The Nile Dividend: Egypt’s Ambition of Controlling the Nile vs Ethiopia’s Determination for a Fair Share
By Desta Asgedom
The Nile is the longest river in the world stretching from the highlands of Africa to the Mediterranean Sea. It is composed of the two Niles, the White Nile whose sources are a river in Burundi and Lake Victoria in Uganda and the Blue Nile which originates from Lake Tana in Ethiopia. These two great rivers meet at Omdurman, Khartoum, the capital city of Sudan and form the bigger Nile. The different names of the Nile have their own meaning. The White Nile as its name indicates is light gray in color which does not carry much soil whereas the Blue Nile looks much darker carrying tons of alluvial fertile soil from the Ethiopian highlands. Another very important river in terms of its carrying capacity of fertile soil called Atbara whose source is also in the highlands of Ethiopia joins the Nile north of Khartoum.
Before entering the Mediterranean, the Nile forms a huge deposit of soil called the Delta, where one of the world’s greatest civilizations was born. History has it that irrigated agriculture, fishery and water transport were practiced around the Delta thousands of years ago in which case the Egyptians were and still are the ones who benefit the most out of it. History also has it that, as the result of this wonder of nature, there were cultural, technology and commercial trade exchanges among the peoples of the upper and lower stream of the Nile. That is why and according to historians this great civilization is in fact an African civilization. If this is the case, logic dictates that one would expect a strong bond that is mutual and good relationship to exist among these countries and their people. But, contrary to this argument, the relationship between the upstream countries which are endowed by nature and the down-stream countries which are beneficiaries of the Nile, particularly the relationship between Ethiopia and Egypt remained as turbulent for centuries.
Although colonialism is to be blamed for most of the miss-trust that exists between Ethiopia and Egypt over the Nile water to this day, it is only rational and perfectly so within the rules of the international law that countries in the up-stream and the down-stream alike have equal right in using the Nile in a fair and equitable manner as nature has endowed them. It is within this principle that the Nile Basin Initiative was established in 1999 by ten countries, including Egypt. The organization is guided by the countries’ shared vision “to achieve sustainable socioeconomic development through the equitable utilization of, and benefit from, the common Nile basin water resources”. It is within this very principle of the Initiative that Ethiopia is practicing its right of constructing the Grand Renaissance Dam.
Hence, as far as Ethiopians are concerned, there is no and could not be any law, be it natural or man- made which prohibits a country from using its natural resource in a fair and equitable manner unless we are still living under the shadow of colonialism. But contrary to the principles of the Nile Basin Initiative, and despite a continuous call for all the Nile basin countries by both IGAD and the AU to uphold these principles of fair share of this natural resource, Egypt continues to venture on colonial treaties of the 1929 and 1956, which only reward both Egypt and Sudan to share the Nile water among themselves in a complete disregard of the natural owners of the Nile. Therefore, Egypt and Ethiopia stand on two diametrically opposite principles, i.e. fair and equal share of the Nile as is clearly pronounced by Ethiopia on one hand and an exclusive right and control of the Nile on the other as Egyptian politicians are trying to convince the world.
In order to ensure Egypt’s hegemony over the Nile, Egyptian politicians have always opted for policies and strategies which are aimed at destabilizing Ethiopia economically and politically. Such destructive and disingenuous policies and strategies include among others, Egypt’s intervention in the wars between Ethiopia and Somalia during Siyaad Barre regime in the year, 1960, 1964, 1977 and 1978. Together with Eritrea and Libya, Egypt also played an indirect role in the creation and strengthening of the Al-Shebab, a terrorist organization in Somalia, all designed to destabilize the Horn of Africa, specifically Ethiopia. In a similar account, Egypt secretly supplied arms to the regime in Eritrea in its war of aggression against Ethiopia in 1990. In the political front and according to analysts, there is always an attempt on the part of Egypt to neutralize Ethiopia’s active role in maintaining peace and security in the continent. The very recent tri-partite talks among the governments of Egypt, South Sudan and Eritrea also fall into the category of Egypt’s neutralizing tactics of Ethiopia’s role in the region.
