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Egypt Has No Choice but to Cooperate with Ethiopia On The Issue of the Nile 

IDEA Editorial
Ghelawdewos Araia, PhD
June 12, 2013

The recent “classified” video on Egyptian Cabinet bluffing in seemingly sophisticated but sinister maneuver against Ethiopia should not come as a surprise. Irrespective of regime change, Egypt consistently pursued a policy that would emasculate any small-scale initiative on the use of the Nile by the riparian states, let alone the construction of a major project like the Grand Renaissance on the Ethiopian side of the Nile.

Egypt claims its so-called “historic rights” on the basis of the 1929 and 1959 treaties, apparently superimposed on Africans by the former colonial powers. Egypt must realize that the majority of the riparian states no longer accept the old treaties by which the country had been accorded 87% use of the Nile. However, this does not mean Egypt won’t continue to have rights on the use of the Nile; on the contrary, the people of Egypt will continue to enjoy the waters of the Nile in spite of the dam construction project in Ethiopia. 

In 2002, in my article entitled “Egyptian Bankrupt Diplomacy and Ethiopian Timid Lethargy,” I argued, the old “treaty must be repealed and replaced by a new treaty that underscores the interests of other riparian states without damaging the need of Egypt. However, the Egyptian government, which is pompously narcissistic seems to exhibit condescending diplomatic gestures against other nations that, out of necessity, use the resources of the Nile…In many instances, Egyptian diplomats were obtrusive actors when it comes to the Nile and are frightened by the permutations that could result due to decisions made by states that do not necessarily vote in favor of Egypt. According to the Daily Nation (commentary by John Kamau, August 2002) ‘any Egyptian government, regardless of its ideological inclinations, has to safeguard two things: national unity and the unhindered supply of the Nile water’ and ‘Egypt has water agreements with upstream countries granting its historic rights. It will defend these rights at all costs…Any regional or international development that interferes, however remotely, with either of these two imperatives inevitably raises the alarm in Cairo.’”

Eleven years after I have made a note on the use of the Nile by other riparian states and on Egyptian government policy on the Nile, we are witnessing the same political clutter in an effort to cover up internal political crisis and hoodwink and distract the Egyptian people from the more pressing issues at home. What the present Egyptian leaders are unable to understand, however, is that policies are not written on stones and politically motivated policies should indeed be responsive to changing circumstances and exhibit flexibility accordingly. The world as a whole and the Nile region in particular have changed immensely in the last two decades in terms of social, demographic, and geopolitical changes. The Egyptian leaders seem to be unable to read the barometer and the hearts and minds of the riparian states and more specifically the urgent need of the Ethiopian people to meet their demands and emerge out of the vagaries of famine, poverty, and underdevelopment. Emergence entails the commitment of the people to control their destiny by first controlling their resources and effectively use them to transform their society, and one of the major natural resources that Ethiopians can utilize at their disposal are their waters. The major Ethiopian rivers that quench the needs for agriculture, fishing, sediment, and potable water, not to mention navigation for trade and transportation, to neighboring countries are the Blue Nile that flows to Sudan and Egypt; the Tekeze (Atbara) that flows to the Sudan and becomes a tributary to the Nile; the Dender, Shinta, and Baro that flow from western Ethiopia to Sudan; the Omo that flows toward Kenya and ends up in Lake Turkana (shared by Ethiopia and Kenya); the Ganale, Wabi, and Shibelli that flow from south-eastern Ethiopia to Somalia. Ethiopia indeed is blessed to be the source of life for the neighboring countries, but the latter in general and Egypt in particular must understand that Ethiopians can no longer suffer from famine while wetting the appetite of their neighbors. As the Ethiopian proverb Ya’Abay Lij Wu’ha Ťe’maw (literally, ‘the child of the Blue Nile got thirsty’) expressly demonstrates the paradox of the use of the Nile, Ethiopians at long last have realized that they can no longer get thirsty due to their inability to control the flow of the water and they have all the right to reverse the age-old rain-fed agriculture and depend rather on irrigation and hydropower that could be readily available from the Nile. 

