The Nile Waters: Transcending the Politics of Mistrust

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By Karandalo Kadami
March 12, 2013

I was motivated to share my opinion from the time I came to know about the very emotional statement made by the Saudi Deputy Defense Minister, Prince Khalid Bin Sultan, with regards to the Nile waters on which a number of sovereign states and hundreds of millions of people depend for their livelihood. The Nile water is a God given gift to all the peoples in the Nile River Basin and no one has exclusive right to prevent others from enjoying this gift of nature. It poses major security threat not only to the Arab states as Deputy Defense Minister claims but to human security of the present and future generations. It has the potential to trigger conflict, disputes, recrimination and deterioration in relations among states. Therefore, approaching Nile water issues only from narrow Arab security dimension instead of human security value with an accent on equity and participation is not only wrong but anomalous to the normal pattern of strategic partnership. When conflicts of interest on issues of this kind arises reason, goodwill and desire for maintenance of tranquility and relations based on good faith should prevail.

But, unfortunately, the provocative statement by Prince Khalid was contrary to these principles. It was highly charged with the Arab nationalists’ sentiment but fell short of diplomatic tact which has become brand of senior Saudi diplomats. The main question is, was he initiated by personal motives, or reciting Egyptian script or energized by Arab nationalist Holy Spirit.

I personally think that it does not represent the position of the wise leadership of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Because Saudi leadership knows the strong bondage of historical friendship since the time of our Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him). For instance, prominent African women, Barakah(Umm Ayman), whom our Prophet (P.b.u.h) esteemed highly as “mother after my own mother. She is the rest of my family” was Ethiopian. She was the first person to hold him in her arms when he was born and the only person who knew him from that point until his death. She was one of the few Muslims who the Prophet assured of a place in paradise. We can quote a number of verses from Holy Quran about the noble attributes of Ethiopian Christians. We also have very strategic contemporary relations with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The projection of Ethiopia as a security threat to the grand Arab national interest or Arab security by the Deputy Defense Minister is not solely because of the Nile River which is considered the only artery to the needs of Egypt and The Sudan. It also emanates from the rapidly changing geopolitics of the Horn of Africa region which enjoys strategic significance. The Horn of Africa region is composed of eight states some of which are members of Arab League like The Sudan, Djibouti and Somalia which are presumed as Arabs by the Arab nationalists while there are others like Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Eritrea and South Sudan.

The region is strategically located because of Bab-Al mandab. It is a corridor between the Red Sea, Arab Sea and Indian Ocean. It is a rout of Arab oils from Arabian Gulf and Middle East to Europe, and USA. And also the presence of international powers like the USA, Germany, France, Iran and of course Israel attracts attention of analysts and researchers.

Therefore, the main objective of this article is to take stock of the polemics and diplomatic shenanigans employed by some Arab nationalists and Egyptian leadership, to contest the validity of colonial agreements, to explain the advantage of the construction of Grand Renaissance Dam to the Sudan and Egypt as well as illustrate the imperative negotiated solution for equitable utilization of the benefits of Nile waters.

Hegemonic polemics of Arab nationalists:

According to the Sudan Tribune, Prince Khalid Bin Sultan, Saudi Deputy Defense Minister, remarked that ’Egypt is the most affected party from the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam because they have no alternative water source compared to other Nile Basin countries and the establishment of the dam 12-kms from the Sudanese boarder is for political plotting rather than for economic gain and constitutes a threat to Egyptian and Sudanese national security’. The Deputy Defense Minister was further quoted as saying ‘There are fingers messing with the water resources of Sudan and Egypt which are rooted in the mind and body of Ethiopia. They do not forsake an opportunity to harm Arabs without taking advantage of it’.

Actually Ethiopia and other Upper Nile riparian countries are used to such baseless concoction, fabrication diplomatic sabotage and even threats of war. Let us, for instance, have a look at the excerpts from the May 1, 1997 declaration of the Arab Ministers of Agriculture and Water Resources. It reads “The Arab Ministers tackled the problems caused by neighboring countries which insist on exploiting the water resources and encroaching on Arab rights, approved by international agreements as “Sacrosanct historical rights”. One hopes this was not a reference to Ethiopia or to the infamous 1929 and 1959 agreements. But the simple fact that it was declared in Cairo is enough to raise suspicion.

