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The Issue of the Nile in light of international water sharing principles (Mekdelawit Messay)

Editor’s Note : Egypt claims “historical right” over Nile. In her opinion piece, Mekdelawit Messay argue that “there has been an evolution in international trans-boundary water allocation principles.”

Nile _ international water sharing principles
Tis Isat Fall – part of the Nile River

by Mekdelawit Messay
March 9, 2020

Discussions on the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance dam (GERD) has been escalating in recent weeks. Although on face value discourse from all sides seems to talk about “equitable and reasonable use” and “no Significant harm”, the underlying premise behind the arguments from different sides point to completely varying underlying principles of transboundary water sharing. So, let us break this down. 

There has been an evolution in international trans-boundary water allocation principles. Let’s start with the narrow and short-sighted ones.

1. Absolute territorial sovereignty also known as “The Harmon Doctrine” named after the Attorney General of the US in 1895, came up with this ideology when the US (an upstream state in this case) was dealing with Mexico (a downstream state) over the transboundary Rio-Grande river they share. This doctrine states that a nation can utilize the waters of a trans-boundary river flowing in its territory as it likes regardless of the consequences to other countries. One can see how this doctrine clearly favours the US as an upstream country and how irresponsible and short-sighted it is. Owing to its obvious bias and flaws even the US did not adopt this ideology in their final negotiations with Mexico.

2. Absolute territorial Integrity is the polar opposite of the above. It states that downstream countries are entitled to the full, uninterrupted natural flow of a trans-boundary river. What does this mean? It means upstream countries cannot use the water at all!! Again, clearly very short-sighted. In essence this is the principle that Egypt is following when it demands a “historic share” of 55.5 Billion Cubic Meters (BCM) of water per year. This so called “historical share” of 55.5 BCM comes at the cost of Ethiopia and the other upstream countries using none, zero, absolutely nothing of the Nile water. The number don’t lie!

The so called 1959 “agreement” allocates 55.5 BCM for Egypt plus 18.5 BCM for Sudan and 10 BCM for evaporation which equals 84 BCM. 84 BCM is the average annual flow of the Nile river! THE TOTAL Nile water flow. That is the 1959 agreement! It also gives Egypt veto power over upstream projects, which is a breach in national sovereignty of upstream nations but that is a talk for another time. Therefore, any negotiation or talk that starts with 55.5 BCM water share for Egypt has this underlying principle at heart and not equitable and reasonable use.

3. The Principle of Prior Appropriation, another archaic ideology, states that first users of transboundary waters have the right to continue using the amount of water they used to, regardless of new developments in other countries! Does this sound familiar? Yes! Egypt demands “historical rights” because they used the water first, because they are used to using it, even though population as well as demand for use upstream has increased drastically and the other countries also need to use their fair share. Again, this does not echo reasonable and equitable use, rather a very one-sided first come first serve attitude.

The modern-day water sharing principles are more moderate. We have the principle of limited territorial sovereignty which states that ALL riparian countries have the right for EQUITABLE and REASONABLE use of the shared water and the obligation to not cause SIGNIFICANT HARM. This is more sensible, which is why it is the foundation for modern day international water laws, such as the 1966 Helsinki rules, the 1997 UN watercourse convention, the Corporative Framework Agreement (CFA) signed by 6 out of the 11 Nile countries and the declaration of principles (DOP) on the GERD signed by Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia as well as many other agreements on other trans-boundary waters worldwide.

While current customary water laws are explicit in vouching for equitable and reasonable water use without causing significant harm, applying these principles in the Nile basin seems to be a very big problem! Why? The sticky point in the Nile is that we are dealing with a stakeholder who is used to enjoying the whole cookie, so ANY kind of sharing feels like injustice! The problem with the Nile is that we are dealing with a stakeholder who feels entitled to a water “share” that comes at the cost of other not using any! What kind of “sharing” is that? It does not really matter if the public rhetoric is for a fair and equitable use. As long as we are citing the 1959 “Agreement” and using 55.5 BCM as a threshold for dialogue we are not discussing equitable and reasonable use, because that “treaty” hinges on the upstream countries using absolutely none of the water as mentioned above. 0 BCM for the other 9 countries!!!!! How is this even in place? Well, the 1929 and the 1959 treaties were both signed to secure enough water for British cotton plantations in the then colonial Egypt and Sudan without regard for the future of the basin. Now we have the US in place of the British with a “new” neo-colonial agreement they are trying to shove down our throat, which Egypt is so keen to sign on. Why? What changed in 4 months after 7 years of tripartite negotiation? Well I argue that this American deal will ensure Egypt’s perceived entitlement of their water share.