Egypt is also known in lobbying international financial institutions and countries not to provide loans or financial assistance for Ethiopia that could be used for development purposes. These seemingly unrelated acts reinforce the wider objective of securing Egyptian hegemony in the Red Sea and the Horn sub-region within the larger regional strategic scheme. Generally, there are well documented covert and overt actions of military, political and diplomatic in nature that Egypt has been waging to weaken Ethiopia so that Egypt remains in control of the Nile.
However, given the global economic and political dynamics, Egypt’s old policies and strategies in connection with the Nile do not seem to achieve their intended purposes for a number of very important factors.
1. The global factor: Egypt enjoined the support of the West, specifically the US for an extended period of time simply because Egypt plays an important role in the politics of the Middle East. Sources also indicate that Egypt gets a considerable financial and military support from the US on yearly basis, helping Egypt to build a huge army and relatively a strong economy in the region. Egypt’s close ties with the west also meant that Egypt has close ties with the biggest known financial institutions of the world, helping Egypt to exert its influence on these institutions as to which country in the up-stream of the Nile, specifically, Ethiopia gets and how much loan or assistance and for what purpose from these financial institutions. All these gave Egypt an upper hand on the utilization of the Nile to the extent that Egyptians felt a sense of false ownership of the Nile.
Well, with the political upheaval taking place in the Middle East, and the rise of fundamentalism in the same region, the political equation of the Middle East has changed and probably for good and so has the importance of Egypt to the west. On the other hand, Ethiopia is emerging as one of the fastest growing countries in the Africa region, with strong economic and diplomatic ties with countries at global, regional and sub-regional levels. Ethiopia’s constructive role in the Africa region is increasing from time to time with a firm stand against global and regional terrorism. All these present a formidable challenge for Egypt to pursue its diplomatic efforts in ensuring its grip of the Nile.
2. Regional factor: Intra and inter-regional economic integration is increasing in the African continent. Strong and mutual economic and diplomatic ties between and within sub-regions and individual countries in the region are emerging from time to time. For example, the formation of the Nile Basin Initiative, which oversees development of the river in a cooperative manner, share socioeconomic benefits, and promote regional peace and security are some of the determinant factors which dismiss Egypt’s unilateral decisions and long standing ambitions of controlling the Nile.
On the diplomatic front, the African Union and IGAD are becoming very effective and strong institutions in maintaining peace and security in the continent and also in encouraging sub-regional co-operations and initiatives such as the Nile Basin Initiative, earning them greater support and respect from other international institutions and countries alike. Hence, no country or institution would want to go against the interests of the region and its institutions in favor of Egypt’s diplomatic maneuvers which perpetuate colonial ambitions.
3. Sub-regional factors: Unlike previous years, countries in the East Africa sub-region are among the fastest growing economies in the world. In addition to their close cultural ties, these countries are becoming closely interconnected with each other through trade, energy power and scientific research. The power energy connections between Ethiopia and Sudan, Ethiopia and Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya are examples of economic integration of best practice and who knows there might be similar connection between Ethiopia and Egypt in the future. These countries are also playing a major role in bringing Somalia into a stable and peaceful country which shows the economic and political strength of these countries in resolving regional conflicts on their own resources. Therefore, Egypt’s direct and indirect strategy of interference in destabilizing the sub-region is being weakened from time to time with the growing economic and political ties of these countries.
4. The situation of Egypt: Another factor that works against Egypt’s conspiratorial diplomacy over the Nile is the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, which preaches terrorism throughout the world. As the citadel of the Moslem Brotherhood, a notorious terrorist organization, and given the present state of political crisis, Egypt appears to be heading into political chaos of immense proportion for a long time to come. Therefore, it is perfectly logical to infer that no country or international organization would lend itself on the side of Egypt in its recent diplomatic campaigns against the construction of Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam. Diplomatic sources also indicate that although Egypt has vigorously pursued a number of diplomatic channels to convince countries and international organizations in its bid to stop construction of Ethiopia’s Renaissance dam, it has failed in gaining a positive response from any of the countries or organizations that Egypt has approached.
