Forget oil, there is a far more precious commodity at stake

Forget oil for once; the new cause of rising tension in the Greater Middle East (and Africa) today is between two countries that do not even share a common border.

They have no real bad history between each other, no direct links or political divergences or land or sea disputes with one another, yet the sudden appearance of tension between them could erupt in a violent conflict.

This new tension stems from a dispute over the most precious commodity in the world today, something far more precious than oil: water.

This latest crisis involves Egypt and Ethiopia, two of the eleven countries that share the waters of the world’s longest river, the Nile, and very lifeline of Egypt. Without the Nile Egypt would wither up and become a desert, killing all plants, animal and human life along the way.

The River Nile flows some 6,650 km north, from its still uncertain sources in either Rwanda or Burundi, in the very heart of Africa, on to Lake Victoria in Uganda through the Sudan and traverses all of Egypt from the south to empty itself in the Egyptian Nile Delta in the Mediterranean Sea.

The nine countries the Nile passes through are Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Eritrea, South Sudan and the Sudan. The Nile is Egypt’s only source of water. Without the Nile Egypt would simply stop to exist.

The Nile River is made up of two tributaries: the White Nile and the Blue Nile. The White Nile is the longest of the two and finds its sources in the Great Lakes region of central Africa. The most distant source is still undetermined but believed to be located either in Rwanda or Burundi. This tributary flows north to Tanzania, Lake Victoria, Uganda and South Sudan.

The Blue Nile is the source of most of the water and fertile soil. It begins in Ethiopia and flows into Sudan where the two rivers meet near the Sudanese capital Khartoum.

Ethiopia has plans to build a hydroelectric dam on the Blue Nile which Egypt said would interfere with the flow of the river, and that Egypt would not stand idly and allow this to happen.

In a televised speech Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi stated that “all options” over the Nile dispute with Ethiopia are on the table, a thinly veiled threat that no doubt includes a reference to the use of military force, if it came to that.

Egypt’s President Mohammad Morsi warned Ethiopia that any tampering with the waters of the Nile River would endanger Egypt and that his country would act accordingly and that “all options are open.”

The Egyptian president said this was not a call for war, but stressed that his country would not tolerate any diversions of the waters from the Nile.

According to report by the BBC, Egypt was apparently caught by surprise when Ethiopia started building  he hydroelectric project,  affecting the flow of the Blue Nile The river is a tributary of the Nile, on which Egypt is heavily dependent.

The Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam will cost $4.7bn and will, once completed, eventually provide 6,000 megawatts of power. Ethiopia says the Blue Nile will be slightly diverted but will then be able to follow its natural course.

“Egypt’s water security cannot be violated at all,” said the Egyptian president. “As president of the state, I confirm to you that all options are open.”

“The lives of the Egyptians are connected around it… as one great people. If it diminishes by one drop then our blood is the alternative,” said the Egyptian president in an obvious reference that Egypt was ready to go to war in order to defend its river.

Egypt’s claim that the majority of the Nile waters belong to it and the Sudan is based on a ruling from colonial days when the majority of the river’s water was granted to Egypt and the Sudan. Ethiopia now says the ruling is outdated.

Though a military confrontation is unlikely, it is not to be ruled out.  Below is some information regarding the military preparedness of both countries.

In terms of population the two have a very similar size (Egypt population 83,688,164;  Ethiopia population 84, 734,262. But it’s in the military that Egypt takes the lead.

Egypt is by far stronger from a military perspective. Their armed forces are superior and better armed, equipped and trained.  Egypt can muster up to 468,500 men in uniform and then call up an additional 79,000 reserves. Ethiopia on the other hand can only muster about 182,5400 men with no reserves. Egypt’s air force commands some 683 aircrafts while Ethiopia has 147.

Egypt has 200 rotary wings aircraft and Ethiopia possesses 68. Egypt can throw some 4,487 tanks into battle, Ethiopia, 301. Egyptian forces can lob some 10,244 mortars on their enemy while Ethiopia has only 400. And finally Egypt possess some 23,600 antitank weapons while the Ethiopians only 400.

By Claude Salhani for Oilprice.com

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