Hydro-politics and the Traditional Attitude of the Nile Riparian states, Egypt and Ethiopia in particular

15 mins read

By Mohammed Ali Mohammed
Water politics has played a crucial role in shaping the economic, social and diplomatic relations of the Nile co-basin states. For the Nile region, inhabited predominantly by agrarian population, the issue of water has been the cardinal source of suspicion and mistrust among the riparian states. For Egypt, in as much as the Nile is the sole source of freshwater, the Egyptians have been very much anxious as to the probable endeavor by upper riparian states to arrest or divert the flow of the Nile water towards their dry lands. Consequently, Egypt has periodically threatened to intervene militarily if any upstream riparian interfered with its water supply. In the past, attempts by upper riparian states to unilaterally exploit the shared water resources, through expression of sovereignty and in the pursuit of national self-interest, have been met with Egyptian threat and resistance.
The upper riparian states have, on the other hand, been claiming that they have natural and legal rights to exploit their natural resources within their territory. However, due to their geographic, economic and political positions, the upstream countries have been bystanders, while the downstream states have been using the Nile waters almost exclusively. Ironically, Ethiopia, for instance, contributing about 86 percent of the entire volume of the Nile waters, has been using almost nothing, while Egypt, contributing nothing, uses most of the Nile water. Consequently, this unfair state of affairs has given rise to suspicious and fearful relations between the two co-basin states.
Because Ethiopia and Egypt are located at the producing and receiving ends of the course of the Nile respectively, and due to the total dependence of Egypt upon the river, fear, suspicion and anxiety amongst Egyptians for what could be done upstream in Ethiopia have been more of a norm than exception since the dawn of history. Arguably, there should have been no legal, political and moral reasons why Ethiopia did not play a prominent role in the determination of its own legitimate share of the Nile waters. However, owing to geographical, political and economic reasons, the country couldn’t develop its water resources. On the part of Egypt, surprisingly, there is an over exaggerated sensitivity that if a dam is built on the highlands of Ethiopia to harness the waters of the Nile, it will expose Egyptian vulnerability.
Although the reality on the ground is otherwise, Egyptians had a deep rooted fear and anxiety that the Ethiopian rulers could stop the flow of the Nile and starve the people of Egypt to death. Apparently, seen from their angle, the Egyptian fear and suspicion seems to be sound. The country’s geographical position and dependence on the upstream riparian states, particularly Ethiopia from where the waters of the Nile descend, makes its concern so great and serious. Despite this, it is important to note here that Ethiopia and Egypt had cooperative as well as conflicting relations in earlier times through the link between the Ethiopian orthodox and Egyptian Coptic churches. While Egypt has been dependent on the Nile water originating mainly from Ethiopian high lands, Ethiopia was also dependent on the Coptic church of Egypt from where the Ethiopian abun /patriarch/was appointed.
Despite the fact that the Ethiopians had neither the means nor the capacity to arrest the flow of the Nile, they deliberately threatened the Egyptians by stating that if they (the Egyptians) were not willing to send an Egyptian patriarch for the Ethiopian Orthodox church and if the Coptic church followers in that country (Egypt) were persecuted, they would not hesitate to stop the flow of the Nile. For instance, during the reign of Amde, Zion (1314-1244), when the Copts of Egypt were persecuted and their churches were demolished, the Ethiopian monarch protested the action and sent envoys to Cairo in 1321 to ask the Egyptian ruler to restore the churches and refrain from persecuting the Copts, otherwise warning that he would take reciprocal measures and starve the people of Egypt by diverting the course of the Nile. Similarly, when an Ethiopian envoy was imprisoned by Turks at the beginning of the eighteenth century, the then Ethiopian Emperor, Tekle Haimanot, is said to have retorted ” . . . if we were inclined to revenge, the Nile could be sufficient to punish you since God hath put into our hands his fountains.”
The wider claim that Ethiopia could arrest the flow of the Nile and starve the people of Egypt to death was an all too common issue in the medieval and even in the post medieval periods. In the modern times, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries, Egypt’s invasion and final conquest of the Sudan and the series of attempts to occupy the northern provinces of Ethiopia was largely motivated by its desire to secure control over the entire Nile system. However, the Egyptian desire to establish their political hegemony over the Nile valley was seriously challenged by the Mahadist movement in the Sudan; and the series of military expeditions against Ethiopia were concluded with the Egyptian defeat. This ambitious Egyptian plan to bring the entire Nile system under their control and the stiff resistance of the upper riparian states is one of the manifestations of the hydro-politics of the Nile.
