geopolitics of the 21st century.

The war of words between Cairo and Addis Ababa is only the latest episode in a long history of confrontation between the two. About 60 percent of the Nile’s waters flow downstream from Lake Tana in Ethiopia, through Sudan, to Egypt. The building of the modern Egyptian state in the 19th century was closely connected to the idea of an Egyptian agricultural and industrial revolution; the Nile was to be controlled and harnessed for economic development through large-scale irrigation works, canals and dams so that Egypt could export cotton and other strategic crops to global markets. The notion of establishing maximum control over the Nile and consolidating regional hegemony more broadly pushed Egypt to invade Sudan in 1821 and to occupy eastern Ethiopia in 1875.