Egyptian leaders and nationalists have always been using the Nile as a political weapon in order to strengthen their position and to extend influence to other riparian countries. They concentrated more on “high politics” of warfare and engaged in interactions, which were narrowly calculated only from their national perspective. They also have been pursuing negative propaganda in the name of the Nile and at the cost of the upper Nile riparian countries in order to mobilize internal political support and to appease inward looking conservative Arab nationalists and defenders of the status-quo. The leadership has also been telling their own people that “Egypt is the gift of Nile” and, therefore, it is a matter of life or death. Some people but not all got used to believing that no one else has the right to get share of the Nile water, without the consent and blessing of Egypt.

Egyptian leaderships in the past had even threatened to go to war with any country that tampers with its monopoly over the Nile. For instance, Egyptian leader Anwar Al Sadat is quoted as having said “Egypt would never permit Ethiopia to exploit the waters of the Blue Nile” and appealed to the Arab countries to assume historical responsibility.

Thus Egypt has long been engaged in using its Middle Eastern role and international clout to garner support from Arab states and launched campaign to manipulate and discriminate Ethiopia.

Therefore, one can easily see that the statement made by the Saudi Deputy Defense Minister, is not as such brand new phenomena. But the Deputy Defense Minister is accepting the historical responsibility as appealed by the late Egyptian President not to allow Ethiopia to use Nile waters. The only puzzling difference is the statement is coming from a senior member of our long time strategic partner which is not even a member of Nile Basin countries. But nowadays, water resource engineers, communities in the Nile River Basin, politicians, diplomats and scientists are hoping to break that pattern. I fondly remember the Egyptian Public diplomacy delegation vividly expressing their reservation about the 1929/59 colonial agreements and recognizing Ethiopia’s right to utilize Nile waters for its development needs. The delegation further championed the idea of opening new pages in their relation with Africa in general and with Ethiopia in particular. Even if the delegations were not policy makers, it seemed that the claim of “historic rights”, at least by the Public Diplomacy delegation, had come to an end point in ideological evolution.

Indeed it is time to change this attitude and start thinking out of the box as the whole Nile basin people have equal rights to this God given gift to all. Misconceptions about Ethiopian position on Nile waters issue:-

The respected Deputy Defense Minister claims about ‘fingers messing with the water resources of Sudan and Egypt which are rooted in the mind and body of Ethiopia. They do not forsake an opportunity to harm Arabs without taking advantage of it’. Whose are those invisible ‘fingers messing’ with the Nile water resources? I don’t frankly know.

Contrary to misconception of Honorable Deputy Defense Minister, I as a national am confident that our country and its leadership have no intention of harming Egypt and Sudan or even Arab interests. Let alone Ethiopia, I don’t even think, the entire upper riparian countries have an agenda of benefiting themselves at the expense of Egypt and the Sudan.

The Egyptian Public Diplomacy delegation, that we talked about earlier, requested our late Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, to delay the ratification process as Egypt was passing through difficult times and to let experts and scientists to jointly study the adverse impacts, if any, of the Grand Renaissance Dam on Egypt. The late Prime Minister not only expressed that the two peoples are indissolubly linked by the River Nile and their destinies lie with each other but also to the surprise of the delegation, consented to questions raised by the Egyptian side. He further noted that the Nile waters should be looked at as a network that benefits all stakeholders equitably and urged the Egyptian side to show reciprocal policies and attitudes. Until today the government of Ethiopia kept the promise. Is this what the Honorable Prince meant by taking advantage? I hope not.

Unfortunately, the focus on the Nile waters from narrow national or Arab interest by fanning propaganda aimed at preserving opportunistic interest damages acquired values of the people of the Nile River basin at large. With regard to this a basket of questions come to my mind. The questions now are: What signals does the statement by prominent Saudi figure like Prince Khalid Bin Sultan, Deputy Defense Minister about Arab rights send to the black African Upper riparian countries? Do we the black Africans not have the right to life? Did the Arabs request our consent when Egypt undertook major projects such as the Aswan High Dam, the Peace Canal across Suez Canal and Toshka Canal to irrigate the western desert? How come news of construction of Grand Renaissance Dam by the government of Ethiopia at the border of the Sudan has become a source of concern to Egypt, the Sudan and to the Arabs only? In fact this kind of naming propaganda by the Arab nationalists is a blessing in disguise that has to be judiciously translated into an opportunity by evoking rally around the flag emotions by calling on our nationals to make more contribution to speed up the construction of Grand Renaissance Dam. Our African governments also must show strong signal that there is no turning back by ratifying the Cooperative Framework Agreement. But we must also be aware that the signals by the nationalists are impregnated with security implications that parallelly need our home works done both domestically and regionally. But must engage and urge Arab countries to re-orient their policies with regard to the Nile waters that often concentrate on narrow interests.

