Israeli Spyder missile system in action. Courtesy: Financial Times
Nile dilemma as Ethiopia’s Arms Trade with Israel troubles rivals Egypt
Ethiopia’s installation of Israeli made air defense systems at the Grand Renaissance Dam and the increasing arms trade between both nations is triggering serious concerns in Egypt. Egypt is hugely dependent on the River Nile resource, that has one of its two sources in Ethiopia. The Ethiopian government has been tapping those waters to generate hydroelectric power through the Dam project. The move has drastically reduced the volume of water, Egypt, located downstream, receives.
Ethiopia had announced that it will purchase the Israeli made Spyder-MR air defense system in May, which can simultaneously fire two different types of missiles, to shield its Grand Renaissance Dam. Last week, the installation of the systems at the dam was completed.
The Addis Ababa government opted for those defense systems after they performed well in the Indian-Pakistani clashes in disputed Kashmir region five months earlier. Ethiopia has been on a purchasing spree of defense equipment, spending more than 400 million dollars last year in related purchases according to the Stockholm Peace Institute.
About 90 percent of that equipment is believed to have been sourced from Israel, one of the largest arms manufacturer in the world. In Egypt, an arms trade alliance between a rival – Ethiopia and a former enemy – Israel is worrying.
The government has long viewed the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, as a national security threat. The dam is a multi-billion dollar hydroelectric power project constructed by China, which upon completion, will deprive Egypt of a sizeable portion of its River Nile water source. Egypt receives around 55.5 billion cubic meters of water from the Nile every year, which is 30 billion cubic meters of water less the average annual national needs, according to data by the Egyptian Ministry of Irrigation. “The Ethiopian dam will have devastating effects on Egypt’s water resource” said Abbas al-Sharaqi, a professor of water resources at the College of African Studies in Cairo University. “It will affect everything in Egypt.”
Egypt and Israel, once bitter enemies for decades, have been steadily enhancing cooperation amid shared interests and security concerns. Both nations have a peace treaty, signed in 1979, and diplomatic relations, that have withstood 40 years of turbulence in the Middle East. The two countries are generally concerned with the growing influence of Iran as well as the rise in Islamist militancy in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and in the Palestinian Gaza Strip. Israeli media recently disclosed the extent of security cooperation between the two countries in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula by disclosing multiple Israeli air strikes against Iranian arms shipments to Islamic Jihad in Sinai last November and May.
As a result, some analysts in Cairo are optimistic that Israel will not jeopardize its improving relations with Egypt only to give its defense technology companies the benefit of earning millions of profits. “There are shared interests between the two states, which is why I believe that Israel will not sell more advanced military equipment to Ethiopia,” said Samir Ghattas, director of the Middle East Studies Forum think-tank.
“Israel works hard to strengthen its ties with African states, especially with Ethiopia,” added political analyst Abdel Monem Halawa. “The sure thing is that Israel gains ground wherever Egypt pulls out, especially in Africa that has been considered for decades to be a natural extension of Egypt.”
Egypt has also sought to improve ties with Africa’s second most populous country, and so, pursued a peaceful means in settling the Nile Water dispute with Ethiopia. Since becoming President in 2014, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has made several official trips to Addis Ababa and held talks with both Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. Despite numerous talks, both sides are still stuck in a deadlock. Through talks, Egypt has been trying to convince Ethiopia to lengthen the duration for filling the dam reservoir, which would in turn mitigate the effects of the process on Egypt. According to President Sisi, Egypt wants the waters of the Nile to be an avenue of cooperation among Nile Basin countries, and not a source of friction or conflict.
Ethiopia views the River Nile as key source of generating cheap hydroelectric power that it really needs to drive a growing manufacturing industry. With Egypt’s needs for water increasing each day thanks to an expanding population, the Dam has become a life or death issue for both nations.
Another alternative pursued by President Sisi’s administration is water desalination. The government has spent billions of dollars in the last five years in a series of water desalination and treatment projects. This is part of a policy of preparing for the potential of Ethiopia failing to honor its repeated pledges of not harming Egypt’s water interests. None of these projects are yet to be fully completed. Ethiopia’s purchase of air defense systems thus seem like a ploy to grant protection for the dam should Egypt decide to conduct a covert airstrike on the installation. Some local media reports in the past have claimed that Egypt will do anything, even if it involves using its military, to prevent any country from reducing its share of the Nile waters.
However the government has strongly denied such a policy exists.
A careful balancing act will have to be played by both Egyptian and Ethiopian governments to avoid eventual risk of conflict over a resource all have to share.