The Nile River is African and Ethiopia is its hub

25 mins read

July 2, 2013
Part one of five
By Aklog Birara, PhD

aklog_birara“?????? ???????? ??? ???? (????) ??????? ????? ????? ???? ???????? ????? ??? ???? ?? ?????? ??? ????? ??? ?????? ??? ??? ????? ???? ????? ????? ???? ???? ?? ??? ???? ??? ????? ???? ?????? ????? ????? ???? ???”
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“Watercourse States shall in their respective territories utilize an international watercourse in an equitable and reasonable manner. In particular, an international watercourse shall be used and developed by watercourse States with a view to attaining optimal and sustainable utilization thereof and benefits there from, taking into account the interests of the watercourse States concerned, consistent with adequate protection of the watercourse.”
Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses, UN General Assembly resolution 49/52 of December 1994
Blue Nile
At the height of the Arab Spring in 2011, Al-Jazeera requested that I write commentaries on Ethiopian perceptions of the largely youth led and socially motivated revolution that was turning dictatorial societies upside down. I felt strongly then as I do now that beyond Ethiopian fascinations with popular revolutions in the Maghreb and especially in Egypt—whose ultimate outcomes are still uncertain–there are monumental and risk-prone strategic economic, existential and diplomatic dimensions with far reaching implications at play. Behind the respective societies and actors are external vested interested that wish to influence outcomes, namely, who wins and who loses in the process. As the sometimes violent demonstrations at Tahrir Square suggest, Egyptian society is torn apart into different directions. The military, the only Egyptian institution that remains intact and trusted by most Egyptians, has given the elected government and the opposition to resolve their quarrels. The contrast is that, such public demonstrations in search of justice, human dignity, genuine participation and democracy are disallowed in Addis Ababa. Ironically, both Egypt and Ethiopia are America’s friends; with Egypt’s current government leadership under President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood under heavy scrutiny in the West and in Israel. No one really knows where Egypt is heading.

More than 1,400 miles upstream in Ethiopia, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) that dominates the ethnic-coalition government of the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) public dissent, expression of outrage for indignities, ethnic cleansing, forced displacement of indigenous people from their lands, nepotism, favoritism, administrative mismanagement, corruption and other forms of bad governance are virtually institutionalized and condoned by the governing party that has ruled the country for 22 years and intends to continue for more. President Barack Obama of the USA visited Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania and talked a lot about youth, the private sector, democracy, American investment, environmental sustainability and the like. He did not say much about repression, human rights violations, corruption, ethnic cleansing, the quarrel between Egypt and Ethiopia on the Nile or any hot issue that may anger dictatorships. However, the visit underscores America’s growing interest in the future of the African continent. This interest is more than commercial. It is strategic and long-term pivoted. Whatever has happened in the past, the Nile River and its future development and use are part of the American calculation. In the old days—under Haile Selassie and the Military Junta—any move on the part of Ethiopia to build a monumental dam on the Abay River would have been scuttled by the US either directly or indirectly. Things have changed dramatically. Although the degree of friendship may be different, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, South Sudan and Uganda—among the key upstream riparian countries—are America’s emerging strategic friends.
In light of the dynamic changes in international relations and given material changes in the political economies of Sub-Saharan African countries, the future role of the Nile River and its major tributaries require deeper analysis and understanding, with a special focus on the adversarial relations of Ethiopia and Egypt. These are the two most significant countries in the Region with enormous potential to shape the future. These adversarial relationships have always revolved around one natural resource, namely, control of the Nile River, to which Ethiopia’s waters contribute slightly more than 85 percent. Historically, Egypt has managed to manipulate one super power against another–the Soviet Union against the US. It built the High Aswan Dam by persuading the USSR to finance it; and then switched sides and became America’s ally under Anwar Sadat. Ethiopia squandered its friendship with the US during the Dergue and the TPLF/EPRDF emerged as the lead beneficiary. In the process, Ethiopia lost Eritrea and its access to the sea. It is ironic that a ruling party that secured financing and diplomatic support from Egypt and other Arab countries as well as the US and that turned over Assab and other seaports to Eritrea is now determined to assert Ethiopia’s right over the Nile waters. Who would America support this time and why?