Similarly in August 2010, I attempted to defend the right of Ethiopia in the construction of another dam in my essay entitled “Ethiopia Must Complete the Construction of the Gilgel Gibe Dam,” in which I have clearly stated that many countries around the world have built dams and an iota of clamor was not heard. In the US alone there are 75,000 dams and more than 8000 of these dams were built as recent as 2005. I have also particularly noted, “the Aswan High Dam of Egypt, commissioned by the government of Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1952 but completed in 1970 is the largest embankment dam in the world built with the help of the Soviet Union. Close to four million ton of rich alluvial soil, that mostly comes from Ethiopia, is dumped every year into the dam and this largest artificial lake in our planet generates 10 billion kilowatt hours every year.” 

Furthermore, with respect to the construction of the Gilgel Gibe Dam on the Omo River, I have argued as follows: “If all countries in the world could construct dams to satisfy social services to their respective consumers and meet the demand of internal and, in some instances, external markets, why is it all of a sudden that of Gilgel Gibe a concern for the environmentalists, anthropologists, politicians, and development-oriented agencies? Why the uproar against dam construction in Ethiopia, when in fact on the contrary the world community should have been supportive of any development initiative? If Ethiopia tries to uplift itself (irrespective of regime type), the world should congratulate it, not undermine its development program.”

The same logical analysis or inquiry I have made above should apply to current Egyptian policy on the Nile. Contrary to opposing the construction of the Grand Renaissance Dam in Ethiopia, Egypt is best advised to cooperate with Ethiopia and support the noble initiative Ethiopians have taken to tame and harness the Nile on their own turf. Moreover, Egypt is advised to invest on the construction of the dam and benefit in return rather than venture on opposing the completion of the Grand Renaissance. By cooperating with the government and people of Ethiopia, Egypt has nothing to lose but to gain. It is quite obvious that the ultimate resource of the Nile water is Ethiopia, because the Blue Nile (Black Nile as it is known in Ethiopia) contributes 80 to 90% of the water and 96% of the alluvial soil to the Nile, and the country that benefits most from ‘the gift of the Nile’, is Egypt.

Nevertheless, in order to continue enjoy the ‘gift of the Nile’, the Egyptian government must pursue a new policy of cooperation on the Nile in the context of the riparian states interests and the Ethiopian initiative to construct the dam on the Nile. If, on the contrary, Egypt pursues a policy of psychological warfare or instigates war against Ethiopia, however, it would be the ultimate loser and it is for the following reasons:

  • Regional politics in North East Africa have changed dramatically and the riparian states are awakening to use the Nile waters without limiting Egyptian water needs. These riparian states are in full accord with Ethiopia and they may eventually construct their own dams (however small) on their respective territories.

  • The Sudan is divided into two and both Sudan and South Sudan are in good terms with Ethiopia. The government of Sudan now fully supports the completion of the Grand Renaissance Dam.

  • The Somali government in Mogadishu fully cooperates with Ethiopia and understands that peace and stability in Somalia could not materialize without the help of Ethiopia.

  • Somaliland also cooperates with Ethiopia in many ways because it may have enjoyed the tacit recognition from Ethiopia.

  • Djibouti has always been in good terms with Ethiopia and could not afford to go against its own interest by supporting Egyptian current policy and by offending Ethiopia

  • Other Arab countries in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the Gulf states have vested interests in Ethiopia and as of recent they have invested in Ethiopia for their own benefit. They would rather ignore Egyptian present policy on the Nile than quarrel with Ethiopia by siding with their Arab League member country.

  • Most importantly, the Ethiopian people will not flinch in the face of any threat and they are determined to extend full support to the Ethiopian government and the engineers and construction workers on the ground, so that they could complete the construction of the Grand Renaissance Dam as scheduled in 2016.

    For all intents and purposes, the atmosphere surrounding the new dam on the Nile favors Ethiopia and Egypt has no choice but to cooperate with the land of the source of the Blue Nile. Ethiopia, on the other hand must reciprocate Egyptian [anticipated] cooperation by first and foremost guaranteeing the water needs of the Egyptian people.

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