The Nile holds special significance in Egypt – as the Greek historian Herodotus wrote, "Egypt is the gift of the Nile". The river provides sustenance to the country as practically the only fresh water source in an otherwise parched desert, and played a crucial role in the formation of its civilisation. Silt deposits from the Nile made the surrounding land particularly fertile, while the river facilitated trade with neighbouring countries. As well as providing water security, the Nile helped to establish Egypt's economic security.
So perhaps it should come as no surprise that Egypt has reacted very strongly to a perceived threat to its crown jewel. Ethiopia has started work on building Africa's largest hydroelectric dam, a $4.2 billion project that would challenge a colonial-era agreement that gave Egypt and Sudan the lion's share of access to Nile water. Experts estimate that Egypt could lose as much as 20 per cent of its Nile water during the three to five years it would take for Ethiopia to fill a massive reservoir. Evaporation from the reservoir could mean that downstream flow is permanently reduced.
On Monday, Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi gave a live televised speech in which he said: "We are not calling for war, but we will not allow, at all, threats against our water security." He added: "all options are open." Addressing an enthusiastic crowd of supporters, he declared: "If it loses one drop, our blood is the alternative."
Despite the avowal that he was not calling for war, it is difficult to imagine what else he is threatening. This veiled threat is compounded by the fact that last week, senior Egyptian politicians were inadvertently caught on live TV proposing military action over the dam. Younis Makhyoun, the leader of Egypt's second largest political group, the ultraconservative Nour party, was recorded suggesting that Egypt's intelligence services could destroy the dam as a last resort. In response, Ethiopia summoned Egypt's ambassador in Addis Ababa to explain Egypt's position.
Morsi's speech was inconsistent: later in the speech he said that Ethiopia was a "friend" and stressed that he had visited it twice since taking office. He also said that Egypt had no objection to development projects on Nile basin states, "but on condition that those projects do not affect or damage Egypt's legal and historical rights".
It appears, however, that both his threats and his more conciliatory statements, have both fallen on deaf ears. Ethiopia has rejected Egypt's concerns and pledged that it will forge ahead with the project. A spokesman for the Ethiopian prime minister told the Guardian this week: "Nothing is going to stop the Renaissance Dam. Not a threat will stop it. None of the concerns the Egyptian politicians are making are supported by science. Some of them border on what I would characterise as fortune-telling." A spokesman for the foreign ministry told Reuters: "Ethiopia is not intimidated by Egypt's psychological warfare and won't halt the dam's construction, even for seconds." The message is clear – the project will go ahead, and fast.
Egypt has some grounds for concern. Its growing population means that its water supply is already strained. Egyptian water experts claim that it could reduce cultivated farmland by 25 per cent, which would have a serious impact on the economy and food security, leaving hundreds of thousands of farmers out of work. Around 85 per cent of Egypt's Nile water comes from Ethiopia.
Yet Ethiopia claims that these concerns are unfounded and that its plans for the dam are exonerated by a report co-written by scientists from Sudan, Egypt, and Ethiopia, yet to be published. Certainly, the downstream effects the project will have are unclear. In perhaps the most conciliatory suggestion, Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Kandil told parliament on Monday that more time was needed to study the impact of the project, and for Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia to discuss the how to build the dam and reservoir with minimal impact on flow.
Some analysts say that Morsi is using the issue of the dam to distract attention from growing, severe economic and political problems at home. It is certainly true that the Nile, with its huge symbolic power in Egypt, possesses the power to unite people. Morsi evoked this in his speech: "The great Nile is that which all our lives are connected to. The lives of the Egyptians are connected around it … as one great people."
Talk of war from Egypt's senior politicians has raised fears in the region that a "water war" could be imminent. Yet it is notable that there is still room for manoeuvre in the statements made. For the time being at least, we can simply expect the war of words to continue.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.