The key point here is that Ethiopia has benefitted the least from this enormous natural resource; but has an unquestionable right to do so in the future. Ethiopia’s future security and the prosperity of its growing population will depend on its readiness and capacity to harness its natural resources, especially its rivers and farmlands for the benefit of its people. Given increased demand for food and water, growing population, urbanization and industrialization, experts agree that water will be among the most critical sources of conflict in the future.
The above quotes from Emperor Haile Selassie and the UN General Assembly indicate that Ethiopia and other Sub-Saharan African countries with stake in the Nile are on the right side of history and the world community knows and understands this. Article 5 (2) of the UN Watercourses Convention provides a legal basis or framework for equitable use of watercourses by riparian states. It further suggests that in the event of conflict, nations had an obligation to settle their dispute through the auspices of the International Court of Justice. The point of contention is that the principle of equitable use of watercourses embedded in the UN Convention conflicts directly with the Egyptian and Sudanese position of “historic rights.” These rights were conveyed to the two countries at the exclusion of and immense costs to Sub-Saharan African nations—the origins and rightful claimants of the waters of the Nile. This externally imposed Hegemony over the Nile was facilitated and supported by Great Britain, a world colonial power at the time. In essence, international law, agreements and norms disregarded the interests of Sub-Saharan African countries (SSA); never anticipated that these countries would grow and demand fair and equitable treatment at some point in the future.
An ancient feud
Setting aside the diplomatic haze that surrounds the issue, the growing tension over the development of the Abay River goes beyond ethnic, religious and political tensions and rivalry in Ethiopia. It is about national interest and security and future generations of Ethiopians. It is about long-term food security, employment generation, rapid modernization and prosperity. Egypt and Ethiopia have been rivals and adversaries since time immemorial. In light of this, the current tension between the two was both predictable and inevitable. This is because the agreements reached were patently one sided and unfair not only for Ethiopia; but also for other Black African countries. In the article, “The Nile Project: a hidden bomb? Or, a promise for shared prosperity,” I opined that Egyptian hegemony over the Nile was no longer viable or acceptable or defendable. I further suggested that Ethiopian opponents of the current ruling clique in Addis Ababa ought to be careful and should refrain from confusing a government leadership that is brutal, divisive and that will inevitably change and Ethiopia’s long-term national interests that should endure and support generations to come. People will not remain oppressed forever as Egyptians are showing us. Claim over and optimal use of the Abay and other rivers and tributaries is, in my estimation, a fundamental right of the Ethiopian people regardless of who governs the state. This is why I suggest that harnessing any river within Ethiopia’s boundaries for the benefit of the country and its 94 million people is beyond politics, religion and ideology. In some respects, it is about national survival and sovereignty. I believe that the Ethiopia people will ultimately prevail from two hurdles: the dictatorship hurdle and the hurdle imposed by colonial powers on Ethiopia’s right to use its watercourse to advance its development. Both are winnable over time.
The entire article written on the Nile for Al-Jazeera two years ago– translated into Arabic and disseminated throughout North Africa and the Middle East– is represented below; albeit with substantial elaboration. Its original content is intact. I am told that reaction from readers was “measured and civil.”
In light of recent developments and the accelerated construction of the “Renaissance Dam” and the vitriolic reaction from the Egyptian government and civil society, I will dig deeper into the socioeconomic, diplomatic and geo-political implications for all riparian states and especially for Ethiopia and Egypt. What do these countries want?
