Water wars: Battle for the Nile?

Before I get into my story here are some boring facts.

Officially named the longest river in the world and going on and on for 6670 kilometres the Nile River serves 11 African countries namely; Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, South Sudan and Egypt. It starts off as 2 separate rivers the Blue Nile and White Nile. The White Nile, which originates in Burundi, contributes 15% and the Blue Nile, which originates in Ethiopia, contributes 85% of the water to the Nile. The two converge near the capital of Sudan, Khartoum and then flow through Egypt to the Mediterranean Sea as one big gigantic Nile River.

But to get to the real story…

When I was in Addis Ababa in 2010 I attended a public meeting where issues concerning the Nile River were discussed. After the meeting I walked away with the impression that the Ethiopians who were at that meeting were just a bunch of self-pitying bitter individuals who envied the Egyptians because they had done wonders with a free flowing river, something that they had failed to do. I had listened to the story behind this perceived bitterness yet still I could not understand what the big deal was about, after all Egypt is the end user of the Nile and can do whatever they wish with a river that flows their way, right? Actually I was wrong.

A bit of the background…

Many years ago when the British still exercised colonial power over most parts of Africa they signed an agreement with Egypt in May 1929. The Treaty gave Egypt and Sudan rights of usage of the water on the Nile and reserved the use of all the water on the Nile during the dry season for Egypt. It also gave Egypt the right to monitor use of the water on the Nile by upstream countries including the right to veto any attempts by upstream countries to launch developmental projects on the Nile yet allowing Egypt to undertake similar projects without the consent of the upstream states. The treaty effectively meant that the Nile belonged to Egypt.

Some 30 years later, another agreement the Nile Waters Treaty, was signed between Egypt and Sudan in 1959. It gave sole rights of usage of the water on the Nile to the two countries with Sudan entitled to 18.5 and Egypt 55.5 billion cubic meters. This treaty neither consulted nor even considered that the other riparian states were equal stakeholders in the allocation of the Nile waters. The treaty also meant that no upstream country could interfere with the flow of the Nile waters by having any public works such as dams, hydroelectric power stations or using the water on the Nile for irrigation without the consent of the Egyptians. So for years the agreement stood and enabled Egypt to cultivate vast amounts of land growing sugarcane, rice and wheat (which need a whole lot of water by the way). Both Egypt and Sudan constructed dams for hydroelectric power and irrigation on the Nile.

The Nile is not only a source of water but a source of pride and a long and rich history to the Egyptians. I must admit the Egyptians have done wonders with the banks of the Nile. This is a speck of what you get on a single day of going around the Nile in Aswan in Egypt.

On the other end of the Nile, Ethiopia’s rivers contribute 85% of the water into the Nile yet its people have starved. Even today, next to the distinct characteristic of being the only African country that was never colonized and being home to a great portion of the world’s most beautiful women (in my own opinion), the famine in Ethiopia remains one of the reasons why it is distinct on the world map. Most people have seen the graphic pictures of malnourished children spread over the electronic media drawing attention to the food insecurity in that country.

The Ethiopians could not use the water on the Nile because the best way to do so was through construction of dams. To build dams they needed money. To get money they needed the approval of the International Development Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. That should have been simple enough since these institutions are supposed to be independent, right? Again, wrong! Ethiopia was told it needed the consent of the lower riparian states (i.e. Egypt and Sudan). The two downstream states resisted any interference with the flow of the Nile waters arguing that any such action by Ethiopia would violate the 1929 treaty. Some people have insinuated US interests in Egypt as a strategic partner in the war against terrorism to have been pivotal in influencing the global financial institutions from withholding the requisite funds from Ethiopia.

My understanding of international law tells me that a state cannot be bound by an agreement to which it is not a party. This means neither the 1929 nor the 1959 agreement is binding on Ethiopia and the other upper riparian states because they are not party to the agreements. The two beneficiaries, Egypt and Sudan have not entered into any other treaty concerning the sharing of the Nile waters with the other stakeholders, Ethiopia included. Although a treaty exists which calls for equitable allocation of the Nile waters, namely the Cooperative Framework Agreement Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania and Kenya have signed, DRC is expected to sign it but Sudan and Egypt have not and have expressed their intentions not to sign the Framework.

I must be clear that water is a very precious resource in Africa, more so in the region through which the Nile flows because rainfall is erratic to almost scarce in some countries. As a shared resource the Nile is important to all who stand to benefit from it. However without diminishing the role of the other 9 states involved, the Nile issue does seem to be a battle between Ethiopia and Egypt because Ethiopia has the means to reduce the Nile waters drastically and Egypt stands to be affected the most by such an action.

How, some may ask?

The controversy has been stirred because Ethiopia has begun the construction of a dam on the Nile. Named, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, it shall have a capacity of 63 Billion cubic metres. It will significantly reduce the flow of the Nile waters downstream to Egypt and although the impact of that reduction has not yet been ascertained, it is definitely not negligible.

So what is the big deal with that?

A great part of Egypt is too dry and rugged to sustain human life. Only the areas close to the Mediterranean have an average of 100-200mm a year while the rest of the country records a measly 25 -50mm of rainfall annually. The Nile represents the source of life in that barrenness, no wonder Egyptians refer to the River as ‘the Gift of the Nile.’ Seriously, coming from a country where we can record an average of 1000mm per year and 72 to 100 mm a month, I feel really privileged and can understand why Egypt needs the Nile.

