Demographic, Environmental,
Security Issues Project

NOTE: The following article by Ronald Bleier was published in Middle East Policy for September 1997, Volume V, Number 3, pp. 113-124.

To Part 2

Will Nile Water Go To Israel?:
North Sinai Pipelines And The Politics Of Scarcity

by Ronald Bleier (rbleier@igc.org)

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(1) 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.(2) In addition, the Wall Street Journal reported that "[I]n October [1997], Nile water will ... begin flowing through the Peace Canal ... and will irrigate 600,000 acres in the [North] Sinai desert."(2A)

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."

Secondly, he argued that the more important obstacle would be the Egyptian people.

The Egyptians consider the Nile a sacred water, the source of all life and prosperity...It is obvious that these people will not submit to their rulers if it becomes clear that the water from their sacred Nile are actually being brought to the enemies of the Arabs and of Islam, the occupiers of Arab lands and the dispersers of the people of Palestine...This may perhaps prove to be the straw that breaks the camel's back.(3)

Kahhalen explained how Egypt and Israel intend to overcome the political repercussions of sending Nile water to Israel. To guarantee that Egypt would not simply turn off the faucet, Israeli engineers suggested that the diverted Nile waters also supply the Arabs of Gaza, the Negev and the West Bank, making them, in effect, Israeli hostages, since Egypt would be disinclined to cut their water off.

The Israelis had termed this the "Yeor plan" and had already prepared its cost estimates and technical details and studied its political implications many years before Sadat's visit to Israel. Was Sadat in fact announcing the beginning of this Israeli scheme when he declared, on December 17, 1979, that work has begun on the "Peace Canal," which was to pass under the Suez Canal to Sinai and then to the Negev?"(4)

A contract for the sub-Suez Canal siphon was signed in October 1993 with an Italian company and is scheduled for completion in 1997. The project will be financed by loans from the Kuwati fund for A rab economic development.(5) Typically the government of Egypt defends these Nile water diversion projects as a necessary means of reclaiming scarce agricultural land and providing for its growing population. According to resea rcher Sandra Postel, the government attempts "to reclaim an additional 60,000 hectares of desert each year in order to expand crop production."(6) Postel's figures are in line with those of the Economist Intelligence Unit who point out that Egypt is on an environmental treadmill: "Some one million feddan (one feddan = 1.15 acres) have been reclamated from the desert over the past two decades, but the area under cultivation has, nevertheless, remained more or less constant as agricultural land is lost to encroaching urbanization under the pressure of population growth.(7)

It is not clear exactly how much Nile water would go to Israel in the initial stages. The original Israeli idea from the 1970s was to convince Egypt to divert 1% of Nile water to Israel.(8) Presumably this would mean 1% of the 55.5 billion cubic meters (bcm) that Egypt is allotted under its 1959 treaty with the Sudan -- which would amount to 550 million cubic meters (mcm) -- about one-quarter of Israel's annual consumption in 1993. Geographer Aaron T. Wolf estimates that 365 mcm is the amount that would go to Israel if the project were consummated.(9) Stephan Libiszewski, a Swiss based researcher, suggests that the amount that would go to Israel from the Nile would be as low as 100 mcm if the project went forward.(10)

Ironically the North Sinai is gifted with plenty of underground water. According to Bahay Essawi, an Egyptian geologist who once worked for the Water Resources Ministry, there is enough water in the Sinai from yearly rainfall to supply double the population there without building expensive pipelines. Essawi's idea is that instead of diverting precious Nile water, the underground water of the North Sinai could be tapped and coordinated with a scheme to construct relatively cheap dams to capture winter rainfall. This alternative would be much more cost effective and environmentally friendly and it could ultimately support as many as a million inhabitants.(11)

The Nile diversion project (NSADP) has been opposed by experts both within and without Egypt on several grounds. Indeed, according to the Egyptian government's own suppressed environmental impact assessment, diverting Nile water to the North Sinai is problematic. First of all, the project -- also called the El Salaam Canal: the peace canal -- is already diverting water and scarce funding away from Egyptian farmers in the Nile basin who require more water and more infrastructure development. Moreover, projections of population increases and water requirements show alarming pressures on the ever diminishing per capita supply of land and water for personal, agricultural and industrial use. In the Mideast and North Africa "per capita water availability dropped to 330,000 gallons last year [1996], by far the lowest in the world, from 872,000 gallons in 1960, according to the World Bank.(11A)

Because of Egypt's present and future water needs, experts argue that there isn't any "extra" Nile water available for diversion to the Sinai -- much less to Israel. In addition, there is a serious threat that global warming over the next 20 to 40 years will reduce Nile water flows by as much as 25%.(12) If these projections prove accurate --and the scientific community seems to have reached aconsensus on the validity of these warnings -- the region is likely to experience profound environmental and political change with serious security implications.