1. Ensure drinking water security for their people; “no water; no life” argument
2. Harness their waters, irrigate their lands and feed themselves; food security argument
3. Develop hydroelectric power and provide reliable, cheap and renewable energy for their societies; and export and generate foreign exchange ; the sustainable energy argument
4. Establish agriculture based and other industries; the industrialization argument
5. Promote tourism; the eco-tourism type of argument
6. Reduce water loss from evaporation; protect the environment and secure sustainability long-term; avert or reduce climate change argument
7. Expand fish farms; the food diversification argument
8. Improve water transport; the infrastructure argument
9. Generate employment; improve the standard of living argument etc. etc.
In short, Egypt and Ethiopia have similar needs and requirements. If we assume parity and fair play, Egypt and Sudan can no longer dictate the terms of future use whether individually or together. In the event Egypt continues to insist that its “historical rights” must prevail over fair and equitable use, “Ethiopia will then have few options but to go to the International Court of Justice for a peaceful resolution; use its power of legitimacy as a major source of waters and assert its claim its water shares” with backing and support from all the upriver states which happen to be “Black African” nations that were harmed in the past; or let Egypt take punitive other actions against Ethiopia, the last a defeatist option. Ethiopia is most likely to resort to the first two options. In either or both cases, Egypt’s and Sudan’s contentious and outdated “historic rights” arguments as a foundation of negotiation in the 21st century will not hold. These options assume that the international community, especially the US and other major powers support the African “equitable use” argument over the Egyptian “historical rights” argument. My estimation is that the US would ultimately opt for a win-win solution.
Unfortunately, Egyptian technical experts, intellectuals, civil society, opposition groups, government leaders and the military appear to share the common view that Egypt must not give up its “historical rights” argument. The “Group of the Nile Basin (GNB),” composed of an assortment of Professors from technical faculties, notably Engineering, Irrigation and Hydraulics have taken matters to the next level. Their ultimate objective is to “support the effort of the Government and decision-makers” through scientific research, analytical studies, scenarios and policy options. Their studies show that Ethiopia’s four large dam projects including the Renaissance Dam pose threats to Egypt’s security. They accuse the Ethiopian government of failing to consult in advance, to conduct “sufficient structural and hydrologic studies and environmental assessments” and to carryout world class technical analysis and design of these dams. To my knowledge and according to experts, the Egyptian and Sudanese governments never consulted with the Ethiopian government on any water use project that had consequences on Ethiopia and other upstream riparian states. Agreements in 1929 and 1959 took place without Ethiopian participation. The Aswan High Dam was constructed without any consultation. No outside power or group of experts challenged the Egyptian government concerning the size of evaporation emanating from the Dam etc. Egypt and Sudan constructed their dams unilaterally. For example, I there was no opportunity for third parties to come up with technical studies and designs to construct dams in upstream countries. The GNB concluded, “Reduction in the water share of Egypt will result in abandoning huge areas of agricultural lands and scattering millions of families. It would result in in increasing the pollution of the water streams and creating problems in the supply of water for drinking and industry. 3/
This technical analysis which does not offer the prospect of a win-win solution was presented to the Egyptian government, opposition parties and civil society. It provided more fodder to an already tense situation between the two countries. Making matters worse, the GNB offered the following recommendations to the Egyptian government thereby undermining Ethiopia’s national interests:
“Request stopping the construction of the Dam until completion of negotiations
The minimum requirement for the Egyptian Government should be that the maximum size of the Ethiopian Dam should not exceed 14 billion cubic meter compared to the 74 billion cubic meter” designed and under construction by Ethiopia
Ethiopia to commit officially not to use the water behind the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) for agricultural purposes
Ethiopia to commit to give advance notice for future projects
The design of the GERD to be reviewed by Egyptian experts.”