Unless we consider the whole basin as a whole as an economic unit and have a basin wide collaboration to maximizing the benefits of the water for the whole basin, there is no way Egypt or Sudan can keep their current “share”. This however requires significant regional economic and political integration. But since we are still far from this economic unity, let us at least try and keep history from repeating itself. Let us have a sane and reasonable conversation.

The GERD is only a hydropower project; it is not water consumptive like irrigation. What happens when Ethiopia launches massive irrigation projects as planned? We have 1.25 million hectares of irrigable land which will contribute significantly towards food security. What happens when the other 8 upstream countries also want to use their fair share? It is inevitable! The only way forward is let go of these colonial treaties and a “me only” mentality and engage in a progressive dialogue for an inclusive basin wide water allocation agreement, which the CFA is in the process of achieving.

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  1. Fresh water is and should be a universal right much like air. If all humans are sufficiently rational even land allocation for survival should be a an universal right of every human being just by birth and not because was given to them by government s. As Ethiopian and African I would be really concerned of Egyptian lack of water for basic necessities, but they should also understand that Ethiopians are enduring the same fate they are scared if water is not available to them. The main issue here is not about this basic need for water from both people’s the main reason here is the business that have grown in Egyptt and benefits Al-Sisi an Co on heavy water usage for turning the dessert into Oasis for agricultural export at the expense of hunger cycles in Ethiopia. Let’s not forget neither those same agrocomplex interests also exist in Ethiopia with vast amont of land leased to unscrupulous investors. If we are talking about sustainable small to medium farming we would never be in this kind of confrontation. And Egyptian manipulating leaders do very well know that what they are mobilizing their citizens is not for basic needs but to maintain the status quo of their cash cow oasis agrocomplex and the domain on up river states as the dam power generation will imply a leap ahead for the Ethiopian state. Anyway their war drum will get Egypt the worst or outcomes as hurt Ethiopia could go for full usage of all tributaries. Ethiopia should also keep as a clause if there is a severe dry session to delay the filling of the dam just of the sake or ordinary Egyptians as doing good deed is our way of doing the right thing

  2. The international communities should know that denying Ethiopians water and their chance of being self reliant with food got so many unforseen negative consequences not only to Ethiopia but to the whole world since Children who grow up malnourished witnessing starvation related disasters got less stamina throughout their lifetime .

    An Ethiopian famine victim as a little child who witnessed the death loosing of her parents to the Ethiopian famine starvation in the state of Eritrea who is now an independent country , who later got adopted and moved to USA got shot and killed by two male individuals a couple of months ago, ingniteing one of the most controversial legal conflicts since the killers are not charged with murder but charged the admitting killers are only charged with gun charges since these Ethiopian lady was a former famine victim in the former Ethiopian State of Eritrea who terrorized the two males that were charged with only gun charges even if they admitted to killing the 32 years Ethiopian who was born from Eritrean family , the two men claimed they feared for their life before they shot and killed Emma Hunt so no murder charge is being filed for this 32 years old Ethiopian lady despite the Ethiopian Eritrean Community continuous outcry to charge the killers with murder the prosecutor is inclined to not charge them with murder because saying she acted threatening the two male individuals since she grew up fending for herself and her younger sister homeless in Ethiopia after her parents got killed by the famine .
    News Break › … › San Francisco
    Web results
    SF District Attorney declines to file murder charges in Tenderloin shooting of mother

    San Francisco Chronicle › article
    SF district attorney declines to file murder charges in Tenderloin shooting of …

    • To Daniel Zeru stop saying that an outcry was made by Habeshas for this lady because it didn’t happen.