International Repercussions

Ethiopia and the Sudan have already reacted with alarm to published reports that there are plans to divert Nile water to Israel. Ethiopia provides Egypt with 86% of its Nile water and is desperately in need of water development projects on its own territory in order to feed its growing population of more than 62 million. (In 1960 Egypt's population was under 30 million.)

From the point of view of the Nile's main riparians, Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, the great danger of sharing Nile water with Israel is that, however small the initial amount may be, and even if nominally the water were for Palestinian use, once Israel begins to take water from the Nile it may then contend, under international law, for larger shares in future.

Tensions in the region are already very high. In June 1995, President Mubarak escaped an assassination attempt in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where he was to attend a summit meeting of the Organization of African Unity. Mubarak immediately accused the Sudan of responsibility for the attack. Shortly afterwards, in early July, Egypt took control of a disputed Sudanese-Egyptian border area known as the Halaib, plunging relations to a new low with the regime of Hassan al-Turabi and Omar al-Bashir.

Following the assassination attempt, Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa bluntly warned Sudan's Islamic leader Hassan al- Turabi not "to play with fire" after reports quoted him as threatening to cut Egypt's water quota. Information Minister Safwat el-Sherif said Egypt "rejects the hollow threats [on water] from the Sudanese regime. Any [Sudanese] wrongdoing or infringement will be met with full force and firmness." Water Resources Minister Abdel-Hadi Radi said an agreement setting Nile water shares was a "red line that can never be crossed."(13)

Mubarak himself expressed hope that "they do not think of developing or escalating the action between us and them," adding that he had remained silent in the face of many Sudanese provocations in the past. "It is finished," he said. "I will not stay quiet ... I do not want to hurt the Sudanese if they are helpless, but I say, and the world hears me, that if they continue with this stance and take other measures, then I have many measures of my own."(14)

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.(15)

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. [see map]

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."

The history of public statements by the Egyptians on diverting Nile water to Israel goes back to 1978, when President Anwar Sadat, in connection with the peace initiative which concluded with the Camp David Accords of 1979, declared in Haifa to the Israeli public that he would transfer Nile water to the Negev. Shortly afterward, in a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Sadat promised that Nile water would go to Jerusalem: Sadat wrote:

As we embark on the comprehensive resolution of the Palestine issue, we shall make these waters a contribution from the Egyptian people and in the name of the hundred millions of Muslims, a monument to the peace accord. The Nile waters will become Zamzam wells to all believers [Zamzam is the well that supplies water to the Muslim holy shrine Ka'aba at Mecca]. These waters will be an evidence that we are promoters of peace, life and prosperity.

At the same time, an article published on January 16, 1979, in the Cairo weekly,October, under the heading "The New Zamzam Project," informed the Egyptian public that Nile waters would reach Jerusalem. A few days later, Sadat mentioned the project again in a letter addressed to King Hassan II of Morocco, who had pleaded with him to return to the Arab coalition. Sadat wrote, "I have gone to the utmost extreme with the Israeli Prime Minister,"

"As an incentive, I proposed supplying Israel with a part of Egypt's share of the Nile water to be used in reclaiming the Negev with the co ndition that the Jerusalem and West Bank issues be solved."

Prime Minister Begin wrote back explaining that if getting Nile water meant making concessions on Jerusalem he wasn't interested: "The transfer of Nile water to the Negev is a magnificent idea and truly a monumental vision, but we have to differentiate between a cultural and historical value...Let us separate the two subjects: Jerusale m is an issue and Nile water to the Negev is another issue."(16)

Why would Sadat make public declarations to send Nile waters to Israel in the face of powerful regional and national objections? Sadat may have been responding to Israeli pressure. In the 1970s Israel sent arms and advisors to the Ethiopian governments of Haile Selassie and Mengistu Haile Mariam to aid in their battles with Somalia over the Ogaden region and also to support their internal battle with the Eritrean rebels. Israeli aid to Ethiopia may have been a signal that Sadat couldn't ignore.

