The vital importance of the Nile to Egypt, the river's furthest downstream state, is widely accepted and well documented. Throughout recent history Egypt has exerted the greatest degree of control over the Nile both politically and physically. Egypt's dominance over the Nile is a function of the influence of colonial agreements, the shifting, yet timely alliance and support from global superpowers, and the power of Egypt relative to the instability of the upstream states. As a result, Egypt has been able to make unilateral decisions regarding out-of-basin use of Nile water.
Unfortunately some of these decisions have put into question the responsibility and justice of Egypt's stewardship of Nile waters. Indeed, under the pressure of a burgeoning population, as well as for political reasons, the Egyptian government has for two decades embarked on a misguided program of diverting billions of cubic meters of precious Nile water out of basin and into land reclamation and development projects in the Sinai desert.
One of the most costly and politically and economically dubious of these efforts is a huge land reclamation project in the North Sinai desert called the North Sinai Agricultural Development Project ( NSADP). The North Sinai development is currently estimated to cost about $1.5 billion (about 5 billion Egyptian pounds) and is going forward despite the warnings of its own environmental impact study. Since 1987 this project has been diverting Nile water to agricultural development plots west of the Suez Canal.
However, in an even more dangerous and politically sensitive development, for the first time, plans are in place and work has already begun to facilitate the diversion of Nile water to the North Sinai desert east of the Suez Canal by means of tunnels underneath the Canal. The project was given dramatic confirmation in November 1996 when Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, addressing Arab journalists in Cairo, announced the opening of a third tunnel underneath the Suez Canal.(BBC November 22, 1996, quoting the Mena News Agency) In addition, the Wall Street Journal reported that "[I]n October , Nile water will ... begin flowing through the Peace Canal ... and will irrigate 600,000 acres in the [North] Sinai desert."( "Egypt Faces Problem It Has Long Dreaded: Less Control of the Nile," Wall Street Journal, August 22, 1997)
The last leg of the project will bring Nile water just south of the North Sinai town of El Arish, only 40 km away from the border of the Gaza Strip at Rafah. Most alarming to many in the region are t he rumors that the project will ultimately bring Nile water to Israel. As a matter of fact, a similar project was envisioned as early as 1974 by Israeli water expert, Elisha Kally, as a way of satisfying Israeli water needs.
Opposition to such a venture would doubtless be fierce. In 1981, Subhi Kahhlen, an Egyptian journalist, summarized two of the main objections to sending water from the Nile to Israel. Kahhlen wrote that the Nile is an "international waterway and Egypt cannot dispose of its waters unilaterally without the agreement of its partners: Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi and Zaire." Most of these states, he noted, "have already expressed reservations" about the proposal, "viewing it as violation of international law."
In 1994, Sudanese President Omar Hassan Al Bashir complained about a visit to Israel by the leader of the Sudan Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA). President Al Bashir claimed that Israel had its eyes on the untapped natural resources in Southern Sudan and on the sources of the Nile as an effective leverage over Egypt (InterPress Services, April 14, 1994). ...
The History of the Nile Diversion Project:
Zionist interest in the possibility of diverting Nile water across the Sinai desert began decades before the establishment of the State of Israel. As early as 1903, Theodore Herzl, the founder of Zionism, visited Egypt and authorized a technical report on the transfer of Nile water across the Suez Canal. The project had to be dropped soon afterwards when British and Egyptian authorities turned him down. (Bashir Sherif Albarghothy, "The Israeli Ambitions in the Waters of Palestine and Neighboring Arab Countries")
More recently, Dr. Elisha Kally, from 1964 to 1976 the head of the Long-Range Planning Group of TAHAL, the Israeli water planning agency, published a study in 1974 in which he argued for the feasibility of Nile water going to Gaza. He has repeated his arguments in subsequent reports and in his books, The Struggle for Water (2nd ed. 1978) and Water in Peace (1989). His 1986 paper includes a map which shows the El Salaam Canal beginning near the mouth of the Nile, crossing the Suez Canal (through an underground tunnel), heading east across the North Sinai desert past El Arish and reaching Gaza and the Israeli National Water Carrier.
In his 1991/92 paper, "Options for Solving the Palestinian Water Problem in the Context of Regional Peace," Kally writes: "The Nile is the preferred foreign source for supplying the Gaza Strip with water because of physical and political reasons. It is, however, a less obvious choice for supplying the West Bank. For the West Bank, the Yarmuk [River on the border of Jordan, Syria, and Israel] and perhaps the Litani [River in Lebanon], are preferable sources."
Israel and the North Sinai Agricultural Development Project
The North Sinai Agricultural Development Project (NSADP) implications far exceeds the boundaries of Egypt. The main danger of this project (and the more recent Tushka project) is that it may lead to an environmental (water) war between Egypt on one hand and other Nile riparian countries; particularly Sudan and/or Ethiopia. Part of this war would be because of the perceived purpose of the project, i.e. transferring Nile water to Israel and connecting the Nile to the National Israeli Water Carrier as promised by President Sadat when he ordered the feasibility studies for the project. This is also supported by the Israeli request for 1% of the Nile waters during the peace negotiations with Egypt. The Israeli pressures are still mounting. In an article published in Al-Akhbar daily newspaper (January 3, 2000) on Israel's attempts to obtain Nile water from Egypt, Galal Dowidar wrote:
"Although, Egypt has pronounced the request as illegal, since it was committed to quota agreements signed with the African Nile-basin countries, Israelis still persist. It would be beneficial, however, to call Israel's attention to one case in point. In the not-too-far past, Libya, an Arab-African country, made a similar request, when it asked that the Nile course be extended into its territories so as to benefit by the water surplus which poured into the Mediterranean. The request was denied for the same reason: Egypt was bound to international agreements which it has to honor."