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News Egypt's Nile: nation puts great river at heart of its security

Threatened by a cut in Nile water supply, Egypt sees its leading regional role draining away and its desert farms running dry.

Symbolising the country's historical mastery over the world's longest river, it also marks the spot where, should upstream African countries have their way, surrender of that control will first become visible.

The consequences of any reduction in Egypt's share of the Nile's flow will be felt across the country, not least on the brackish fields of the Nile Delta, about 500 miles away, where farmers are already struggling to find fresh water.

Near Aswan it becomes clear how important the Nile is to Egypt, which relies on the river for 90% of its water supply. On the west bank of the city, on a 600-metre wide strip of verdant land that quickly gives way to rocky desert, Omar and his fellow farmers produce grapes, figs, watermelons and other crops for export to food markets in Cairo. Temperatures here can reach up to 45C in summer but irrigation canals and oxen-powered pumps keep Nile water streaming in all year round.

Given the precarious state of Egypt's water security, it is not surprising that successive political leaders have described any possible alterations to the distribution of the Nile as an existential threat to the nation. Anwar Sadat, Egypt's president, famously declared himself ready to go to war against any attempt to limit Egypt's dominance of the river; recently, Egyptian columnists have characterised the actions of upstream states as a "genocidal war" against Egyptians. Some writers have suggested that Egypt's strident rhetoric has hampered the spirit of co-operation between Nile states. 

 As an indication of how seriously the Egyptian government is taking the present crisis, responsibility for the Nile basin dispute was removed from the water and foreign affairs ministries last month and put into the hands of Egypt's intelligence and security chief, Omar Suleiman.

Suleiman was in Uganda this week holding talks with the country's president about the Nile issue, as Egypt stepped up efforts to persuade other countries, such as Burundi, not to sign the rival River Nile basin co-operative framework agreement threatening Egypt's hegemony.

Egypt makes much of its water recycling and desalination programmes, arguing that the country's barren environs have forced it to use meagre water resources efficiently. But critics dispute these claims, pointing to the outskirts of big cities like Cairo where luxury residential developments are accompanied by a rash of water-intensive landscaped gardens and golf courses.

There are many who believe that Egypt's Nile predicament also reveals a long-term political malaise, which has seen the country's status as the pre-eminent regional power slowly drain away.

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Contact information n/a
News type Inbrief
File link
Source of information The Guardian
Keyword(s) water security
Geographical coverage Egypt
News date 09/07/2010
Working language(s) ENGLISH