Analysts also say that taking the Nile as a national security issue by Egypt which contradicts with the principles of establishment and implementation of the Nile Basin Initiative is putting Egypt in a very difficult situation in getting support in its diplomatic efforts, simply because Egypt is only a consumer and not a producer of the Nile to begin with. Furthermore, it has been explained by world experts, including Egyptians that the Renaissance dam in no way negatively affects the flow of the Nile. In fact, this dam offers a number of advantages precisely to both Egypt and Sudan in terms of reducing flood intensity and maintaining a regular flow of water throughout the year. Considering the importance of the stated advantages from the Renaissance dam and from experiences of the Tekeze dam, Sudan has given its strong support for the construction of the Renaissance dam. Hence, logic dictates that both Egypt and Sudan will equally benefit from the dam unless the motive of Cairo is different from that of Khartoum.
5. Demographic and economic factors of the Nile basin countries: Egypt needs to recognize the social, economic and political dynamics that are taking place not only in the down-stream countries but also in the up-stream riparian countries as well. Population is growing at an average of three percent annually, ecosystems are deteriorating, draught has become endemic as a result of climate change, food shortage is acute and the need for drinking water and other economic purposes is increasing. As a result, the people of these countries have no choice but to use all means they have in their disposal, including the Nile water to satisfy their basic needs as well as their long term development objectives.
In the Ethiopian context, construction of the Grand Renaissance Dam is not simply to satisfy the energy needs of the industrial sector but a matter of survival. The country’s forest has decreased from that of 40% one hundred years ago to a mere four percent at present due to rapid deforestation for energy, building and other basic needs. As a consequence, the country has long suffered from recurrent draughts of catastrophic proportion. Hazards from flooding due to heavy torrential rain and wild fire from extreme dry weather conditions are also increasing from time to time. In order to reverse this grim reality and become resilient to erratic weather and climate changes, Ethiopia has put in place a comprehensive and sound environmental policy of conservation and rehabilitation, and the use of alternative energy sources. The need for the construction of the Grand Renaissance dam therefore, falls within this broader policy objective of enhancing resiliency to shocks from climate change and ensure a system of “Green Economy".
In conclusion, for Ethiopians, the Grand Renaissance dam means a question of survival, identity and a symbol of strength, determination and hope which has galvanized Ethiopians of all ages both at home and in the Diaspora and above all, Ethiopia’s share of the Nile is a question of national sovereignty. Construction of the Renaissance dam is well underway according to plan with 33% of the work completed so far and the remaining task to be completed within the next two years as both the government and the Ethiopian are standing firm to make it happen. Therefore, if there is going to be a resumption of talks between Ethiopia and Egypt, it should be on issues beyond the Grand Renaissance dam.
Any diplomatic maneuvers, threats and disinformation waged by Egyptian politicians against the construction of the dam on the other hand will not and cannot achieve their intended objectives other than fomenting hatred and hostility between the people of the two countries. Instead, it is an opportune moment for Egyptians to come to terms and absolve themselves from a relation of miss-trust and conspiracy against Ethiopia and to realistically assess the increase in demand not only by Ethiopia but by all the up-stream countries for sharing the Nile without jeopardizing the existence of one or the other and be ready to cooperate for a shared and common prosperity. Most importantly, Egyptians must get out of the notion of “zero-sum game” in which case, Ethiopia’s strength should not be viewed as Egypt’s weakness and vice versa. And there should be a way for a win-win situation if there is readiness on the part of Egypt.
Contributor of the Article: Desta Asgedom is a graduate of Columbia University in the USA, Mathematical statistician and Economist, Senior Researcher and Development thinker, Statistics Lecturer in the City University of New York-Hunter College (1986-1991), team member of the Economic Report on Africa-United Nations-Economic Commission for Africa, 2004-2006, Founding member of Tigrai Development Association, Founding member and chairman (2008-2010) of Mekelle Institute of Technology, and Associate staff analyst in the New York City Transit Authority.
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