A river of convenience or an existential water resource? Facts and Myths on the Mighty Nile

By: Mekdelawit Messay Deribe (Independent scholar and researcher on Nile).

“….we often hear how the Nile is synonymous with Egypt, so much so that people forget there are other countries in the basin. There is a hasty and outdated generalization that the Nile is a matter of life for Egypt and a mere matter of development for Ethiopia and the other upper riparian countries.”

Khalil Gibran was right in saying “in one drop of water are found all the secrets of all the oceans”. Indeed, water is the source of life and in its memory holds the history of the world, “the secret of all the oceans”. Water is timeless. It does not know artificial boundaries or care for petty politics. It just flows; and in its flow it connects people who have chosen to live by it rather divided by artificial political boundaries. This is where the convoluted knot of transboundary watersstarts.

The very nature and purpose of artificial boundaries goes against the natural flow of God given waters who quietly flow following their natural courses. When political and hydraulic boundaries cross, however, these waters become subject to political debates and legal wrangling between sovereign and independent states which have different demands and endowments. A perfect example of such an instance is the case of the mighty Nile; the cradle of mankind, the womb to ancient civilizations of the world from Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt.

Nile River Formed Millions of Years Earlier Than Thought, Study ...
An old image from Tis-Esat Falls, near Tis-Abay town

The utilization and management of the Nile has always been a contentious subject. This emanates from the place the Nile holds in the lives and histories of all riparian countries, the policies and positions held by them as well as from residual colonial venoms left in place to name just a few. Many of these issues are yet to be addressed. What still holds true regardless of the issues in the Nile, however, is how the Nile is integral to the livelihoods of all people living by it, from Lake Victoria, through the Blue Nile, and all the way to the deltas in Egypt.

Regardless of the above fact, however, we often hear how the Nile is synonymous with Egypt, so much so that people forget there are other countries in the basin. There is a hasty and outdated generalization that the Nile is a matter of life for Egypt and a mere matter of development for Ethiopia and the other upper riparian countries. It is equating the river as an existential matter for one, and a matter of convenience for the other. Is that really so? Let us see.

General Principles

The 1997 UN convention on the Non-Navigational Use of International Watercourses, which entered into force in 2014, is the current globally accepted law on the management and utilization of transboundary watercourses. The 1997 UN Convention states that the principles of equitable and reasonable use along with the principle of causing no significant harm are the governing principles in the management and utilization of transboundary water courses. In addition, it also stresses that none of the uses of a transboundary watercourse is to be given priority over other uses and in the event of a conflict it shall be resolved with special regard being given to the requirements of vital human needs.

In light of the above-mentioned principles, I want to analyze the distorted portrayal of how the Nile is an existential matter only to Egypt while being a matter of convenience or development for the other riparian countries especially Ethiopia. A consequence of this narrative is the portrayal of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance dam (GERD) by Egypt and other foreign media, as a project of convenience instead of necessity for Ethiopia while presenting it as an “existential” threat to Egypt. This is a dangerous narrative as it essentially claims priority use of the Nile waters for Egypt while minimizing the relevance of the Nile for the other riparian countries, perpetrating the premise behind the colonial treaties.

Ethiopia hit by 'darkness': Addis Ababa battles with an opponent ...
The residents of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, have always suffered from power outages.

Existential demand

With less than 60% coverage of clean water availability and a mere 29% coverage of improved sanitation, Ethiopia is still a country where “vital human needs” are still far behind from being secure. So which country really has an existential need for the water of the Nile?

Egypt is a country which has nearly 100% electricity coverage in cities and 99 % coverage in rural areas as well as full food and water security for its citizens. The majority of the water used for agriculture in Egypt goes to production of water intensive cash crops such as rice, sugar cane and vegetables which are not advisable for arid areas like Egypt. On the other hand, we have Ethiopia which still does not have complete food security and less than 40 % electricity coverage when it is the water tower of Africa with more than 45,000 MW of hydropower potential. With less than 60% coverage of clean water availability and a mere 29% coverage of improved sanitation, Ethiopia is still a country where “vital human needs” are still far behind from being secure. So which country really has an existential need for the water of the Nile? The country who wants to secure water for export crop production or the country who needs the water for basic human rights of feeding its people, satisfying basic drinking water and energy needs which are at the heart of ensuring its very survival?