There are ample evidences that Egypt was behind the instability of Ethiopia. They might manipulate Ethiopian Muslims as a card and also will try to support Ethiopian Somali, Benshangul, Gambella and Afar rebel factions in order to weaken our diversity from within. Therefore, our government has to strategically position itself both domestically and regionally to achieve our human security through diplomacy and persuasion. After all, I am Muslim. But I identify myself, first as Ethiopian and only then as a Muslim.

Does the Renaissance Dam negatively impact on Egypt and the Sudan?

The impact of the Great Renaissance Dam project had thoroughly been studied by prominent Ethiopian as well as international experts. Previous studies have confirmed that the Great Renaissance Dam has no negative impact on the Sudan and Egypt. Further more Ethiopia has consented to the request of Egypt and the Sudan to further study the impacts, if any, and accordingly established international panel of experts to review the project.

The construction of the Great Renaissance Dam in Ethiopia will benefit both Egypt and the Sudan to a varying degree. The upstream reservoir will help the two countries:-

  • To have more water in the system, and to lessen evaporation downstream (Lakes Nubia/ Nasser as well as Merowe).
  • The river will also have better water quality, as less sediment load will reach the two countries. For the Sudan in particular, there are added benefits.
  • Flood control is one important benefit to protect human life and property: Sudan is estimated to lose between 90 million to 240 million US Dollars each year because of excessive flood.
  • Equally important is the benefit of flow regulation. This will maintain the flow throughout the year, instead of the seasonal flow during the rainy season. One implication is that Sudan will have water for one more crop season (February-June), and imagine the benefits of Gezira scheme having three instead of two crops a year!

Contestability of the colonial era agreements

Just for the sake of clarity let me point out that the disagreement between the upper and lower Nile riparian countries, among other things, emanates mainly from the 1929 and 1959 agreements signed during the colonial era. The upper riparian countries have contested the validity of these treaties and demanded their revocation to make way for an equitable framework. Further more these colonial treaties did not include the upper riparian countries and therefore, did not deal equitably with the interest of the upper riparian countries. Ethiopia, which supplies 86% of the water barely, uses three percent of the Nile waters.

Ethiopia’s position on colonial treaties

Ethiopia doesn’t recognize the agreements which were based neither on justice nor on reason. Ethiopia refutes the claim of “historic rights” as “historic wrongs”.

In a 1957 AID MEMOIRE the government of Ethiopia objected to the unilateral decision by Egypt on the use of the Nile water as follows: “Just in the case of all other natural resources on its territory Ethiopia has the right to and obligation to exploit the water resources of the Empire and has the responsibility of providing the fullest and most scientific measures for development and utilization of the same for the benefit of present and future generations of its citizens”.

Moreover, as these agreements were signed between Egypt and Britain and Egypt and Sudan, it cannot have a binding effect on a third party without its consent. Article 34 of the Vienna Convention on the law of Treaties provides that “A treaty does not create either obligations or rights for a third state without its consent”. This was, is and will remain the position of Ethiopia. Do the colonial agreements really promote the strategic interest of the Sudan?

Actually there are lots of Sudanese also feeling cheated by the colonial agreements. Prominent Sudanese scholars and water resource engineers argue that the 1959 agreement does not serve the national interest but to the contrary has negatively impacted on the strategic interest of the Sudan. Others even suggest that Egypt has exploited the Sudan’s institutional, technical weakness and political instability at the time of independence to make sure the clauses included in the Nile water agreement provide the lion’s share to Egypt.

As an example, they site the 1959 agreement, which apportioned the water share between Egypt and Sudan approximately as 78 to 22 and dispute that the ratio was neither based on justice nor on the principle of equitable utilization. Further more the scholars insist that the agreement endangers the future water security of the Sudan mainly because the agreement states that “if other riparian states claim part of the Nile water, and if negotiations lead to acceptance of this claim, then the accepted amount shall be deducted from shares of these two Republics in equal parts.” What a perfect argument and analysis. The sting of this agreement is expected to be felt more in the near future as Southern Sudan has become an independent State.

