Disputes over the Nile amidst Challenging Times for Egypt

By Mohamed El Mokhtar

From the great lakes of East Africa to the majestic highlands of Ethiopia passing through the fertile valleys of Nubia to Egypt’s delta, the Nile River crosses many countries and diverse landscapes. Unparalleled in its length, the mighty river, a crucible of ancient civilizations, continues its endless journey, having meandered in solitude throughout the glorious semi-arid lands of Egypt, to slowly deliver its precious load to its final destination: The Mediterranean Sea. Mystic symbol of pride and glory, the Nile has also been a source of fear and anxiety, hence the feelings of passion its discussion often generates. Once called the gift of the Nile by the historian Herodotus, Egypt is particularly dependent on it for its vital water supply and livelihood. Its vulnerability to the vagaries of upstream countries explains somehow its bouts of anger and sporadic nervousness. The current dispute with Ethiopia is an example of such emotional unease.

In fact, the ongoing crisis between the two countries is due to a multiplicity of factors. But it’s first and foremost the result of failed government policies and lack of strategic vision on the part of politically unaccountable leaderships.

Neither side is absolutely wrong or entirely right.  Each has valid points. Egypt is right in worrying about the potential consequences the construction of high dams, and diversion of the water’s course by an upstream country such as Ethiopia, could have on its already insufficient portion of the river’s water. Likewise, Ethiopia cannot be blamed for wanting to develop its untapped hydraulic electric resources after decades of deadly war and disastrous famines. But there is no denying the current stalemate could have been easily avoided had the two countries been governed by the right political leaders at the right time.

After having been a great pioneer of African independence and cultural renaissance during Nasser’s reign, Egypt started to look inward with the advent of Sadat. This blunder of enormous consequences was compounded during the leadership of the recently ousted president Hosni Mubarak.  Not only did his regime wholly disregard its strategic relationship with neighboring Sudan, it has also progressively forsook its historic, diplomatic and cultural ties with Sub-Saharan Africa altogether. All that mattered for Mubarak’s regime was its new strategic alliance with the US and its northern appendage (its relationship with Israel) notwithstanding the geostrategic importance of its southern African flank. Everything else not pertaining to this axis was deemed secondary, even if that meant jeopardizing Egypt’s vital future national interests.

Not only did Mubarak’s regime plot overtly for many years against the Muslim Brotherhood-backed military junta of President Bashir in Sudan, it also nearly cut diplomatic ties with Meles Zenawi’s government in Ethiopia after the failed assassination attempt against President Mubarak in Addis Ababa in 1995–an assassination attempt for which Ethiopia was not, by any means, directly responsible. The country is now reaping the bitter fruits of years of political negligence, economic mismanagement and lack of strategic planning on the part of its previous leaders.

Egypt could and should have foreseen this day a long time ago.  The legal agreements the country invokes today aren’t eternal covenants in which absolute rights are carved in stone. They were signed at a time when most upstream African countries were under European colonial control. Sooner or later they would have become obsolete anyway. Therefore, an over-reliance on those conventions, in particular the 1959 agreement guaranteeing Egypt and Sudan their respective shares of 55 and 18 billion cubic meters, was a political miscalculation.  No country can realistically rely on international treaties alone to safeguard its national security and long term geo-strategic interests.

As a water-stressed country, Israel, for instance, has been universally recognized as a world leader in irrigation technology and water management even though a sizable amount of the resource is believed to be drawn from Palestinian underground water or illegally diverted from an occupied territory like the Golan Heights; and thus its technological prowess remains morally clouded by its questionable behavior. But as Uri Shamir from the Institute of Technology puts it “Israel is the world’s leading country in efficient water use in agriculture {…} using the drip irrigation technology.”

Instead of betting on the negligible hard currency brought in occasionally by Israeli tourists in resorts like Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt could have used its diplomatic ties with Israel to learn from the latter’s proven technical expertise and scientific breakthroughs in the field of water management. Moreover, to offset the consequences resulting from a potential water shortage in the future, Egypt can resort, in addition to strengthening its relations with its Southern African neighbors, to a variety of innovative institutional as well as technological solutions such as:

• Effective grassroots participation in rural areas in particular, in policy framing, project management and implementation plans
• Development of drip irrigation
• Partial use of water desalination utilizing Egypt’s vast potential in natural gas
• Reclaiming of waste water

Egypt’s failure to adopt the successes of its northern neighbor is symptomatic of its greatest fiasco: its inability to properly exploit its considerable human capital.  A major hallmark of Egypt’s economic underdevelopment is its uncontrolled population growth.  A massive exodus from rural areas and uncontrolled population are just two examples of significant, unaddressed problems. As M. Khalifa and others contend:

“Egypt’s population still grows each year by approximately 1.5 million people or the equivalent of the population of a country the size of Kuwait. United Nations projections indicate that the population will grow from 62.3 million in 1995 to 95.6 million by 2026 and will reach 114.8 million before it stabilizes in the year 2065–an increase of approximately 84.4 percent over the current total. This increase will occur for two reasons: fertility rates are still high in many parts of Egypt, and momentum will cause the population to continue to increase even after fertility rates reach replacement level.”

In fact a population growth not matched with an economic growth and development remains a major liability. It may even have catastrophic implications for a country like Egypt already poor in natural resources.

However, Ethiopia is not blameless either. Meles Zenawi, the late Ethiopian president, wasn’t bothered in the least by Mubarak’s disregard for Egypt’s African neighbors.  Zenawi had his own grudges toward the Arab world and was certainly not lagging behind when it comes to condescension and confrontational temper. His repeated statements about the Blue Nile’s projects denoted a lack of political acumen and an utter disdain with regard to basic diplomatic etiquette. His avowed intent to go ahead with his grand economic schemes without much consultation only further provoked Egypt’s leadership.