Alternative resources

It is also common narrative to hear that Egypt is completely dependent on the waters of the Nile with no other sources while Ethiopia is a water rich country with ample rainfall and other rivers it can utilize. But it is important to note that Egypt is one of the most ground water rich countries in the world. The Nubian sand stone aquifer which Egypt shares with Sudan, Chad and Libya had an estimated 200,000 BCM of fresh water stored in the New Valley’s Oasis aquifer only. Out of this, estimated share of Egypt is around 55,000 BCM which is about a 1000 years’ worth of their “claimed” Nile share. In addition, it is geographically situated by the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. This geographic advantage coupled with the ever-decreasing cost of desalination technology makes Egypt a water rich country compared to Ethiopia, a landlocked country with no access to the sea and with no substantial groundwater potential.

The main water resource of Ethiopia lies in its rivers which are dependent on the highly seasonal and erratic rainfall. With the effects of climate change, these seasonal rains in Ethiopia are becoming increasingly unpredictable and unreliable. Out of the estimated 123 BCM river water amount in Ethiopia, the Abbay basin (Blue Nile basin) accounts for 72% of the country’s water resource. It is also worth noting that 97% of the water resources of Ethiopia are in transboundary basins, which means much of the water leaves the country.

A humanitarian question

“…is not Ethiopia supposed to use a major resource which accounts for the lion’s share of its water resource? What is Ethiopia left with if rainfall is unpredictable and it faces the same problem it has with Abbay with its other transboundary rivers? Seriously, what is left to use then if 97% of the water of the country leaves the country?”

There is always that misguided question from Egyptian and international media which asks why Ethiopia does not use its “other” resources first before the Nile. Given the above-mentioned facts, is not Ethiopia supposed to use a major resource which accounts for the lion’s share of its water resource? What is Ethiopia left with if rainfall is unpredictable and it faces the same problem it has with Abbay with its other transboundary rivers? Seriously, what is left to use then if 97% of the water of the country leaves the country?

Ethiopia's walk over water
Women in Langano, Ethiopia, rely on the local water committee to perform maintenance checks on the well [Picture taken by, Leah Harding for Al Jazeera]

When the same question of exploring other resources like ground water reserves is posed to Egypt, however, the default answer is that these resources are being saved for the future generations. This answer would have been a legitimate, responsible and forward-looking response had it not come at the expense of the current generation of Ethiopia and the other upper riparian countries.

Egypt is saving its precious resources while denying the other nine riparian countries of their fair shares. This is a humanitarian question; Is the future generation of Egypt worth more than the current generation of Ethiopia? Doesn’t the future generation of Ethiopia also deserve to inherit a better future from the current one? If Egypt has the insight to save their precious ground water reserve for its future generation, how could they be so blind to see that Ethiopia is also doing the same by developing its resources to ensure a better future for generations ahead?

The facts

There is no denying the fact that Egypt was built as the gift of the Nile. But this fact was true then, not now, as the contribution of the Nile to the Egyptian GDP, Energy and Food Security is very low. At the same time, this does not mean that the Nile is an exclusive property of Egypt. There is no use in attempting to minimize or deny the fact that the Nile is matter of existence for Ethiopians. It is an egregious error born either out of ignorance of the facts or rebellion against the facts and it needs to change and hence this article.

Ethiopia is dependent on Nile for its basic human needs. A huge majority, 72%, of the country’s water resource is in this basin. More than 50 million people directly depend on the water. Six out of the nine regional states, where 90% of the Ethiopian population lives, also lie in the Ethiopian part of the Nile basin, directly and indirectly dependent on the basin. Utilization of this river and the basin is not a matter of choice or convenience for Ethiopia, it is a matter of existence. It is not just a right; it is a solemn duty to the current and future generations. It is out of this necessity and the need to eradicate abject poverty that the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is conceived and being implemented. That is why the GERD is equated to the survival of Ethiopia as a nation.

Looking at the water use of Egypt, however, growing water intensive crops like rice, sugarcane, cotton and vegetables in the middle of the desert for export consumption does not constitute an existential demand but rather rises to a gross mismanagement of precious resource. The irrigation system in the country is still backward and mimics the pharaonic, wasteful and inefficient system of flood irrigation. Not to mention the wastage in the form of seepage and evaporation (>13BCM) from dams and open unlined canals is significant. Demanding water from the mouth of other countries for projects such as the New valley project i.e. Thoska project to increase agricultural land in the middle of the Sahara Desert does not seem existential, but rather optional and quite honestly a reckless endeavor. What is more, diverting the Nile out of its natural course and engaging in transcontinental water transfer i.e. El Salam project ,which diverts water from the Nile (Africa) to the Sinai (Asia) through the Suez Canal, is irresponsible.

