Strategic Analysis: Reprecussions of Chinese investments in the Nile River Basin

“He who rides the sea of the Nile must have sails woven of patience.” So noted British novelist William Golding a century ago; and his saying has clearly taken root in Beijing today. Under the radar of the Western world, China has discreetly established its influence among Africa’s emerging powerhouses, setting its sights on the continent’s most contested resource: the Nile River.  Amidst the decline of Egypt and the rise of Ethiopia, Beijing has managed to manipulate a long-brewing conflict between two major African powers to its benefit, slowly replacing the West as the continent’s new kingmaker.

In recent months, China has ruffled feathers from Lake Victoria to Alexandria with its aggressive funding and building of dams in Ethiopia, an aggressive contender for regional hegemony. In August 2012, Kenyan environmental activists urged China to withdraw a 500 million USD investment in Ethiopia’s Omo river dam, charging that energy produced by the dam would result in the draining of Kenya’s Lake Turkana. While it’s no surprise that the activists’ calls failed to ring alarm bells on the banks of the Potomac or Thames,  China’s dam building has undoubtedly caught the attention of the West’s allies along the Nile.

Graphic display of Ethiopia’s GERD project.

In September 2012, the whistleblower website Wikileaks exposed a 2010 message by Egypt’s ambassador to Lebanon stating his country’s intention to attack the Chinese-funded Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile River, the Nile River’s primary artery. That same year, Ethiopia sparked an uproar amongst its Arab neighbors to the north by disregarding a 1929 agreement originally imposed by British colonial rulers that gave Egypt control of 90% of the Nile’s water and veto power over any dam projects which could hamper water supplies.

While GERD is expected to revitalize the impoverished region with 6,000 GWh annually, political ideology is as much a foundation of the dam as its cement girders. Under the rule of now deceased President Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia began to exploit its invaluable water sources (which provide 85% of the Nile’s water), in its attempt to become a major economic power in the region.

In order to achieve its long term goal of regional energy supplier to countries like Djibouti, Kenya, Sudan, and Yemen, Ethiopia initiated its 25-year “Master Plan” in 2009, to build hydroelectric dams along the nation’s vast waterways in 12 river basins. Five of the six proposed dam projects are being constructed by Chinese firms, while the sixth is a lone Ethiopian government project. For the GERD project, China is estimated to have contributed 1.8 billion USD of the total 4.8 billion USD needed to fund the project. It is clear that China has recognized the rise of Ethiopia and has set its sights on bolstering a country historically known for its resistance to Western colonization (save for a brief six-year Italian occupation).  Since Ethiopia has no allegiance to colonial-era treaties, it will take no issue to disregard previously forged pacts between Egypt, and its former colonizer Britain, and allow its Chinese to secure its future role as regional hegemon.

Controlling the Nile’s resources is a zero-sum game. This reality is startlingly clear to the Egyptians, who could be faced with a crippling water shortage just two years after Ethiopia’s completion of the GERD project in 2015. Symbolically and practically, the Nile is Egypt’s beating heart, giving semblance to Cairo’s designation as “Um al-Dunya” (Mother of the World), while providing the life source for the nearly 80-million people who live along its banks.

During the Mubarak era, Egypt  was no doubt in a position to take bold actions like that of sabotaging Ethiopian dam construction, and likely with acquiescence of the West and neighboring Sudan. But in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, Egypt has found itself scrambling for some semblance of stability, with its economy in dire need of IMF life support and its security forces struggling to cope with a mounting Sinai Peninsula insurgency and an influx of smuggling from all directions.  The rise of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood has placed U.S. aid under increasing scrutiny,  while recent anti-American riots have cooled relations between the two countries to their lowest point since the Camp David accords.

With the floodwaters of conflict over the GERD project poised to come to a head before 2015, China’s stealthy ascendancy to the position of African kingmaker has already become strikingly clear. President Morsi made Beijing the destination of his first trip outside of the Middle East in August 2012,  despite the dangerous implications of China’s meddling in the Nile River Basin.  As relations with the West recede along with Egypt’s economic stability, Mr. Morsi has little choice but to engage China before a confrontation with an increasingly powerful and unrepentant Ethiopia becomes inevitable. As Anwar Sadat famously noted after signing the peace agreement with Israel in 1979: “The only matter that could take Egypt to war again is water.”

With the clock ticking down to the GERD’s completion, the West’s once dominant role in Africa continues to give way to that of China. Recognizing the potential of the world’s most truly valuable resource, China has assumed a prominent role in African affairs for years to come.  With Egypt in decline and Ethiopia on the rise, the West’s options for tipping the scales back in their favor are drying up.

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