Israel Siphons off Africa’s Nile
Egyptian and Sudanese policy failures have lead to a looming strategic threat to both countries’ most important resources – the Nile. Israel has now signed an agreement with the South Sudanese authorities over rights to the country’s precious water source.
There was an outcry in Egypt and Sudan over last week’s signing of a cooperation agreement between Israel and South Sudan on water infrastructure and technology development. Warnings abounded that the pact between the government in Juba and Israeli Military Industries Ltd posed a threat to the water security of the two downstream countries and should be countered. Largely overlooked was the fact that their own inaction was mostly to blame for it.
Israeli designs on the waters of the Nile and on the resources of the African continent are hardly new. For years Israel has striven hard to forge ties with a number of African states and strengthen its presence in the continent, for both economic and security reasons.
In South Sudan, Israel has flaunted its ties with the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) – now the new country’s absolute ruler – and other southern faction leaders ever since the first southern rebellion began in Sudan in the 1950s. This was in line with a longstanding strategic doctrine, which was revisited in a 2008 lecture on Israel’s regional strategy by former Israeli security minister Avi Dichter.
This doctrine held, among other things, that Sudan, with its vast resources and economic potential, should not be allowed to become an asset to the power of the Arab world as a whole. As development in a stable Sudan would make it a threat to Israel, despite its geographical distance, Israel and its agencies should actively encourage the destabilization of the country by fueling successive crises until that instability becomes chronic.
The other acknowledged motive for Israeli intervention in Sudan was that the country constitutes the “strategic depth” of Egypt. In this regard, nothing could conceivably pose a greater strategic concern to Egypt and Sudan alike than a potential threat to their supplies of water from the Nile. Israel has succeeded in mounting such a threat with its latest pact with South Sudan and earlier agreements with other Nile littoral states in recent years.
The move comes against a backdrop of tensions over water issues between Egypt and Sudan and the majority of the other Nile Basin countries (the other riparian states are Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Eritrea, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda).
Most of the upstream countries want major changes made to the arrangements that have long governed the management of the Nile’s waters. These include a 1929 agreement which requires Egypt to approve any large-scale water projects in upstream countries that would affect the flow of Nile waters. They also oppose a 1959 pact that allocates an annual 55.5 billion cubic meters of Nile water to Egypt and 18.5 billion cubic meters to Sudan, which they argue is unfair. Six countries have demanded a reallocation under a proposed new Entebbe Agreement, but Egypt and Sudan have rejected it. The pair – especially Egypt, which since ancient times has relied on the Nile for more than 95 percent of its water – would rather keep their historic shares, and insist there can be no new water agreement until contentious issues have been resolved.
Egyptian and Sudanese objections will not, however, stop South Sudan – which with its independence became the Nile’s 11th riparian state – and other countries from proceeding with large-scale water projects to meet their pressing development needs. These are bound to increase their consumption and impede the downstream flow. South Sudan occupies a strategic location in this regard, with about 45 percent of the Nile Basin’s water in its territory, and 28 percent of the river’s water flowing through it to Sudan and Egypt.
Yet both countries could have acted to avoid getting to this point.
Sudan’s relations with South Sudan began deteriorating from the moment the latter seceded, with political, territorial and financial disputes triggering military confrontation within months. The opportunity was missed of holding negotiations prior to independence on what proportion the South would get of Sudan’s water allocation, which would have enabled Khartoum to safeguard its interests. Water issues have since been overshadowed by other quarrels.
For Egypt, the Nile Water question arguably represents the greatest of the country’s many Mubarak-era foreign policy failures. The former regime neglected Africa diplomatically, and failed to sustain Egypt’s once-strong relations with the countries concerned. Its most tangible failure in this regard was its inability to persuade South Sudan to agree to the resumption of work on the long-stalled Jonglei Canal project, designed to save between 40 and 50 billion cubic meters of Nile water annually from evaporation.
Israel was quick to fill the vacuum. It has seized every possible opportunity to offer its backing to water projects in the upstream countries, through which to both put pressure on Egypt and Sudan, and gain leverage to help overcome its own water shortage.