Actually, the hydro politics of the Nile was shaped mainly by the European colonial powers, who had competing political and economic interest in the region. The opening of the Suez Canal, the strategic importance of the Horn of Africa and the economic benefit of the Nile basin had attracted the attention and increased the interest of the colonial powers. Though Britain, France and Italy were the colonial rivals of the region, the British were more successful in establishing their colonial hegemony over the Nile Basins. British policy in the North Africa aimed at bringing the entire basin of the Nile under British influence so as to realize the ambitious dream of a British cape to Cairo Route, and to control Egypt and the Suez Canal for strategic purposes. The location of Egypt on the waters along the Suez Canal could give them an upper hand to control shipping movements and mercantile on the Mediterranean and the Red seas; as well as the Indian Ocean. The British also sought to secure their interests in the Nile basin in order to ensure the production, and export of cotton for their industries at home. To this end, the British came out with a full fledged plan of controlling and harnessing the waters of the Nile by employing various water regulation mechanisms, including damming, canalization and diversions and securing unhampered flow of the Nile towards Egypt. No matter what their motive might be, the British secured the interest and prioritized the right of Egypt over the Nile water. It was naive to believe that the British were dying for Cleopatra’s Egypt, but the former was using Egypt’s most sensitive resource to soothe the anti-British nationalist anger in Egypt since the end of the first world war.”
With the end of British colonial rule in the area, Egypt pursued the same objective of securing the Nile water to its exclusive benefits. For a long time, Egypt has been claiming that it has natural, acquired and historical rights over the Nile waters and would be governed by the doctrines of “prior use”, “primary need” and “acquired rights”. The legal entitlement based on historic right or prior use in effect precludes other riparian states from using the shared water resources of the Nile. This deeply entrenched and time old habit which refuses to recognize the rightful shares of other riparian states in the use of the Nile waters have been become one of the most difficult hurdles in dealing with the Nile issues and dictating against any form of negotiation. While the upper riparian states are seeking for a new comprehensive Nile waters agreement, the lower riparian states, particularly Egypt, have been insisting that the principles of “prior use”, “primary need” and “acquired rights” should be taken as a bottom line to any talk or negotiations with the other riparian states. This doctrine is however, totally repudiated as it only takes into account the territorial sovereignty of one state and ignores entirely the equal territorial sovereignty of the other riparian states.
However, contrary to common sense and fairness, the downstream states, more particularly Egypt, dependent on the Nile waters at least for their basic needs, are extremely concerned with securing their water supplies and maintaining the Nile status quo. This self centered and exclusive attitude to maintain the Nile status quo is criticized as unfair. The attempt to maintain the status quo on the basis of historic rights is untenable legally, morally, ethically and even politically for it would be tantamount to depriving others of life while caring for their own. The premise to fruitful relations among the co-basin states is the full acknowledgment of the fact that the Nile status quo cannot be maintained indefinitely.
Despite the Egyptian exclusive interest, the upper riparian states have been putting more and more demand for the status quo to change. Large population growth and the requirement of socio-economic development have, to a large extent, influenced these countries to embark on various positive policies to develop and exploit their water resources. Today, it is largely realized that the economic and social development of many countries is directly or indirectly dependent on the development of their water resources. But until now, mainly for economic and political reasons, the upstream use of the Nile has been unable to mount any significant share despite severe food security problems which might be solved by water resources development.
On the face of such compelling circumstances, the Egyptians need to face the reality and undertake open and frank discussions so as to change the unfair water use regime. One of the challenges facing the Egyptians is to change the existing water allocation regime without running the risk of the collision course. In order to reverse the prevailing trend and lay down the basis for cooperation and equitable utilization of the Nile waters, it is high time that the Egyptians engage themselves in all inclusive negotiations for common benefit and an integrated regional development. For sound and stable cooperation, the first step should be the change of attitude, the positive attitude being that each riparian state has the right to equitable share of the Nile water. The Zero sum-game perception of one nation’s gain another nation’s loss should be replaced by mutual benefit and cooperative spirit.
The next article will focus on “the Legal History of the Nile and its Impact on Equitable Utilization of the Nile Waters”
Note: my Masters/LL.M/ thesis was conducted under the title “the Prospect for Equitable Utilization of the Nile Waters”. This gives me an intimacy to the Nile issue, whatsoever.