I fully concur to the opinion that the Sudan being endowed with huge fertile lands and hydropower potential can benefit more by signing the CFA agreement, which, unlike the colonial agreements, recognizes equitable utilization of benefits by taking into account specific strategic needs of each country. Adverse effects of Egypt’s opportunistic behavior on the Sudan Cooperation seen from opportunistic angle is always impregnated with political risks that could lead to confrontation and conflicts depending on the configuration of domestic politics. These tendencies may deprive the host country’s population of economic welfare benefits there by triggering potential for security dilemma as the citizens might pressure their governments and lash out against what they perceive as external influences. Therefore I believe that, as a result of Egypt’s opportunistic behavior the Sudan paid priceless sacrifice.

Let me substantiate this argument with the excerpts from prominent water resource engineer in Canada, Eng. Mustafa, in one of his articles explained that “The 1959 agreement gave Egypt the right to construct conservation projects in the southern Sudan to save the lost water at the swamps area, accordingly Egypt started the construction of the Jongli canal in 1978 to save 7 Km3 of the White Nile waters by digging a canal through the swamp region. The local people, who believe that it will drain the waters, destroy the environment, deprive them of their main economic activities and lead them to poverty, misery and death did not accept the project. The project aimed at squeezing as much water as possible from the swamp area with out benefiting or protecting the local people from the various negative impacts”….. “This event was a turning point in Sudan’s history; it was one of the main causes of the civil war, which started in 1983, and one of its early declarations was destroying the huge Jongli canal excavator. The war claimed millions of victims, destroyed hundreds of towns and villages, crippled the economy, and separated Sudan into two countries. What a big price for additional water for Egypt to implement the none-feasible irrigation schemes in the heart of the desert”.

I completely agree with the analysis and observations of the distinguished scholars. This clearly shows how negative opportunistic relations may lead to political, economic and national security dilemmas.

CFA as an amicable solution

The inequitable distribution and over exploitation of the Nile waters by the custodians (Egypt and Sudan) and the increase for the water demand due to rapid population growth, climate change, environmental degradation and development needs have triggered permanent change of attitude by the lower riparian countries to put an end to exploitative colonial agreements. Recognizing these problems, attempts had been made by Nile Basin countries to resolve disagreements, to renegotiate colonial treaties in order to pave the way for equitable use of benefits of the Nile water and even to avoid disputes. All the upper and the lower Nile riparian countries, therefore met to find lasting solution and to implement a shared vision of fostering trust and cooperation. And therefore, through the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), inclusive agreement named Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) was negotiated from the very inception with active participation of all riparian countries with the objective of establishing legal and institutional mechanism for managing, developing and utilizing the Nile waters resources equitably for all. During the negotiations over the past eleven years all have agreed that at least six countries have to sign and ratify this agreement to make it legally and internationally binding. So far, the CFA is signed by Ethiopia, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya and Burundi, while Egypt and the Sudan have rejected it based on their historical and legal rights that ignore the other riparian countries.

A way forward

History has proven that it takes a long-time and a lot of determination to reject and discard received wisdom. Accordingly, ideas like “natural and historic rights” which nationalists claim, is not only “historic wrongs” but has out-lived its time. And if it goes on being practiced it would continue to do more harm for much longer than it should. Throughout the history of humankind, there have been innumerable ideas which have been accepted as ideal and infallible, only to be to be discarded.

Therefore, the new government of Egypt and Arab nationalists should allow reason and justice to prevail, discard the archaic idea of “historical rights”, and show political will and a bond of unity with others that are equally entitled to a fair utilization of the Nile in the spirit of cooperation and respect.

Egypt has been virtually the sole user of the Nile waters and does not recognize that other people in the Nile basin share a common important life input, except in the context of a conspiracy against its livelihood and existence. Unfortunately some ultra nationalists like the Saudi Deputy Defense Minister seems to have joined this conspiracy theory with or with out ill intention. The question is, are the people in the Nile River basin, not entitled to live and exist? Do the other people in the upper stream have to suffer from poverty, drought and famine in order for the Egyptians to survive?

In conclusion, I would like to urge ultra nationalists to refrain from naming propaganda aimed at preserving their archaic and narrow interests that can not achieves “win- win” situation and rather should accept the NBI member countries shared vision “to achieve sustainable socio-economic development through the equitable utilization of, and benefit from, the common Nile Basin water resources.”

We all feel the pain and therefore, shall share the gain.

The writer can be reached at:  n_tedla@yahoo.com