The real issue is not so much the Ethiopian Grand Renaissance Dam (GERD) itself to which Ethiopia is, in theory at least, legally entitled but how it would be utilized in the near and long term future, in particular  the pace at which it would  fill up with water. There lies the real problem. Egypt cannot wage a successful war against Ethiopia, let alone invade it militarily for an existential problem that has to be absolutely solved diplomatically. For this reason it would be very clumsy to even brandish the military option as a possible solution or viable alternative. Indeed not only will a military strike not stop Ethiopia from following through with its grand projects but it will certainly earn it the solidarity of the international community.

Military action on the part of Egypt will not only alienate powerful Western powers, it will no doubt complicate relationships with countries such as India and China whose support is crucial in finding a reasonable settlement to the current impasse.  Furthermore an unprovoked attack on Ethiopia will above all be a permanent national rallying point for its political leadership and further strengthen its position.

Unfortunately this stalemate, like many other disasters that have befallen the Middle East, is the direct result of Arab political shortsightedness and overall impotence. Had it not been for the apathy of the former Egyptian regime, the disastrous division of Sudan in two hostile entities and the metamorphosis of Somalia into a basket case, Egypt would not have been as ill-equipped as it is today in confronting this crisis.

One particularly potent legacy of the Mubarak government is the self-imposed isolation of the country from its southern African flank. A relationship with the countries to the south would be a major geopolitical asset without which Egypt remains lacking in the geo-strategic depth it so desperately needs today in order to circumvent or efficiently manage these emerging problems.

Relationships between states are seldom ruled by compassion or generosity. Cynicism and opportunism are the norms in international relations instead of the exception. Just as Turkey waited until Iraq was on its knees to start the completion of the Ataturk high dam and the diversion of the Euphrates’ water, Ethiopia could not have chosen a more propitious moment than now when Egypt is entangled in political instability and economic crisis.

However, in spite of all these hurdles, Egypt can still safely navigate the troubled currents of the Nile unscathed provided it takes a different course of action and adopts new strategies. Focusing heretofore on win-win approaches should be a priority. While grounding its new approach on scientific assessments within the framework of international away from the old paradigm of zero-sum game, Egypt should start by:

1. Toning down its official and semi-official militaristic rhetoric;
2. Redirecting its diplomacy toward a more concerted form of South-South cooperation, in particular African-African consultation;
3. Mobilizing the African Union institutional mechanisms of conflict prevention, management and resolution with the explicit aim of renegotiating the Entebbe Agreement;
4. Taking full advantage of the potential leverage offered by Arab donors and investors to pressure Ethiopia into constructive negotiation;
5. Enlisting the support of China, India, the EU and the US to encourage Ethiopia to come into compliance with its international commitments;
6. Lobbying other upstream riparian countries to join in the effort aimed at revising the CFA (Cooperative Framework Agreement) which replaced the outdated NBI (Nile Basin Initiative);
7. Encouraging initiatives taken by Popular Democracy and other independent entities; making them public, and taking their technical recommendations into consideration; Ethiopia in particular should, as recommended by the tripartite committee, undertake further comprehensive studies to assess the negative impacts of the dam on downstream countries;
8.Proposing economic incentives and mutually beneficial bilateral agreements to other Nile Basin countries- South Sudan, in particular, should be convinced of the necessity of limiting the volume of evaporation in the SUDD swamps through either the completion of the Jonglei canal or the construction of other, more environmentally friendly, projects.

Much of the worries over the construction of the GERD have perhaps more to do with political bluster and official paranoia than the urgency of an immediate threat. Egypt is not yet a water stressed country notwithstanding the huge gap in the availability of the resource between poor rural populations and slums dwellers on one side and the better off urban localities on the other side.

Having said that there is a real risk that the constructions of dams on the Blue Nile and, in particular, the GERD, will divert the Nile’s waters and could ultimately harm Sudan and Egypt. Ethiopia has not been very forthcoming when it comes to its ultimate intentions. Its reluctance to release technical reports and geological data pertaining to the potential environmental impact and the physical structure of the GERD raises questions about Addis Ababa’s willingness to collaborate and doubts about its overall plans.

If, as Addis Ababa claims, generation of energy is truly the ultimate goal, this could have been done, experts said [ii], with the construction of smaller dams further upstream. But if Ethiopia’s real goal is the control of the water supply to its downstream neighbors, the latter countries have every right to be anxious.

Besides, experience has proven that the construction of high dams has various downsides and does not always properly address the underlying economic problems it is initially intended to solve. The displacement of indigenous people from their native lands (e.g. the Nubians or Omo people) in and the unavoidable deterioration of the ecosystem and destruction of valuable archaeological sites are few of the many examples.

The Aswan High Dam in Egypt and the Three Gorges Dam over the Yangtze River are in this respect cases in point. Ethiopia could certainly learn from the mistakes of Egypt and China; all the more so given that these countries are willing to cooperate with Ethiopia and assist it in its endeavor to utilize its hydroelectric resources.

The Bottomline is that key to addressing these types of disputes is only diplomacy and diplomacy alone. Thus, the live airing of recent deliberations during a private meeting of public officials denotes a lack of professionalism on the part of the Egyptian government that is quite worrying. This kind of political clumsiness doesn’t augur well as to the ability of Mursi’s government to constructively utilize the tools of diplomacy in addressing complex and politically entrenched issues like this dispute over the Nile.

– Mohamed El Mokhtar Sidi Haiba is a social analyst and political commentator. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.

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1 Comment

  1. While it seems that the author brought legitimate facts, I think he is trying to justify the failure of the Brotherhood to make concessions to solve the Nile crisis.

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