The League must grow up and push for an equitable agreement of Nile waters
Aklog Birara (Dr)
At the conclusion of its summit in Doha, Qatar, June 15, the Arab League came out swinging like colonial masters did not so long ago throughout Africa. An “outgrowth” of intense Arab nationalism during the Second World War when Arab countries were dominated by colonialists, the League was founded in Cairo and controlled primarily by Egypt. Its primary role is to advance Pan-Arabism at the expense of Pan-Africanism. As far as the League is concerned, the African Union is peripheral.
This time, the target of this Pan-Arabism phenomenon is Ethiopia. The rationale behind targeting Ethiopia is the Pan-Arab determination to control the sources of water. They cannot do it against Turkey that is also another water source. Turkey, they calculate, is militarily more powerful and is a member of NATO. Turkey, an upper Riparian nation, has constructed (1980s/1990S) or is slated to construct 22 dams along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers bordering Iraq and Syria. These riparian countries in the Middle East have refrained from going to war over water. The record shows that actual war between countries over water occurred more than 4,500 years ago.
Riparian nations settle conflicts over water through bilateral and multilateral negotiations and not through wars. When they are thoughtful and strategic, they arrive at water sharing agreements based on scientific and technical data and not on political dictate. The River Nile is among the few, if not the only major Transboundary River, that still lacks such a water sharing agreement.
The time for a Nile Water sharing Agreement is now!
It is about time that the 11 Sub-Saharan and Arab countries that depend on the mighty Nile River focus singularly on an all-inclusive convention and arrive at a rationale and equitable water sharing agreement. This can be facilitated by the AU with technical assistance from UN specialized agencies and the World Bank.
An equitable water sharing agreement of the Nile River is the only way out of the current crisis and impasse. The Arab League would have made a significant contribution to peace, stability and prosperity in Africa had it pushed for cooperation rather than confrontation. Confrontation has not worked in the Middle East regarding the dams on the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers by Turkey that neighboring countries share.
Confrontation has not worked in the final settlement of the Palestinian issue either. The zero sum game that Egypt is pushing and that the Arab League supports blindly and arrogantly is a confrontational approach. It is also my considered opinion that the Pan-Arabic stand is racist. It diminishes the role of the African Union, a Pan-African organization.
There is a plethora of evidence to support this view. Egypt and Sudan frustrated and diminished the role of the African Union on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (the GERD) negotiations that should have succeeded by now. They prolonged the impasse by reverting this African matter to the USA and the World Bank. When this failed, they then escalated it to the UN Security Council that referred the matter back to the AU where it belongs. The Arab League is now recommending the same path that has failed in the past.
I contend that the AU is still the legitimate authority that must facilitate negotiations. Why the gyration?
The on and off gyration fails to lead to a win-win outcome. This is because Egypt and the ever changing Sudan, a huge beneficiary of the GERD, wish to force Ethiopia to sign a water release agreement that will foreclose Ethiopia’s’ legitimate and sovereign rights to harness its water resources in the future. This foreclosure poses an existential threat for Ethiopia. If you foreclose your sovereign rights to harness your own natural resources for the betterment of your people, it is inevitable that future generations of Ethiopians will pay a huge price. Ethiopian youth deserve a better life in their own homeland.
Diminished opportunity means that hundreds of thousands if not millions of Ethiopian youths will be forced to leave their homeland in search of income opportunities abroad. Today, hundreds of thousands of Ethiopian migrant workers in Saudi Arabia are being treated like ‘animals’ and told to go home. Thousands suffer in Saudi jails. Others are stranded in war-torn Yemen, etc.
The remedy to this cycle of massive human capital flight is to establish favorable governance in Ethiopia; and to create tens of millions of jobs. This will in turn unleash the productivity of the entire economy. Completion of the GERD will contribute to this critical path.
The Arab League fails to understand or literally ignores that Ethiopia’s waters are critical for its transformation in the same manner that petroleum proved to be the foundation for development in Saudi Arabia and the GCC countries.
Why the Arab League is wrong in its prescription?
At the conclusion of their conference in Doha, Qatar, the 17 Arab foreign ministers representing the League embraced wholesale Egypt’s misleading narrative that both Egypt and Sudan face threats from Ethiopia’s GERD. What I find galling is this. The water crisis these Arab countries face is “an integral part of Arab national security.” Imagine that! Ethiopia against the Arab world. It means that the international system is failing the entire Black Africa.
Accordingly, they suggested a “united Arab position” as espoused by Qatar’s Foreign Minister Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani. “We spoke about the negotiations regarding the Ethiopian dam in order to reach a just settlement for all the concerned parties.” What exactly is a “just settlement” that penalizes Ethiopia and rewards Egypt and Sudan?
More than 90 percent of the issues of the GERD have been resolved. The sticking point that caused the impasse in the AU sponsored negotiations is “determining a mechanism to deal with future water disputes and how the river’s waters should be allocated during droughts.”
Which country suffers most during drought years?
Studies show that Egypt has no shortage of water but a chronic lack of policy and a spirit of sharing and cooperation. Egypt stores 160 billion Cubic Meters (BCM) of surface water from the Nile water, using the High Aswan Dam (HAD), a multi-year storage scheme. Egypt has more than 150,000 BCM of reserve for drought and severe drought years.
