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more ways England has a lingering impact on geography

September 22, 2009

We all know how Great Britain and France created decades-old conflict in Africa by drawing imaginary lines in Berlin. But, there are even more nuanced ways colonizers have had a lasting effect on the Continent. It is often said that Egypt is the gift of the Nile. But est we forget, the Nile is a gift of East Africa. The problem is that in times of drought, when it is most important, Egypt has leverage against countries upstream: leverage given by England and maintained by market principles.

See the Newsweek Wealth of Nations blog

By Mohammed J. Herzallah

east africa is in the midst of a devastating drought–in Ethiopia, the dry spell has left close to 14 million people dependent on food aid. When assigning blame, aid workers and politicians finger the usual suspects: lack of rain, climate change, and an underdeveloped agricultural sector. But they’re forgetting one: Egypt. Thanks to a 1929 agreement between ­Britain–­acting on behalf of its East African ­colonies–and a newly independent Egypt, Cairo holds the rights to two thirds of the Nile’s water, as well as veto power over upstream projects. The disparity is stark: Ethiopia is the source of 60 to 80 percent of the Nile’s flow, but uses less than 1 percent of it because Egypt says no to large-scale irrigation projects. And though Ethiopians might be tempted to circumvent the anachronistic arrangement, they can’t. Egyptian officials work “behind closed doors” to block funding for upstream projects, according to David Shinn, a former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia. The Nile states want to re-negotiate the ancient treaty, but Egyptian officials have stalled for years. And there’s no sign they’ll slake their neighbors’ thirst any time soon.

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