Egypt's Nile crisis and the Dam Busters

June 11, 2013 at 11:30 AM
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CAIRO, June 11 (UPI) -- Tension between Egypt and Ethiopia has risen sharply after Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Qandil warned Addis Ababa not to build a massive dam on the Blue Nile he says will reduce the amount of water Egypt gets from the Nile.

Egypt, which relies on the Nile for virtually all of its water, will not surrender "a single drop," Qandil declared in parliament to cheers from Islamist supporters.

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi warned earlier that "all options are open" in heading off a potentially perilous water shortage in a country whose fast-growing population of 82 million uses greater quantities of Nile water every year.

"We are not calling for war, but we will not allow, at all, threats against our water security," Morsi declared during an emotive televised speech before cheering supporters.

If Egypt, critically dependent on the Nile, "loses one drop, our blood is the alternative," the Egyptian leader proclaimed.

Cairo was apparently taken completely by surprise last week when Ethiopia announced it had begun diverting the Blue Nile, a key tributary to the Nile, to begin construction of the $4.8 billion Grand Renaissance Dam near the border with Sudan.

The massive hydroelectric project, one of several major dams planned by Ethiopia to boost power generation for East Africa, will eventually provide 6,000 megawatts.

Athough Morsi, who's grappling with political turmoil at home, is stressing diplomacy to resolve the issue, which has Egypt in an uproar, Islamist politicians are increasingly talking about military action and sabotaging the Grand Renaissance project.

And it's possible that Morsi may seek to use this external threat to get him out of a tight spot at home as a means of uniting the Arab world's most populous nation in the aftermath of the February 2011 ouster of longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak.

But despite the heated rhetoric coming out of Cairo, an examination of Egypt's military options in this instance shows that it has few viable options.

Even the Israelis, who have knocked out water projects in Syria and Jordan with airstrikes over the years, have never tackled a major dam.

"Dams can be and usually are very tough targets to destroy," the U.S. global security consultancy Stratfor observed.

Britain's Royal Air Force developed a unique technique to destroy German dams during World War II, using bouncing, delayed-action bombs.

The famous Dam Busters operation by a small force of four-engine Lancaster bombers on the night of May 16-17, 1943, knocked out the Mohne, Eder and Sorpe dams in the Ruhr, Germany's industrial heartland.

Stratfor noted that the difficulty now, as it was in 1943, even using airstrikes involving precision-guided munitions, is that the bomb or missile "needs to deployed at the base of the dam, under water, where concussive effect and pressure is greatly amplified.

"To avoid the hassle of hitting a standing dam and creating major flooding downstream in Sudan" -- an Egyptian ally in the Nile water dispute -- "and even potentially in Egypt, Cairo would probably prefer to hit the Grand Renaissance Dam while it is under construction.

"But it also has to be careful not to hit the dam too early, because then Ethiopia may not be fully deterred from restarting the project," Stratfor noted.

However, the long distances involved would seem to effectively preclude the use of airstrikes by Egypt, whose air force has no aerial refueling tankers.

However, there has been talk in the past of the Egyptians and Sudanese, who get the lion's share of the Nile's annual flow of 85 billion cubic meters of water annually under a 1959 British-brokered treaty, establishing a joint base in Sudan that would permit the use of strike jets.

But that would carry political complications and trigger international repercussions, as well as possible Ethiopian military retaliation, particularly against Sudan.

The most likely offensive scenario would involve Egyptian Special Forces, but they would face considerable obstacles getting to the Grand Renaissance to blow it up since that would involve a massive amount of explosives.

"Egypt does have military options, but distance will heavily constrain its ability to project the full force of its military," Stratfor concluded.

"Any option Cairo chooses to exercise will be risky at best and will also come with severe international consequences."

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