The Nile Water Politics and Trump’s Mediation Effort Explained

By Ewnetu Ermias

There is this kid who always bullied another kid, that is weaker than him, and takes his pocket money. One day the little kid had enough of it and refused to give his pocket money to the bully. The bully is so much used to taking the little kid’s money, he got very annoyed and threatened to smash him. The bully made so much noise that everybody in the yard heard. This noise took the attention of even the strongest and biggest guy in the school yard, who never cared how the smaller kids treated each other except when it served his own interest. This biggest guy saw this as an opportunity and approached to “mediate” the smaller kids. This biggest guy took the bully to a side and made a deal with him – that he will ensure he gets the small kid’s pocket money if he does something for him. The bully agreed. The little kid naively agreed for “mediation”, but again he had no choice to decline the ‘mediation’. Unsurprisingly, the result of the “mediation” was rather an unfair instruction. The big guy instructed the little kid to give three-quarter of his pocket money to the bully and keep one quarter of it. The little kid was angry but afraid to say anything to his face. He asked for time to think. The tough guys were sure that they got their ways and said OK. Although the little kid knows what the consequences of crossing the big guy would be, he stood his ground and sent a message to the tough guys that he doesn’t accept the unfair deal. Everyone in sight of the drama was in shock – because nobody says no to the toughest guy in the yard. How will this drama unfold? Will the truth triumph or the bullies get their way as always?

In the world where money and power rules, this is a common narrative be it in school yard or in word politics. The Nile Water politics is no different. President El-Sisi of Egypt plays the bully. The toughest guy in the yard is obviously Trump and his America. The naive small kid is Ethiopia. Trump wants someone, from the Arab world, to sell his much-despised Middle East Peace Plan to the world – especially to the Arabs. No one is well suited for this than Egypt. The sacrificial lamb here is Ethiopia and its Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam – the hydro dam Ethiopia is building scraping all its meagre resources to light up homes of millions of its citizens who live in darkness. The Trump administration, just last week, drafted a one-sided agreement in the name of mediation and ORDERED Ethiopia to sign it. Only Egypt signed it. Even Sudan, who always sided with Egypt didn’t like the so-called agreement and refused to sign it. The Trump Administration and Egypt are not happy. Egypt is also rallying its powerful Arab allies to put pressure on Ethiopia. Will Ethiopia succumb to the giants’ pressure and end up signing the unfair agreement? Can Ethiopia afford to bruise Trump’s ego? Can Ethiopia bow to Egypt’s powerful and resourceful propaganda and put its case to the world? Would the world get to know the real truth? Time will tell.

What does Egypt want? It wants to keep the full Nile water flow to itself – as it did for millennia by quoting colonial treaties. It wants to keep the status-quo- that no riparian country uses the Nile. This document from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs will give you some background reading https://www.swp-berlin.org/…/nile-conflict-compensation-ra…/

Long time ago when the world was ruled by Britain, and had all its cotton farms in Egypt, it ensured that almost all the flow of the Nile be set part for Egypt. It was called the 1929 Anglo-Egyptian Nile Treaty – notice the name. As far as Egypt is concerned, it still applies although many of the new African countries were not signatory. Even Ethiopia, the only independent African state then, from where 85% of the Blue Nile originates wasn’t included in the treaty. When the Sudan, one of the riparian countries, got independence from colonial Britain in the 50s, it challenged the status-quo. Immediately, Egypt overthrew the then Sudanese government and installed a puppet. The second Nile Water Treaty (Egypt-Sudan treaty) was subsequently signed with the puppet ensuring the lion share of the water for Egypt and the remaining for Sudan. Again, the other countries – especially Ethiopia from where the lion share of the Nile originates is not included. A good summary for background reading is here (https://www.brookings.edu/…/the-limits-of-the-new-nile-agr…/.

Many in the West think of Ethiopia as a dry place with no water resources to feed its starving population. The fact of the matter is that 85% of the volume of the longest river in the world – the Nile – comes from Ethiopia. For that matter, the country is known by Geographers as “the water tower of Africa”. You may ask, “Why doesn’t Ethiopia use this ample resource to irrigate its land and produce enough food then?”. The truth is, it is not allowed. As crazy as it may sound, yes, Ethiopia is directly and indirectly pressured to bow to the above two “treaties” which it is not even signatory to. Besides war threat from Egypt, any attempt by Ethiopia to borrow from international financial institution to develop its water resources has never been successful because of the powerful Egyptian lobby. No international financial institution wanted to lend money to poor Ethiopia. So the country’s population starved and died of thirst in spite of the huge water resources.

In early 2000, Ethiopia and other eight riparian states from which the Nile flows setup a Nile Basin Initiative (NBI – https://www.nilebasin.org/) to negotiate with Egypt and Sudan a treaty that includes every trans-boundary nation. The EU and many European nations invested in it and encouraged everyone to come to win-win situation. However, Egypt and Sudan refused to be part of it and wanted status-quo to continue.

Fast forward to 2011. After years of waiting, Ethiopia got fed up and started to build a hydro dam (GERD) – for the first time without asking permission from Egypt. 65% of Ethiopian population doesn’t have access to electricity and GERD is solely for power generation. At first Egypt ridiculed Ethiopia. The world laughed at Ethiopia saying it can never pull off such a massive project. The five billion euro dam was self-financed as international institutions bowed to Egypt’s pressure not to finance it. Everyone in the country, from a street vendor to shoe-shiner chipped in. Although late, the dam started to take shape and is now 70% complete. Egypt panicked, and reverted to the usual threat. Negotiation has been going on for years, lately led by the US administration. However, deadlock ensued. Egypt insists that its “historical right” – the so-called Nile Treaties that gave it all 100% of the Nile water share and excluded Ethiopia and other riparian countries be recognized in any future agreement. It is not actually the GERD dam filling time, it is mainly this key point that remained a major sticking point.

The Way Forward

Egypt has to come face to face with reality. Treaties that gave Egypt 100% share and put in place by Colonial Britain, to which the current African nations were NOT signatory, can never be accepted in this day and age. Threatening to wage war is no solution. There is a slim chance that it will succeed in sabotaging the dam. Even if it succeeds, the consequences are far-fetched. It will make an enemy of over 250 million East Africans who are watching.

Egypt should also invest in alternative water resources such as desalination. It should be realistic and stop squandering it’s resources by going for fancy projects such as building brand new capital city in the desert that require more water, nuclear power plants and multi-billion defense system including warships.

Both Ethiopia and Egypt should seek for a win-win solution. Ethiopia should understand Egypt’s needs and vice-versa. More importantly, all riparian countries should be investing in protecting the environment. Climate change is threatening the countries where the Nile water originates. We have seen many rivers drying up. Nations should seek long-term solutions and not squabble over short-term gains.

It is also in America’s and the entire world’s long-term interest to be an honest and reliable mediator. Long-term peace between such big nations benefits the world. If there is no fair deal, or if status-quo is maintained by force, it will always be challenged. It is just a matter of time.

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