Ethiopia’s commencement on Wednesday of construction on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which experts say would dramatically alter the course of the Blue Nile waters and be Africa’s largest dam, has sparked a major diplomatic crisis with Egypt. The project represents an Ethiopian-Israeli plot to cripple Egypt, Arab dailies allege, and could push Egypt to launch a military strike.

The London-based pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat reports that the Ethiopian ambassador to Egypt was summoned yesterday by the Egyptian Foreign Ministry to clarify his country’s announcement that construction of the dam would proceed.

Egyptian officials released a statement saying that “Egypt supports any development project for the Nile Basin countries, as long as it does not damage the downstream countries Egypt and Sudan.” In response, Ethiopian officials tried to assure their Egyptian counterparts that “the diversion of the Blue Nile will not affect Egypt’s share of the water.”

‘The diversion of the Blue Nile will not affect Egypt’s share of the water’

The 1929 Nile River Agreement, which was drawn up by Great Britain when it was the colonial power in north and east Africa, grants Egypt the lion’s share of utilization of the Nile River and the right to veto any construction project that would harm its interests. An amended agreement was signed in 1959 by Egypt and Sudan, and not by the other eight Nile Basin countries, allocating 55.5 billion cubic meters of water of the 84 billion estimated cubic meters of water the Nile produces every year to Egypt.

The consequences of these arrangements have severely harmed Ethiopia over the decades. Rich in water, Ethiopia has been legally bound not to use its water resources to provide for its population of 90 million — greater than Egypt’s — and has suffered long periods of drought and famine.

“Ethiopia’s dam will cause grave damage to Egypt. It will prevent the use of two million acres of agricultural land, which will put five million farmers out of work,” Dr. Ziauddin Qusi, an international water expert, told the Saudi-owned A-Sharq Al-Awsat.

“The dam is a project that threatens the existence of the Egyptian state as a whole,” warns Dr. Syed Fulayfel, the former dean of the Institute for African Studies at Cairo University. “Ethiopia must be persuaded to reduce the amount of water the dam will hold from 74 billion cubic meters to 30 billion cubic meters.”

Arab commentators are directly accusing Israel of responsibility for the Egyptian-Ethiopian crisis, despite the absence of any official reports of Israeli involvement.

“The construction of this dam… is the result of instigation by Israel,” writes Abdel Bari Atwan in the London-based Al-Quds Al-Arabi in an op-ed called “Egypt on the brink.”

“Avigdor Liberman, the Israeli foreign minister who threatened to bomb the Aswan dam and flood Egypt, led a delegation of 100 businessmen and engineers with expertise in the construction of dams to five (Nile Basin) African countries. This was poisonous for previous water arrangements.”

“Now Israeli companies have signed contracts to take over energy distribution from the new dam. Israel is exploiting the collapse of Egypt and the hunger of its people.”

Could an actual Egyptian military strike on Ethiopia be on the horizon? Perhaps, but it would be challenging, Major General Mohammed Ali Bilal, the deputy chief of staff of the Egyptian Armed Forces, told the Dubai-based media network Al-Arabiya on Wednesday.

Bilal says that Egypt is worried a direct military hit on the dam would jeopardize its relations with many countries, including China and Israel, two countries with many citizens working on the project.

Egypt is not in a position now to confront all these countries, Bilal says. There is an international consensus that Ethiopia has the right to build the dam. He alleges that the dam has American financial backing and enjoys Israeli technical support. The only solution lies in the US intervening to convince Ethiopia to alleviate the impact of the dam on Egypt.

An alternative to Egypt’s dependence on the Nile is to greatly build up the country’s capacity to desalinate sea water, just as Israel has. However, experts worry that the sheer cost of the desalination process would cause water to be too expensive for Egyptians. Currently, over half of Egyptian citizens live on less than two dollars a day and the Egyptian economy remains in a downward spiral.