The same cannot be said of Ethiopia. It has much better rainfall patterns with an annual average of 450mm. This rainfall is currently the backbone of Ethiopia’s water resource and agricultural needs and 85% of the flow into the Nile.  Droughts and climate change have made the rains erratic and unpredictable therefore forcing Ethiopia to find other options besides relying on rainfall to sustain its agriculture.

Some of you might ask why, if Egypt is the end user, they cannot use the water in the river as much as they like. Indeed life would be so much simpler if that were the case but there is a catch to it.

Its name is aquatic biodiversity.

Big word I know, I was also bamboozled when I first saw it. It refers to the composition of plants and animals in the water bodies of the world. Egypt has an obligation to protect and sustain freshwater lakes, rivers and fisheries within the Mediterranean. These can be affected by overfishing, pollution, building dams and excessive water withdrawal from the Nile. So Egypt cannot just build a giant dam on the mouth of the Nile into the Mediterranean and run the sea dry.

So remains the question, what should be done?

Past efforts at dialoguing failed to yield any results hence the tension that has been caused by the construction of the Renaissance Dam. The unyielding and non-negotiable position of the Hosni Mubarak regime contributed to the stalemate. It pushed Ethiopia to make this drastic decision. Who can blame them, I mean you have a country whose rivers contribute more than 85% of the total flow of water into the Nile, but by virtue of a bilateral agreement in which it was not party it is not entitled to utilise that water? Ethiopia has an estimated population of 85-90 million people, 80 % of whose livelihood depends solely on agriculture and 78 percent of whom struggle with an income below US$2 yet it only uses about 2 to 3 % of the water on the Nile. Within a national context I have been taught that an unjust law is no law at all and calls for civil disobedience. I am not sure what that would translate to within the realm of international law.

However, the problem does not have to be so insurmountable.

Ethiopia must negotiate a coordinated construction of the Renaissance Dam in good faith and be prepared to share the benefits of the dam with its two downstream neighbours. Having been denied access to the benefits of having the Nile within reach, so to speak, for a long time, they must however rise above these past differences. The dependence of the Egyptian identity, economy and water security on the Nile cannot be understated and I fear, if driven to desperation, they could carry through their threats to go to war.

War is however not a viable option. It will not resolve anything but only serve to worsen the tensions. What we need now is dialogue, constructive one at that. Egypt must be prepared to give up some of the privileges it has had when it was almost the sole user of the Nile. Clearly there is nothing in international law that justifies Egyptian dominance over the Nile waters especially given that the Treaty they rely on did not consult the other Riparian states. In fact all the Riparian states must cooperate with each other by joining the Comprehensive Agreement in good faith and in a spirit of partnership for all stakeholders to benefit equitably from the resource of the Nile as is required by Principle 27 of the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development. Egypt should also get rid of or reduce unsustainable patterns of consumption of the Nile waters to allow other beneficiaries to benefit from the river.

Egypt should concede that Ethiopia has rights to the water on the Nile and the construction of this dam was long overdue. Egypt must also concede to the Ethiopian argument that conservation of the water on the Nile will be higher in the Renaissance Dam in Ethiopia than it will ever be on Lake Nasser in Egypt where masses of water are lost through evaporation. Should Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia co-operate in building the dam then they all stand to benefit from it.

The international community {which has not done nearly enough to help resolve this stalemate} must now play a pivotal role. By international community I refer to the monetary institutions and developed nations who, for years, have not supported Ethiopia’s efforts to build a reasonably sized dam that could have alleviated the starvation in Ethiopia without drastically reducing the flow of water downstream to Egypt.

If I may digress and vent my frustration a little bit.

They gave the head of the household a fish instead of giving him the fishing rod. So for years we saw stories making headlines of the oh-so-charitable countries that gave food aid to Ethiopia yet Ethiopia has been crying out to have the means to produce the food it needed itself. Forgive my presumptuous nature but I thought international cooperation meant nations sticking together to create the best possible conditions for the existence of all peoples.

My point is global financial institutions should support Ethiopia’s agricultural efforts, particularly during the rainy season enabling them to utilize the rains to avert food shortages. A little bird also tells me that diligent use of technology could help alleviate the impact of climate change on Ethiopia. Apparently skillful rainfall predictions and assessments of climate patterns could help Ethiopia to be best prepared to utilize the rainfall it receives, lessening its dependency on the Nile and therefore easing the pressure on the Nile giving Egypt a better chance of receiving the amounts of water it needs.

It sounds like a story but it is real and all because of a river.

2 thoughts on “Water wars: Battle for the Nile?

  1. Thanks for the overview… I am writing a report on this subject for class… It was very informative and helpful; so much so that I was able to overlook your obligatory climate change comment :)… thanks again.

  2. A very good and balancing report!However it is best if you compare and contrast with similar international/trans boundary rivers in the world. We can get good lessons from many trans-boundary rivers in the world. Many of them has resolved keeping the win-win situation of the riparian countries. I relay appreciate if you share us the Mekong river agreements.

    We, Ethiopians are keen to maintain the integrity of all 11 riparian countries and committed to fight chronic starvation from our nation. The only solution to alleviate interdependent poverty and starvation from Ethiopia is heavily rely on the issue of ‘POWER/ENERGY’.

    Despite, the IMF, World Bank and other potential donors long years of conspiracy in Ethiopia; we now free and committed to realize the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance in few years. The dam mutually benefit all of us.

    God bless Ethiopia!!!

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