These are huge and unacceptable demands by Egyptian technical experts and scholars to which there is very little current parallel or best practice. A group of experts who are partisan have effectively recommended to their own government how the Ethiopian government and Ethiopian society ought to behave with regard to the water resources Ethiopia owns. Their central thesis is that the “major threat” to Egypt is the “result of the magnified (large) size of the dam.” Contrary to my thesis in this essay, the experts feel strongly that “It is not a secret that throughout history, Egypt has never been an obstacle preventing the development in the African countries in general and the countries of the Nile Basin in particular.” It is not true that “Egypt has always been supporting the projects of common benefits to the people of the Nile Dam” except with respect to Sudan. The Imperial regime tried all it could to secure expertise and financing from major donors including the World Bank to construct major dams after a major study was conducted by the American Bureau of Reclamation. It failed because of resistance from Egypt and its allies. The United States was reluctant to support Ethiopia’s ambitions; as were most Western governments at the time. 4/
The national security and strategy meeting called and chaired by President Morsi on June 3, 2013 surfaced the dark side of Egyptian foreign policy which has been at play ever since anyone of my generation would remember. Has Egypt ever stopped subverting and sabotaging Ethiopian unity, sovereignty, territorial integrity and development, especially the harnessing of its water resources at an optimal level? The prospect of war, “bombing the dam, arming and financing opposition groups” etc. is not new; and it is not in the interest of the Egyptian or Ethiopian people. Ethiopia did not start claiming its water resources after the Egyptian revolution that toppled Mubarak. On the contrary, “In fact, Ethiopia started work on the new dam in 2011 and had ‘been planning this and other projects on the Blue Nile’ for decades.” Ethiopia’s otherwise weak and timid parliament “unanimously ratified the Nile Basin Cooperative Agreement on June 13, 2013 and thereby annulled all treaties on the Nile signed between 1891 and 1959 which gave Egypt hegemony over the Nile.” Therefore, the recommendation offered by the Egyptian academics and experts is incongruent with a rising and assertive Sub-Saharan Africa of which Ethiopia is a part. 5/
Whatever one may want to say about the political gridlock, incompetence of government officials and turmoil in the country, the consistency and harmony of Egyptian academic and expert view on the GERD is nothing less than impressive. It shows that Egyptian nationalism is still strong and enduring. This is in contrast to Ethiopian academics, individual intellectuals, political elites and opposition parties who do not seem to show a unity of purpose on compelling national policy issues such as building the GERD. Egyptians are doing both. They are fighting an increasingly non-secular and undemocratic government; while showing solidarity on the future of the Nile. Dr. Mamdouh Hamza, “one of Egypt’s leading hydraulic engineers” who studied the blueprint of the GERDG shares many of the central policy options of the GNB and recommends that:
a) “Ethiopia’s Dam must be used for electric power generation and never for irrigation
b) The price of electricity sold to Egypt and Sudan should be at cost,” thereby nullifying the value added and the market itself. Ethiopia does not dictate at what price Egypt should sell its gas and oil and its cotton and textiles; the latter is a result of the Nile.
c) Filling the waters of the Dam’s reservoir should be staggered over 6 years to reduce disruption to Egypt’s supply and
d) The operation of the hydro plant should be coordinated with Egypt,” thereby undermining Ethiopia’s sovereignty and diminishing its power. 6/
In comparison to the draconian recommendations of the GNB that simply give modern languages to colonial scripts, Hamza comes across as mild and reasonable, for example, on the question of staggering the fill of the reservoir. However, his fundamental prescriptions have more in common with his compatriots. They all undermine the entire intent of the GERD and Ethiopia’s sovereign right to harness its waters without undue influence and pressure from Egypt or other third parties. What they are telling us is that nothing has changed for thousands of years and nothing should change for another thousand years. A Washington Post article by Griff Wifle on June 13, 2013, “Egypt frets and fumes over Ethiopia’s Nile Plan” says it all. “Since long before the Pyramids towered above the rich soil of the Giza, Egyptians have given thanks to the muddy waters of the Nile,” and have been assured that nothing will change its constant flow. Successive governments have known that their primary responsibility is to defend this sacred water—the source of life—by any means necessary.
In a nutshell, this is the Egyptian position. If you are an Egyptian, you have a solemn duty to yourself and to your country to defend the status quo. However, unlike 1929, 1959 and the rest of the 20th century, maintaining the status quo is antiquated. In a rapidly changing world with new vested interests and stakeholders, and a fast changing Sub-Saharan Africa, the status quo is no longer acceptable. The other side wishes to be heard in real terms. This will be the subject of Part two of the series.
July 2, 2013