CAIRO — A battle over water has turned into a war of colorful rhetoric between Ethiopia and Egypt over the flow of the Nile, which begins in the African highlands but keeps Egypt from being swallowed entirely by desert.
An ambitious Ethiopian dam project is diverting Nile waters that Cairo says will reduce the river's northward flow. The Egyptians have stumbled into crisis mode: At a meeting hosted by President Mohamed Morsi this week, several politicians, unaware TV cameras were rolling, suggested sabotaging or threatening to bomb the dam.
Egypt can coordinate with Ethiopian rebels and "use them as a bargaining chip with the Ethiopian government," mused Younis Makhyoun, leader of an ultraconservative Islamist party. "If all this fails, then there is no choice left for Egypt but to play the final card, which is using the intelligence service to destroy the dam."
Ethiopia on Thursday summoned the Egyptian ambassador to explain such "hostile remarks."
An embarrassed Morsi has reassured Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn that he preferred diplomacy to fighter jets and intrigue. But the matter — Egypt has indicated that it would demand the dam not be built — illustrates Cairo's reliance on the Nile and how swiftly passions can be riled in a nation that receives 95% of its water from the river.
"Egyptians are peaceful by nature, but they have a historical entitlement to Nile water," Saad Katatni, head of the ruling Muslim Brotherhood's political party told Al Ahram newspaper. "And it is their right to defend it by any means necessary.
"The first option is the diplomatic approach. If this doesn't succeed, we can resort to international arbitration."
The project in question is the $4.2-billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and hydroelectric plant, which is 20% complete. Ethiopia says that the plant will spur development in one of Africa's poorest countries and that during construction over the next three to five years the dam will not "significantly affect" the flow of water into Egypt. Ethiopia says the flow will not be affected after the dam is built.
"We do not have any plan to harm downstream countries," said Alemayehu Tegenu, Ethiopia's minister for water resources. "If Egypt has some issues to discuss with Ethiopia, we are very ready to discuss them."
He added, "River diversion does not stop the flow of water to the downstream countries. River diversion means it is the rerouting of the river flow to facilitate the construction in the riverbed, nothing else."
Under colonial-era agreements, Egypt and neighboring Sudan were granted the bulk of the Nile's flow. But in recent years upstream African countries, including Ethiopia and Uganda, have made it clear that they are not bound to old treaties and pacts. Growing populations and demands for jobs and agriculture in East Africa have changed the dynamics.
Much of what is unfolding is a tale of poor nations in a new era, desperately trying to meet demographic and economic demands by drawing from a river that has sustained civilizations for millenniums. Egyptians say their fate is more reliant on the Nile compared with Ethiopia. Although about 85% of the Nile's water originates in Ethiopia, which has an annual rainy season, the country gets only 3% of its water supply from the river.
Ethiopia, which has endured drought and famine, says it is entitled to larger shares and suggests Cairo has exaggerated the impact of the dam. Egypt alleges it may lose as much as 20% of its Nile flow during the dam's construction.
That prospect is expected to force stricter conservation efforts in the fertile Nile Delta, which for generations has practiced less than efficient irrigation. Unlike his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, who was aloof toward much of Africa, Morsi has stepped up diplomacy with nations along the river to avoid a deepening crisis.
"Every 4 billion cubic meters of water that Egypt loses will lead to the waste of 1 million acres of agricultural land and this will in turn lead 2 million families to lose their jobs," said Hani Raslan, an expert on the Nile basin for Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. "This will widen the nutrition gap in Egypt and increase imports because the land will no longer produce."
Egypt is straining amid two years of political unrest after the overthrow of Mubarak. Water and gas shortages are common, foreign currency holdings have dwindled, and the economy is in severe straits. A disruption of water to the delta could jeopardize farms, crops and further imperil the economy.
"Egypt will never surrender its right to Nile water and all options [to safeguard it] are being considered," Morsi's office said this week.
Special correspondent Ingy Hassieb in Cairo contributed to this report.