By Demissie Ferdissa
East Africa is exclusively the source of the Nile River, where Ethiopia takes the lion’s share by contributing about 86 percent of water. The Blue Nile, Baro-Akobo and Tekeze are among the major basins that originate from Ethiopia and feed to the Nile. I was born and grew up in a village near to one of the big tributaries of the Blue Nile River in Western Ethiopia. The people in the area have had a long
time history of relationships with the river. This piece is an attempt to reveal what this river is or means to the local community in Ethiopia in view of the highly but unduly politicized, in fact, militarized cases of the Nile River between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan in the contemporary times.
The Nile River is a gift to many of the people of the East and North Africa. Indeed, it is the source of life for many, and the home of different civilizations in the region. This same river, if fairly and reasonably utilized, is an opportunity to bridge together peoples and states within its catchment. On the account of the Nile River, peoples (and also states) within the Nile catchment are in common fate in peace and development regards. Thus, the Nile could be taken as the common hope for the people in the basin.
Contrary to these facts, relations of governments on the Nile River has for long been characterized by mutual ignorance. However, recently, especially after the commencement of the construction of the Ethiopian Great Renaissance Dam, relations among states in the catchment area have turned to conflict, especially between Ethiopia and the lower stream countries, namely Egypt and Sudan. The political and military temperature of the river rises up with the growth of the dam, and as of now, the river has come to be highly politicized, of course, militarized, to the level unknown, hitherto. So far, hope for peace is not insight over the river. Egypt and Sudan are engaged in military show up circumscribing Ethiopia in all directions. Ethiopia has preferred to lurk than bark, only to respond where and when necessary. It is Ethiopia’s silence that seems to delay the outbreak of the war. This sphere of silence from the Ethiopian side could be taken as an opportunity for the international community to intervene and deter the possibility of war between these countries over the Nile River.
However, the worst thing is that the international community including the ‘big’ and the ‘responsible’ states and institutions seem to have engaged in negative contributions to the challenges of relations over the Nile. It is unclear, and difficult to imagine why the world opts to complicate the matter while opportunities are there to settle it. In this context and standoff, I’m interested to reveal what this river means to the local community, particularly from the Ethiopia’s side.
Local injustice and Global shame
Coming to the point, primarily, water is meant for life – drinking, cooking, washing, irrigation, transportation and fishing. With the advancement of development and industrialization processes water has come to serve other purposes like to generate hydro electric power. Likewise, the Nile River along with its tributaries is expected to serve same purpose for people to whom it is accessible. However, in the village I tried to introduce above, the people benefit almost none of these. Rather, they are the victims of the river all the seasons. In the rainy seasons, the river gets swamped beyond the capacity of the local people to control. Every year in the rainy season, the river over floods its course and causes loss of human
and animal life, and also damages properties. Equally miserable, the flood causes landslides to the level of damaging harvests and the residence of the community. It is common for some family in the village to loss the whole farming and then fall a prey to famine as a result. Consequently, it invites the world to label Ethiopia as the land of famine, which in turn meshes the country in the politics of food aid. As such, the Nile, at least the tributary I am familiar with, has been the source of fears and tears to the
community in the village. And these all happen in conditions where the people have no options to shift residence and livelihood, except migrating to the Arab world to face modern slavery.
Nor the river does justice to the people in the dry seasons. There are no nearby water sources to the community other than this tributary of the Nile. Consequently, the community is dependent on the river for any of their water needs including for drinking. But in the dry seasons the water recedes and is not easily accessible to the community. It sinks down to the deep gorge and the people face difficulty to accessing the water from the river which costs health and time, and sometimes life. In search for alternative they attempt to dig hole for water in a very traditional way and consume untreated water with all its health costs in a condition where there is no clinic around.
Such a thing as electric power is uncommon in the area. Perhaps only a few in the village know it in name. For cooking and light purposes the people are exclusively dependent on firewood and animals’ dung. The smokes out of these materials once again leave the people in the village in tears, especially the mothers who are responsible to supply food for the family. Understandably, the task of gathering these materials for the energy needs is another challenge for the community in the area. Moreover, more and more consumption of firewood for energy expedites deforestation in the area, which in turn exacerbates the expansion of desert and flooding.
In fact, to suffer lack of potable water and electricity seem to be the fate of life for most Ethiopians including cities and towns. Even in the zonal town I live now, the water and electric supply is not regular, and sometimes absent for ten and more continuous days. As such, most of the Ethiopian people suffer lack of water and electricity in the 21st century. Surprisingly, I delayed by about five days to complete the writing of this article due to power shortage.
In the case of transportation, the river disconnects the community in the different sides of the basin both in the rainy and dry seasons, due to the floods and inaccessibility of the gorge, respectively. As such, the river disturbs the economic and social networks of the community in the area.
Similarly, there have never been irrigation and fishing activities in the area at all. One thing to admit is only a few family plant vegetables (cabbage and tomato) on some space around the river intermittently between seasons. Yet, with no or very little economic contribution as it is limited in space and time.
By now there is a population explosion in Ethiopia exceeding 110 million, and this is in poverty conditions, where there are the rampancy of unemployment, scarcity of water, shortage of electricity and other facilities in the country. There is no hope for this country to overcome these challenges unless it uses its natural and human resources wisely and efficiently. Rivers are among the potential resources in Ethiopia to be used for development of the country.
Many have hoped the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (upon completion) would alleviate the multifaceted challenges of the community in Ethiopia including energy needs. However, irrespective of such a high pressed people’s need and agony on the ground, the Nile River has now come to be highly militarized. The economic aspect of the river has long shifted to take political dimension, and now is developing to a full scale military operation. Failure to use the river for economic purposes in a fair way
and based on mutual understanding has brought about the politicization of the water. Upon the failure of the political solutions, as it manifests now, the military approach seem to have been opted. Yet, it remains a puzzle if the military option could be a solution to the problem, or if that could offer a better opportunity of development for peoples and countries in the region, especially the local community in Ethiopia who are now in between life and death.
Remarks and Concerns
My interest here is not to delve into the analysis of the challenges of the military options to address the disagreements over the Nile River. Nor is it to delve into the analysis of the connection between local reality and regional politics in relation to the Nile River. Rather the aim is an attempt to draw the attention of the international community to the agony of the local community in Ethiopia because of the Nile River, and more so due to the conflict over the river. Indeed, the local community’s challenges should be part of, in fact, one of the top priorities, in the negotiation process over the river as it seems ignored so far. Nature put these people to live here, not somewhere else. There is no reason why these people shouldn’t share the benefit but only suffer the adverse effects of the river. It is a moral and legal duty to protect the local community from being perished by hunger, floods, water – borne diseases and other associated problems in relation to the river. It is also a natural right for the local people to share
benefits that the river could offer. And this is possible when and if all the concerned bodies come to their mind, and also when and if the water serves its natural purposes rather than to play political and military games.
In closing, I would like to make two points. Firstly, there has to be an end to make ecstasy out of the local community’s agony in Ethiopia in relations to the Nile River. Secondly, it is the duty and responsibility of all governments and organizations across the World to help to demilitarize the Nile, and reorient the matter to economic purposes. And it is only then that people of the region could benefit out of it. Otherwise, war over the Nile River never adds a drop of water to the river but only bloods and tears. But blood and tears are poisons and poisons are dangerous for life, in fact, for the environment in general including the river itself.
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