Water Crisis on the Nile: Why Egypt Needs to Wake Up

The History of the Crisis,

By Matai Muon,

Officers of the Egyptian army(Photo credit: supplied)

Officers of the Egyptian army(Photo credit: supplied)

June 22, 2020(Nyamilepedia) — The ongoing diplomatic row between Egypt and Ethiopia over the Nile waters is, to a certain magnitude, the legacy of the colonial rule in Africa. In the late 20’s, Egypt was the regional giant along the Nile Valley owing to her superior technology, military might etc. comparatively speaking. It was this outstanding position that motivated the colonial power – Britain to make internationally recognized treaties with the later on the Nile. One of these treaties was the famous Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1929. This Treaty was the beginning of every problem we see today. It basically handed the control of the Nile to Egypt with a veto over the Nile. Egypt was armed with legal powers to man the Nile and would not allow any upstream state to engage in any sort of construction. Ethiopia clearly, was not represented in this deal as it was not part of the British colony. And so this deal was null and void in Ethiopian terms.

The rest of the Nile Valley was said to be represented in the Treaty but as we shall see in the following discussion, this had not been the case. In 1959, three decades after the Treaty, and three years after Sudan’s independence, a bilateral treaty had to be redrawn between Egypt and her former colony. This deal even added more to the existing injustices – Egypt got away with 55.5 billion cubic meters of the waters while Sudan took away 18.5 billion cubic meters. This bilateral agreement also retained the veto meaning any upstream activities that would touch the Nile waters were outlawed. The deal clearly neglected the remaining eight states of the Nile Valley with just 10 billion cubic meters of waters. It was this situation that forced the adoption of the 1999 Nile Basin Agreement. This would create some sense of justice on the Nile but it was short-lived and by 2010, six of the ten countries opted to sign the Cooperative Framework agreement – a more just attempt as it stressed the mutual sharing of the Nile waters. 

The Rift between Egypt and Ethiopia

Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi [right] and Ethiopian Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed [tight] (Photo credit: unknown)

Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi [right] and Ethiopian Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed [tight] (Photo credit: unknown)

In the Orwellian wisdom, all the countries along the Nile Valley are technically equal but some are more equal than others. Historically, Egypt has controlled over 90% of the Nile Waters. But here is the irony; 85% of the waters flow upstream from the Ethiopia’s Blue Nile. This somewhat arms Ethiopia with negotiating powers. The Nile could well be the longest river on earth but it is shallow and lacks adequate water to sustain an eleven countries economy. This is the reason why we are here. When Ethiopia announced the construction of one of the biggest dams in history – the Grand Renaissance Dam, Egypt felt betrayed. Her monopoly of the Nile waters has continued unchallenged for several decades.

The 1929 Treaty supplied Egypt with 48 billion cubic meters of the Nile waters – more than a half of the total waters. This made sense then because Egypt had demographic strength and economic might more than any state of the Nile Basin, Ethiopia included. However, there have been dramatic shifts in demographic and economic trajectories in Ethiopia over the last 20 years. World Bank and the IMF data indicate that there are 110 million people today in Ethiopia, making it the second most populous country in Africa after Nigeria’s 204 million. Egypt on the other hand is short by 10 million to Ethiopia’s. In economic measures, Ethiopia ranks as one of the fastest growing economies in the world with a gross domestic product (GDP) of 9.5% per annum and a per capita GDP of 7.7%.

These shifts are important because population pressures motivate economic measures – the construction of the dam being just one.  For example, Ethiopia’s national energy consumption stands at 4,000 megawatts per year with a per capita consumption of 65 kilo watts annually. Egypt on the other hand consumes about 1,510 in per capita terms. The global average is higher with the UK having a per capita energy consumption of 5,000. On water consumption, Ethiopia’s per capita consumption stands at 125 annually against Egypt’s 5, 00. The global average is about 1,000. This data shows that both Ethiopia and Egypt have pressing energy and water demands but the disparities between them are eye – catching. Ethiopia also has deficit problems; it has an import-export imbalance meaning it buys more than it sells.

The building of the dam could solve all of the three problems that Ethiopia is facing. It would increase Ethiopia’s energy standing, improve its hydro-electric power and possibly end up with a surplus which could build up Ethiopia’s foreign reserves through the sale of the surplus to her neighbors such as Sudan and South Sudan. The dam, which is said to be the biggest in history costs Ethiopia about $5 billion with about $1.8 billion loans from the famous China. The rest of the money is generated through national lottery including the so-called patriot bonds (which basically means, ordinary Ethiopians pay a monthly share to the national coffers to get the dam moving – about 12 billion Ethiopian Birr has since been raised). 

The Position of the other Nine States

The water crisis on the Nile is historical and sometimes, it brings back old memories. Countries along the Nile feel that the 1929 deal was very unfair. In fact, they deny the claim that Britain did represent them. They present that the colonial power at the time was running her self-fish economic interests, particularly the agricultural developments on the Nile. The colonies were never part of the deal and so it is their conviction that the treaty needs to be revised. Sudan is an interesting player in this dilemma. Whereas Sudan remains Egypt’s closest ally in all fronts, she supports indirectly the building of the dam because it would supply her own economy with hydro-electric power, and also reduce flooding in some parts of her geography.