Foreclosure of future projects

Putting aside whether these projects are smartwater development choices or not, all these ventures would have been acceptable had they been implemented using the fair water share of Egypt based on reasonable and equitable arrangement. After all, as a sovereign nation, a country could do whatever it wished with its share of a transboundary water. But without such an arrangement in place any project that Egypt implements downstream by default curtails the current and future use of upstream countries. We do not need to look far for proof of this claim; just consider how the water levels at High Aswan Dam (HAD) are being tied to the functioning of the GERD. Since the 1950’s Egypt has done a lot to essentially foreclose upstream developments by creating its own fait accompli projects as demonstrated with the development of the Aswan High Dam and through the out of basin water transfers to Al Salam and Toshka projects. Any water related investment that happens anywhere in a basin without a comprehensive, fair and equitable allocation plan will by default curtails the water use by other riparian countries, which emphasizes the need for a comprehensive allocation plan in the basin.

The way forward

Transboundary water management issues are not endemic to the Nile. There are 263 transboundary basins globally where 40% of the world population lives. Conflicts and cooperation co-exist on all of these basins. The unique thing about the Nile basin is the grotesquely biased so-called “allocations treaties” which divide the water between two countries in a basin where there are eleven countries. Beyond this historical injustice, what is worse is the incredible insistence and sheer impudence by downstream Egypt to keep this extremely skewed statuesque intact despite the very obvious need of the other riparian countries to use the Nile waters and meet the needs of their rapidly increasing population.

We cannot go back in time, but we can fix historical injustices. We can move forward into the future and save the future generation from past mistakes. It is irrational, immoral and unethical, not to mention illegal to lay claims to an allocation arrangement which comes at the expense of other riparian states not using the water. The law is clear when it comes to this: Equitable and reasonable use for all riparian countries without causing significant harm. It is about time downstream riparian states come to their senses and drop their claims which constitute historical injustice and move into the 21st century ideals. Living as if Egypt is the only country whose lifeline is tied to the Nile and not the others is a gross misrepresentation of facts which serves no purpose for the collective gain of the basin.

Climate change, environmental challenges, rapid population growth and rise of water demand is the current state of all riparian countries in the basin. This common challenge requires a unified stance and holistic solution. In light of the above challenges as well as the dependency of all riparian states on the Nile, it is in the best interest of all countries, particularly the most downstream states, to work towards the cooperative management of the Nile.

For more on water scarcity in Ethiopia:

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-ethiopia-water-climate-change/faced-with-climate-change-and-growth-ethiopias-capital-shores-up-its-water-supply-idUSKBN1WP0KP

https://water.org/our-impact/ethiopia/

https://www.usaid.gov/ethiopia/water-and-sanitation

Electricity Shortages in Ethiopia:

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-ethiopia-electricity/ethiopia-starts-rationing-electricity-for-homes-and-industries-idUSKCN1SN29J

https://energypedia.info/wiki/Ethiopia_Energy_Situation

https://allafrica.com/stories/201911110534.html

Mekdelawit Messay Deribe is an independent scholar researching on the Nile. She can be reached at mekdelawitmessay@gmail.com

3 Comments

  1. Thank you so much. This is an eye opening for all stakeholders specially our negotioters.
    Thank you, you just turned the table. ♥️♥️♥️🙏

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  2. በጣም ጥሩ እይታ የአገራችንን መሠረታዊ ጥቅምን የተፈጥሮ ሀብት እንዴት መጠቀም እንዳለብን አመላካች የሆነ በማለሙያወችና በምሁራኖች በሰፊው ሊታይ የሚገባና ኢፍትሀዊ የሆነ አለምአቀፋዊ ተጽዕኖ የኢትዮጵያን ዘለቄታዊ ጥቅም ሊያይ የሚችልበትን ተጠቃሚ አገሮች በጋራ በእኩልነት በመደጋገፍ ብቻ ይህነን ቀውስ ማሰወገድ እንዳለባቸው በእጅጉ ያሳስበናል።
    እንበርታ ከዚህ ውጭ ምርጫ የለንም ዕውነትን ይዘን ፍትህን ነው አየጠየቅን ያለነው።

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  3. Egypt will eventually have to compromise and equitably share the Nile waters. It’s persistent threats of military action whenever it is asked to share the waters is no longer tenable. By 2050 Ethiopia and Uganda shall have bigger populations than Egypt. It should instead use it’s immense wealth acquired courtesy of the Nile and to the detriment of upper Nile reparain states to develop its aquifers as Libya has done.

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