      Daniel Zeru

      According to the priest at the St. George Ethiopian Orthodox Church in San Francisco , CA. and the pictures at events seen in the website links below not one Habesha showed up to voice their concerns at th Candle light vigil or many other events held for Emma Hunt including her memorial , so donot pretend the Abesha Community fought for justice trying to pressure the DA because the priest himself didn’t participate or no other Habesha participated. San Francisco Habesha got no unity , they are divided by ethnicity so.much the Other races shit on habeshas regularly and get away with it according to SF priest and other individuals I talked to.

  3. Subject: “The Issue of the Nile in light of international water sharing principles (Mekdelawit Messay)””

    Short Commentary
    I wrote a quite a few short-commentaries on the subject matter to the point that I myself gets tired of my own commentary, which seems to be a ‘broken record to my own ears!!!

    Egypt is NOT [repeat, NOT] going to accept any logical solution. It has one broken record that was manufactured with other interested entities, without a trace of considerations for the Source and PEOPLE of the NILE. Putting it rather bluntly, Egypt and its collaborates did not have an iota of care for the BLACK PEOPLE of AFRICA WHO ARE ENDOWD WITH THE SOURCE OF THE NILE. FOR THEIR NATURAL SURVIVAL. To Egypt and its collaborators, the LIFE of BLACK AFRICAN PEOPLE DOES NOT MATTER AT ALL. This is the FOUNDATION of the perpetual NEGATIVE attitude of Egypt with its collaborators against the BLACK RACE, in TOTALITY. THE END.

    • My Egyptian government does not mind building the dam and does not mind development in Ethiopia. Egypt is a water-poor country. Ethiopia’s lack of agreement with Egypt and pledges that Egypt’s share will not be less than 40 billion cubic meters annually during the period of filling the dam and droughts. Egypt also requests the presence of an international committee to uncover the integrity of the Renaissance Dam, which Ethiopia rejects. Your country is shopping for its citizens as if Egypt coveted the waters of the Nile and wanted to dominate Ethiopia. Egypt now wants Ethiopia to return to negotiations and not fill the dam before the agreement in accordance with fair international standards. Ethiopian intransigence will ignite the region. Water is a matter of life and death. Egypt is a big country and a regional power, but it is wise and will not hesitate to take any action for its water security.

  4. I like this article and like it a lot because it is well written in so elementary language so everyone can understand it. It is also well referenced. The author closes the article with what I have been saying all along. Everyone there or here is fixated with what the old country is doing now on the river. It is inevitable that the other Nile riparian countries will eventually start looking at the water just go by on by when they need to grow food to feed their growing population. That is a dead giveaway. In just 30 years from now those countries including Sudan and the old country will their population grow by more than 200% and that ain’t a chump change. The old country alone is projected to balloon to more than 250 million. Its population grows by more than double every 30 years. Pretty the same goes for all other 8 countries. It is going to be a nightmare. Wars and perpetually animosity left by such wars will not further the accord for any one of them including Egypt. Let’s hope for solution amicable to all stakeholders and all of them exercise restraints.

  5. I agree with you Itu Aba Farda the only way out for the region and for Africa as whole is more cohesion instead of division up to form a United States of Africa or some sort of union like the Europeans and use our resources wisely by each including economic and monetary union place and region specializing in what nature best gives of itself. It does not make any sense Egypt focusing on water intense irrigation trying to gain over the desert instead of focusing exploiting other sectors like specializing in industrial and maritime resources. If there is a framework at regional or African level that guaratees food security for all including Egypt by producing it in regions that have wetlands and intense precipitation there should not be a panic for guaranteeing water for basic needs for all. And moreover Africans would make better use of their immense resources instead of current situation where all the wealth is being taken outside of Africa. But for that Egypt and a lot of Africans should start looking inward and not outside. I think Egypt or at least it’s leaders should think clearly where their interest belongs. Time will make it clear for them if they do not take the right steps if keeping dancing tango with external forces like the Arab league or the crazy mad waiting for the Devine interventionrapture in the US administration


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