South Sudan, a precarious state and a victim of history is caught between the rock and the hard place – the country is neither a party to the 1959 bilateral agreement nor does it have a clearly defined share on the Nile. If it had a clear foreign policy, it would lean toward Ethiopia because the construction of the dam would solve the problem of flooding that has been witnessed in recent years. Also, South Sudan has no standing national grid system. A successfully constructed dam would supply Juba with cheap power to run its nascent economy. On the other spectrum, Cairo has proved to be a good friend with Juba over the years, signing multiple deals in health, security and economy that raises Juba’s dying war economy. Recently, there have been allegations that Egypt deploys troops to the border town of Pagak to act as deterrence to Ethiopia’s continued construction activities. Although this has not yet been verified, it sends a bad picture in the region. Uganda, the place where the Nile starts off is watching closely and so are the rest in the club. Generally speaking, the Nile Valley community except Egypt holds the view that the Nile waters should be equally shared, a view Egypt rejects with passion.

A Potential Regional War?

In the realist school of thought, nations go to war when their strategic national interests are in a limbo. Realism is anchored on the assumption that outside the state, anarchy rules and that states exist in a self-help environment. It assumes that human behaviors within the international realm are self-fish, and that power politics drive nations to dominate and get their ambitions through with little or no regard for others. Realism explains Egypt’s continued activities on the Nile. If 85% of the Nile waters come from Ethiopia’s Blue Nile, why would Ethiopia not make use of the same water? Despite the clear changes in demographic setting of the Nile Valley, Egypt still holds onto an old colonial deal signed more than 90 years ago. Judging from the current rhetoric, the region could well be heading for a dangerous war in decades.

In recent months, comments from both sides indicate that war, rather than diplomacy is the most preferred choice. In response to Egypt’s threat of bombing the dam should it continue, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said, “No force can stop Ethiopia from building a dam.” And that “If there is a need to go to war, we could get a millions readied.” This kind of rhetoric was stressed by his Deputy Army Chief recently according to the New York Times, saying, “Egyptians and the rest of the world know too well how we conduct war whenever it comes.” These comments educate us that unless Egypt changes its way of monopolizing the Nile, the region could find itself in war. It is important to note that a war between Egypt and Ethiopia is a war across the Nile Valley. There is no doubt about that and history is rich here – the global commons attract regional and even international confrontations. If these regional powers go to war, the smaller states such as South Sudan could choose sides, creating volcanic lava in the process.

The mediation by the US looks hopeless as Ethiopia accuses the US of biasness. And Ethiopia could be right. The United States has been notorious with matters like this as we can see between the Israeli and Palestinian conflict and more recently, Syria. Some critics charge that where US exists, conflict goes up. At the end of the day, regional issues of this degree need a regional solution and outsiders can only play a complementary role.

International Diplomacy on the Global Commons

International law on the so-called “commons” is problematic. The UN Watercourses Convention requires every country that shares an international drainage basin to participate in its use, development and protection. But there is a grey area. The convention leaves it up to individual countries to negotiate what they see as equitable and reasonable. Additionally, the International Court of Justice, the only legal remedy of international flesh on this matter faces challenges from the inherent weakness of the United Nations as found in the Charter. Most recently, the court ruled in favor of the six states (Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Brunei, and Malaysia) against the powerful China. The ruling has since remained on paper as China strongly rejected it. Kenya and Somalia are currently in The Hague to have their maritime dispute resolved there but prospects are slim. The ongoing row between Ethiopia and Egypt is not unique- it could as well end in the same toothless court.

Way Forward

Water wars have defined conflicts of global nature in the past six decades or so. Disparate, but successful, examples of turning adversaries into improbable partners include: the Indus River Treaty between India and Pakistan, which has survived three wars, and the Senegal River Treaty where four countries share joint ownership of water related infrastructure. Likewise, analysts and experts suggest that the most formidable solution to the Nile waters crisis is to come up with an equitable sharing matrix. They also suggest that countries should not politicize the Nile waters but rather they need to entrust experts to discuss and recommend policy interventions.

As countries head toward 2030, the UN’s climate change department reported that water wars will most likely define the next decade. By 2030, the demographic setting of the Nile Valley will have changed dramatically, affecting how countries respond to the water needs. Projections have it that both the political and ecological situation in the Nile basin is becoming more precarious. And that the Nile Basin is more likely to have water scarcity by 2050. Despite all this, a mutually agreed upon cooperative framework agreement would make the difference. But for now, we can just wait and see how this evolves. Egypt, in particular, can change the course of this matter.

Matai Muon reads International Studies at the Institute of Diplomacy and International Studies, University of Nairobi. He has recently won the World Bank’s Blog4Dev Competition, an international essay competition on global development agenda. Muon is also an award-winning Western Union Scholar as well as a Fellow at the Young African Leaders’ Initiative. He is reachable here at mataimuon@yahoo.com.


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