In the Mubarak era, observers point to published reports that Israeli experts were helping Ethiopia to plan 40 dams along the Blue Nile. Stephen Lonergan, a Canadian based researcher reported in 1990 that "Egypt has complained of Israeli water engineers working in Ethiopia and Sudan, designing new irrigation systems which would reduce the flow of the Nile, Egypt's only source of fresh water."(17)

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.(18)

The End of Part 1

To Part 2


1. Cherif Cordahi, "Egypt-Water: Too Little to go Around, Too Precious to Waste." InterPress Services (IPS), June 20, 1995.

2. The British Broadcasting Corporation, November 22, 1996, quoting the Mena News Agency, Cairo, in Arabic, November 20, 1996. Mubarak called the opening the previous day of the third tunnel underneath the Suez Canal an "historic moment to launch a new demographic map and usher Egypt into the 21st century."

It is not immediately clear why a third tunnel would be necessary since each tunnel carries sufficient water for the proposed development sites in the North Sinai. A second tunnel might be used as a backup, but the construction of a third tunnel increases fears that it might be used to move water to the Gaza Strip area and thus to Israel.

2A. Amy Dockser Marcus, "Egypt Faces Problem It Has Long Dreaded: Less Control of the Nile," Wall Street Journal, August 22, 1997, p. 1.

3. Subhi Kahhalen, The water problem in Israel and its repercussions on the Arab-Israeli conflict. IPS, Beirut, paper #9(E), 1981, p. 50.

4. Ibid., p. 49.

5. Middle East Economic Digest, October 22, 1993, p. 12.

6. Sandra Postel, "A Water Ethic," Talking Leaves, pp. 23-25. Spring 1996.

7. The Economist Intelligence Unit, Egypt: Country Profile 1990-91, p. 22.

8. Abdel-Rahman Tamimi, "Water: A Factor for Conflict or Peace in the Middle East," Israeli-Palestinian Research Project: Working Paper Series No. 20, Jerusalem, 1991/92, p. 3.

9. Aaron T. Wolf, Hydropolitics along the Jordan River: Scarce Water and its Impact on the Arab-Israeli Conflict, United Nations University Press, Tokyo, 1995, p. 57.

10. Stephan Libiszewski, "Water Disputes in the Jordan Basin Region and their Role in the Resolution of the Arab-Israeli Conflict," Environment and Conflicts Project, Occasional Paper No. 13, August 1995, Zurich, Switzerland, p. 57.

11. Cordahi, op. cit., note 1.

11A. Amy Dockser Marcus, op. cit., note 3.

12. Steven Lonergan, "Climate Warming, Water Resources and Geopolitical Conflict: A Study of Nations Dependent on the Nile, Litani and Jordan River Systems," Canada, 1991.

13. Bahaa El-Koussy, "Sudan briefs Arab League on tensions." UPI, July 3, 1995, Monday, BC cycle. The Wall Street Journal echoes warnings of the scarcity of Nile water. "But there isn't enough Nile water to complete the irrigation plans of Ethiopia and Egypt, let alone the other nations that share it." The article quotes Dale Wittington, a University of North Carolina water expert speaking at a 1997 conference in Addis Ababa warning that Ethiopia and Egypt "are set 'on a collision course that both may have difficulty changing.'" Marcus, op. cit., note 3.

14. Mideast Mirror, "Something is being cooked up." June 29, 1995, Section: Egypt-Sudan; Vol. 09, No. 123.

15. Bashir Sherif Albarghothy, "The Israeli Ambitions in the Waters of Palestine and Neighboring Arab Countries," Amman: Al-Galil Pub. House, [in Arabic], 1986.

16. Albarghothy, ibid.

17. "Executive Summary," Climate warming, water resources and geopolitical conflict: A study of nations dependent on the Nile. National Defence Dept., Ottawa, Operational Research and Analysis Establishment (ORAE), paper #55, 1990.

18. InterPress Services, April 14, 1994.

End of Part 1 of 2
Will Nile Water Go To Israel? Part 2