(Wondwosen Michago Seide)
The Nile River is the only shared physical linkage between Egypt and Ethiopia. The thread of history has interwoven them along the channels and banks of this river. To an extent, it is from their relationship with the Nile waters that each country’s identity, cultural dispositions and, at times, religion and civilization were born and continue to flourish.
The Nile is a home of Egyptian, Nubian, and Axumite civilizations. Sadly, their common appreciation for the Nile has been marred by mutual suspicion, misperception, fear, and disagreement. A major issue is the divergent and irreconcilable mentality of each of these basin states regarding how the Nile waters ought to be shared.
The Nile River basin is unique in that its major water consumer, Egypt, is a downstream state that, hydrologically, does not contribute much water to the river. Indeed, the source of the Blue Nile, which forms over 84% of the Nile River’s flow, is located in Ethiopia. Egypt’s use of the Nile exceeds the combined usage of all other Nile basin countries and many people in upstream states view this as an unequal sharing of benefits, a perspective engraved in the minds of the upstream people.
From the perspective of Ethiopia, for example, Egypt is a country that monopolizes the Nile and prevents Ethiopia from using it. However, from the perspective of Egypt, Ethiopia is a country that obstructs the uninterrupted flow of the Nile waters. Or put another way, Egypt views Ethiopia as ‘a natural reservoir’ of the Nile waters, not ‘a user’. The ancient adage by Herodotus depicted Egypt as a ‘gift of the Nile’, Egyptians and their supporters promote this lasting image, whereas the Ethiopians have always contested it, arguing that the ‘gift’ is at their expense.
Erlich (2002) notes that the way in which Ethiopia is perceived as an ‘other’ directly changes with the way in which Egyptians perceive themselves and their entitlement to water resources. And these mindsets and perceptions regarding rights to the Nile inform Egyptian and Ethiopian bilateral relations and foreign policy beyond issues of water access.
Unsurprisingly then, the allocation of Nile waters has historically been, and continues to be, a key aspect of foreign policy for states located in the river basin. Prior to the 1960s, the only institutional mechanism available to promote intra-basin collaboration in the management of the Nile waters was the British Empire.
However, even after the emergence of various basin- or sub-basin cooperation groups in the second half of the twentieth century, Egypt pursued exclusive bilateral deals with individual states. For example, there was an alliance between Egypt and Sudan regarding Nile River issues with the signing of the 1959 bilateral agreement which excluded the other riparian counties. Following this, the Egyptians partnered with Uganda in building the Own Falls Dam Lake Victoria at the origin of the White Nile.
In addition to utilizing diplomatic channels, claims have been made that Egypt has deployed military operations to secure water rights. For example, some scholars associate theGundet in November 1875 and Gura in March 1876 wars between Ethiopia and Egypt as water related conflicts. While there is insufficient evidence to definitively label these events as water conflicts, Egypt and Ethiopia have long clashed over Ethiopia’s right to build dams on the Blue Nile.
On numerous occasions-from the twelfth-century with King Lalibela, to the fifteenth-century with Zar‘a Ya‘qob, to Haile Selassie in the 1950s, Ethiopia has threatened to use Nile waters in order to ensure a greater supply for its own needs and to check Egypt’s expanding water consumption. However, with the completion of the Aswan High Dam (AHD) in 1970, Ethiopia’s level of control over water flows in the Nile was weakened due to the fact that the dam holds a quantity of water equivalent to two years’ flow of the Nile.
This changed on April 3, 2011, when Ethiopia began construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), located on the Blue Nile. The GERD is the largest dam in Africa with a height of 145 meters, a retention capacity of 73 million cubic meters, and a generation capacity of 6,000 megawatts. The Egyptian government has vociferously challenged Ethiopia’s construction of hydro-electric projects along the Blue Nile, including the GERD, due to the perceived potential impact on Egyptian water use.
Past Egyptian presidents from Nasser to Morsi have warned Ethiopia against attempting to use the Nile waters. In the recent past, former Egyptian President Morsi warned that “Egypt’s water security cannot be violated in any way”. While former President Morsi indicated that “as head of state, I confirm to you that all options are open” and drawing on an old Egyptian song about the Nile he added, “if it diminishes by one drop then our blood is the alternative”.5Although some Egyptian officials have recognized that Ethiopia has a right to use Nile waters, officials who entertain this view are currently unable to get much traction with policymakers.
From this historical vantage point, in the Ethiopian consciousness the GERD symbolizes newfound hope that counters many years of Egyptian monopoly over the Nile. Ethiopian leaders believe that the GERD will usher in a new era of equitable utilization wherein Ethiopia will assert its right to use the Nile and use it as a tool for socio-economic development. Many Ethiopians see the GERD as a counterbalance to the AHD. Put another way, in constructing the GERD, Ethiopia is contesting and challenging Egypt’s hydro-hegemonic position and aims to put a halt to Egypt’s monopoly over the Nile.
The discourse regarding the construction of the AHD half a century ago and the GERD now reflects not merely disparate views on water allocation, but more particularly a clash of divergent hydro-mentalities. Hence, the risk that these conceptions and misconceptions of the GERD may lead to water conflict are likely to be much higher than the impact of the actual construction of the dam.
In other words, it is not the presence of dams on the ground, but the presence of fear and suspicions, which are complicating the Ethio-Egyptian relations. It can be argued that the mentalities which impact, and at times determine, the policies and positions of states when it comes to the use of the Nile waters have to be given serious attention among policymakers and in academic debate.
In conclusion, the Nile conflict is not solely tied to the Nile waters but also to the conflicting narratives behind it. Misperception, myths, parochial sentiments, and unsubstantiated claims and counter-claims continue to overshadow concrete scientific findings and the reality that regional/shared approaches result in greater benefits for all basin states. Until these divergent hydro-mentalities are bridged, there will be no end to tension surrounding the Nile waters. These divergent conceptions threaten sustainable utilization of the Nile waters and result in no winners but only losers.
1/ Block, et.al (2007:4). Integrated Management of the Blue Nile Basin in Ethiopia: Hydropower and Irrigation Modeling. IFPRI Discussion Paper 00700. Washington, USA.
2/ Erlikh, Hagai. 2002. The Cross and the River: Ethiopia, Egypt and the Nile. Lynne Rienner Publishers. London, United Kingdom.
3/Conniff, et.al (2012:10-12). Nile water and agriculture: Past, present and future, 5-29p. In the Nile River Basin: Water, Agriculture, Governance and Livelihoods, edited by Seleshi et.al. (2012). International Water Management Institute. Routledge.
4/ Wondeimenhe, Tilahun. 1997. Egypt’s Imperial Aspiration over Lake Tana and the Abbay. United Printers Ltd. Addis Ababa.
5/Egypt ‘war’ talk raises Ethiopia Nile dam stakes, Accessed on 15, June 2013.
* The author Wondwosen Michago Seide is currently a Water Resources Consultant at Intergovernmental Authority on Development, IGAD. He was Louwes Water Scholar, reading MSc in Water Science, Policy and Management, Oxford University. He used to work as a Researcher in the Nile Basin Discourse Forum, NBDF, Ethiopia Office. He also worked as a Water Consultant for the Stockholm International Water Institute, SIWI, to evaluate ‘The Nile Basin Trust Fund, NBTF’ of the Nile Basin Initiative, NBI. The author can be contacted at: [email protected]
* Originally published on Global Water Forum, on Feb. 16, 2015.