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Tensions over the Nile: Egypt, Ethiopia and the United States – Dr. Mahlakeng Khosi Mahlakeng

March 6, 2020


Tensions over the Nile: Egypt, Ethiopia and the United States –

by Dr. Mahlakeng Khosi Mahlakeng

National University of Lesotho

Volume 8 (2020), Number 4 (March 2020)

The Nile is one of Africa’s most complex cross-border river basins, given the volatility and proximity of the basin. As a result, three distinctive but related challenges are visible. These challenges include rapid population growth, environmental degradation, unequal distribution and insecurity. These challenges combined have affected the management, sustainability and use of the basin.

The purpose of hydro-infrastructure development is to address growing socioeconomic demands and provide water security against increasing hydrological variability. Also, these developments protect communities from power shortages, the impacts of unpredictable climate change, floods and droughts through adequate water storage. This has been the central thinking behind the construction of the Aswan dam in Egypt, and Merowe and Kajbar dam projects in Sudan. Why then is it a contentious issue when Burundi, Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia intend to develop hydro-infrastructures for the same purpose? The fear by Egypt and Sudan that these developments pose a threat to their water security can only be allayed by the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) which proposes a win-win situation. However, they reject this notion in favour of the current zero-sum scenario.And looking back at Egypt’s attitude towards Ethiopia in 1977, 1978, 1979, 1991, 2009 respectively it has never shown any signs of a country that is at any point willing to negotiate equitable use of the waters of the Nile. The fact that hydro-infrastructure developments have been limited to Egypt and Sudan has caused hydropolitics over the regions’ most precious resource and has caused a daunting reality of water scarcity in the Nile basin.

The idea of hydropolitics and water scarcity are inextricably related to one another, and are a reality in many, and if not all, transboundary river basins. Hydropolitics refers to the politics of water. Disputes and tensions revolving around water, especially shared and/or transboundary water resources, are a result of scarcity confronting water. This scarcity can be measured through and is a result of three causal factors. Firstly, population growth is a primary cause of scarcity because essentially the availability of water resources per person/state will diminish with the increasing number of people that have to share it.

Secondly, degradation or depletion (i.e. through land degradation or climate change) of water resources is another cause of scarcity in that it decreases the overall available amount of a limited natural resource, therefore decreasing the amount available to each individual or state. And thirdly, is the unequal access to and/or distribution of shared water resources. For Trump, Pompeo or a country that has no historical or contemporary experience with the nature and politics of transboundary hydropolitics, this notion of hydropolitics and scarcity in transboundary river basins is complex.

Water utilisation (i.e. equitable access to and/or distribution of water resources) in transboundary river basins has always been a contentious issue. In the face of alarming degradation and depletion, rapid population growth and climate change, the issues of water utilisation is a matter of need and urgency.

The issue of the Nile is made to look complex. However, it is rather simple, sensitive and urgent. First, addressing the politics of the Nile water is simple because it evolves around one issue which is “equitable water use”. And second, it is sensitive and urgent because all countries along the Nile, especially upstream riparian countries (i.e. Burundi, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, South Sudan and the DRC) which are structurally denied access to and use of the Nile, are confronted with rapid population growth, growing scarcity as a result of climate change and an urgent need for water for industrial, agricultural and domestic use. Egypt, Sudan and the US understand and know this.

The Nile holds an average flow of 84 billion cubic metres per year (BCM/yr). However, only Egypt and Sudan have benefited from this flow for almost 10 decades. On the one hand, upstream countries contribute 100% of the Nile waters but are structurally denied the right to construct irrigation or any work in the Nile (i.e. Burundi, the DRC, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda contribute 15% to the White Nile; and, Ethiopia and Eritrea contribute 85% to the Blue Nile). And on the other hand, downstream countries (i.e. Egypt and Sudan) make zero contribution to the Nile but draw 55.5 BCM/y and 18.5 BCM/yr respectively, thus leaving 10 BCM/yr for evaporation and seepage.

The idea to place downstream riparian countries’ (i.e. Egypt and Sudan) interest over the interests and water needs of upstream countries and equally maintain their long-standing hegemonic position over the Nile is the cause of the delay and subsequent worsening hydropolitics. And this kind of politics has been going on for about 90 years at the expense of upstream countries’. Moreover, what further exacerbates hydropolitics and makes a simple, sensitive and urgent issue complex is the US involvement.

The US involvement, although disguised as an observer or mediator for cooperation over the Nile, however seeks to further maintain Egypt’s 10 decades long hegemonic position over the Nile. The US relationship with Egypt and its compromising role in the Nile at the expense of genuine cooperation is not a new phenomenon. For instance, Egypt’s close relationships with a succession of major powers helped it to exert its influence over the Nile. The United Kingdom (UK) until the 1950s, the Soviet Union until the mid-1970s and, currently the United States (US), have all provided political and financial support to cement Egypt’s position in the basin, through legal treaties where possible. They have also simultaneously influenced the construction of infrastructure for power generation, storage and irrigation. The US’ actions are tantamount to conflict than cooperation. As a result, the US cannot neutrally hold an observer status.

Given Ethiopia’s history with famine, drought and a growing global climate change concerns, the US and the African Union (AU) are only acting to deny Ethiopia and all other upstream countries their basic right to water in an attempt to maintain and sustain life. Their position on the Nile can merely be viewed as an attempt to delay and refuse the completion and functioning of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in favour of Egypt’s interests. Ethiopia has pushed its demands to develop water resources simply in an effort to address growing domestic challenges.

The idea to develop the Nile River in a cooperative manner, share substantial socioeconomic benefits, and promote regional peace and security authoritatively dates back to 1999 with the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI). One question remains, where has the AU, with its necessary institutional capacity and legitimate authority on Africa’s peace and security, been since its establishment in 2002 to mediate in support of a multilateral initiative such as the long-standing NBI?

A “sink or swim” approach is the only option for Egypt given the reality of climate change, resource scarcity and population growth. Either Egypt agrees to a cooperative solution (i.e. NBI) that allows other riparian countries to utilize the Nile or face a reality of upstream countries utilising the Nile without them. Now, more than ever, the Nile should be equally accessible and distributed to more than 300 million people who rely on its waters.

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