The Ethiopian Waters Advisory Council (EWAC) a think-tank of scientists, hydrologists, economists, and security experts inform us that the High Aswan Dam is full to the brim. Experts also reveal that Egypt possesses groundwater stored in the Nubian aquifer share of Egypt. This aquifer is part of the aquifer where Libya created a huge artificial river. One estimate indicates that, if Egypt starts utilizing the first 100-meter thickness, it can produce fresh water in the order of 5250 BCM, equivalent to augmenting its current water storage at least for 250 years (assuming 20 BCM rate of extraction per year). In addition, Egypt has a coastline length of about 1800 miles offering opportunities for desalinization and augmenting future water availability.
Over the last decade, the cost of technology of desalination (both seawater and brackish water in deep undergrounds) has come significantly lower. Studies by Egyptian and foreign experts confirm that Egypt wastes excessive water through the 40,000 km of extensive open canal irrigation systems and high-water consuming crops.
Egypt produces water consuming rice, sugar cane and other products cane. It exports foods. A recent study from Cairo University indicates that as much as 40 BCM of wasted water can be saved by improving agricultural practices in Egypt. This is tiny compared to the amount of water in the second fill of the GERD.
Ethiopia does not possess similar options. In fact, Egypt supported and continues to support proxy wars against Ethiopia. One result is that Ethiopia lost its seacoast. Egypt pressured the World Bank and the African Development Bank not to lend for hydroelectric or irrigation dam projects in Ethiopia. The cumulative cost to Ethiopia is in the tens of billions of dollars in lost revenues and incomes. Ethiopia has the right to demand compensation for this massive loss.
What is the cost implication of delaying completion of the GERD?
According to a study by the Economic Team of EWAC, the potential contributions of GERD include raising the coverage of electricity to 80 percent of the population, boosting GDP by 10
percent, and annual net revenue of $13.4 billion. The implication of delay in the completion of the dam is therefore stark.
A five-year delay, for instance, may cost Ethiopia as much as $60 billion. This means Egypt is liable for its condemnable actions to the tune of at least $13 billion.
What convention if any supports Egypt’s hegemony over the Nile?
The Arab League must be wary that its moral standing in support of Egypt is colonial. Below is the reason why:
• The Egyptian Government is fond of citing the 1902 colonial border agreement between Emperor Menelik II and the British Government. This document is, however, a border delimitation agreement rather than a water allocation and use agreement. It explicitly forbids “the complete blockage of the water flow from the Blue Nile, Lake Tana, and Sobat River to the White Nile.” There is no implication in the text of the 1902 agreement that prohibits Ethiopia from utilizing its waters that honor international principles and practices. Ethiopia has adhered to the 2015 Declaration of Principles (the DOP) in the filling and operation of the GERD. Its intent is not to harm Egypt or Sudan. The DOP is signed by Egypt and Sudan.
• Egypt and Sudan signed two treaties, one in 1929 while under British colonial rule and another in 1959 after independence. In both instances, the two countries excluded Ethiopia, an independent country at the time; and the other Sub-Saharan riparian countries that were still under colonial control.
• These treaties that anointed Egypt as the dominant power over the Nile River purportedly gave Egypt veto power. Ethiopia that supplies 86 percent of the waters of the Nile had no say in the matter. This veto power enabled Egypt to punish Ethiopia concerning access to capital for dam projects. Other Sub-Saharan African riparian countries were literally ignored.
• The Arab League must understand that Ethiopia has consistently rejected the above treaties as illegal and non-binding. They have no relevance whatsoever for water-related projects in Ethiopia.
I would like to draw the attention of the Arab League to the core issue Egypt is facing.
In November 2019, The World Economic Forum wrote an analysis entitled “This is the water crisis that Egypt is facing.” It attributed Egypt’s “creeping water crisis” to two fundamental factors: “Egypt’s growing population and the impacts of climate change.” I would add to these a third factor: Egypt’s massive wastage of Nile waters discussed above.
It goes without saying that Ethiopia does not have control over any of these factors. On the other hand, Egypt can manage its wasteful use and the size of its population. It can even help mitigate the ravages of climate change by cooperating with Nile Riparian nations; by investing in the ecosystem etc. This entails cooperation. Sadly, Egypt does none of these.
In conclusion, the Arab League must understand that Egypt’s fear of the filling and completion of the GERD that is being financed entirely by the Ethiopian people is misplaced. Has Egypt ever contemplated changing its agricultural production and export policy? How reasonable is it for a country that sits on a massive desert to claim that its agricultural sector will be harmed by a hydroelectric dam that does not even reduce Nile waters measurably? What about parity and fair play?
Egypt’s primary motive is something else: to control Ethiopia’s rains and water sources.
The Arab League does not possess the moral standing to deny 117 million Ethiopians of the fundamental human right accepted by the law of nations to harness their own rivers and improve their wellbeing.
Ethiopians deserve energy security, water security and food security. I am not aware that UN conventions on transboundary rivers give the Arab League any authority to dictate terms and conditions over a river they or Egypt or Sudan do not own. Simply put, the Nile does not belong to Egypt or Sudan. It belongs to 11 riparian countries, 9 of them Sub-Saharan African.
The way out of the logger jam is not unity of purpose among Arab countries on the Nile. Rather, it is to convene an all-inclusive conference of 11 Nile River Riparian countries; and to arrive at a water agreement that is fair and equitable.
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