Nile is above all a Gift of Ethiopia

By Richard Pankhurst

The recent signing of a new Nile Basin pact to replace colonial agreements has once again triggered a debate about how the resource can be equitably shared. Professor Pankhurst, who has been familiar with the issue for a number of decades, analyses a book that attempts to locate a safe course through these treacherous, uncharted waters.

“If Egypt is a Gift of the Nile,” as the Egyptians say, “the Nile is above all a Gift of Ethiopia”. So said Gascon, a noted expert on the river.

The above wise words are quoted by Haïlou Wolde-Giorghis, a graduate of the Institute d’Etudes Politiques of Paris, sometime Legal Adviser to the Organisation of African Unity, and former Ethiopian Ambassador to France, in an important new work on the River Nile.

No less worthy of quotation is Emperor Haile Selassie’s Coronation Anniversary Speech of 2 November 1957 – which the present writers heard him deliver to the Ethiopian Parliament so many years ago. On that occasion H.I.M. declared:
“It is of a paramount importance to Ethiopia and a problem of the first order that the waters of the Nile be made to serve the life and needs both of our beloved people now living and those who will follow us in centuries to come. However generously Ethiopia may be prepared to share this God-given wealth…with friendly Nations neighbouring upon her for the wealth and welfare of their people, it is Ethiopia’s primary and sacred duty to develop the great watershed which she possesses in the interest of her own rapidly expanding population and economy”.

And, more generally: “Rivers are a gift of Nature, and should be considered the common heritage of humanity, and the right to benefit from their resources should be shared”, so said Federico Mayor, Director of UNESCO, in 1997.
Haïlou’s book, Les défis juridiques des eaux du Nil, i.e. The Legal Challenges of the Nile Waters (Bruylant; Editions Yvon Blais, 2009) is a careful and well-reasoned work, which has also been published in Amharic – and will, we hope, duly appear in English. It is a book, Dear Reader, that tells you virtually everything you want to know about the river – and indeed for some readers, perhaps more.
The book opens with a preliminary geographical, climatological and hydrological account of the Nile and of its three principal tributaries: the Blue Nile, the White Nile, and the Tekeze. This is followed by a historical survey of international law in relation to rivers.
The second part goes into geopolitics, and analyses the various international – in fact mainly colonial – treaties concerning the Nile. These date back to the Anglo-Ethiopian treaty that Menilek signed way back in 1902.
The third, perhaps most fascinating, section considers the validity of the existing Nile agreements, and inquires how far they accord with principles of equity, justice, and efficiency.

Haïlou appeals most effectively for a just and fair allocation of Nile waters, including hydro-electric power – what we might term Nile Power. One of his basic contentions is that the allocation of Nile waters is an international issue which, as such, can only be settled internationally. This is the more evident when one recalls that the Nile and its tributaries feed and/or are fed by no fewer than 10 countries: from south to north, Burundi, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, and Egypt. So large a number of states cannot be expected to solve Nile questions unilaterally or bilaterally, but only through international agreement.
It is likewise apparent from Haïlou’s analysis that Nile treaties cannot be regarded as immutable agreements carved, so to speak, in stone, and valid for eternity, but, to change metaphor, rather as temporary agreements, traced in the fast-moving sand, and designed to meet a given situation in a changing world. To impose a permanent quota of water, and dams, for eternity would deny the less developed countries the right and possibility of development and thus relegate vast populations to a life of poverty and recurrent famine.
If we compare, for example, the upstream and downstream countries we see that the all-important shift from rain-fed to irrigated agriculture began for historically downstream countries (at the time of the Pharaohs?), and has since then inexorably moved largely upstream.
This shift from rain-fed to irrigated agriculture was later reinforced by the extension of “modern” development to formerly more isolated upstream countries – among them Ethiopia.
The need for a shift to irrigated agriculture has in recent years been rendered imperative by the impact of global warming – in which large stretches of the African continent, for no fault of their own, have been subjected to chronic drought and misery.

The extent to which Nile treaties have become obsolete – and hence unjust – can be seen in the
two most important recent Nile treaties, namely those of 7 May 1929 between Britain and Egypt and 8 November 1959 between Egypt and Sudan. Both agreements were drafted at least over half a century ago, since which time little short of a major economic and demographic transformation has occurred throughout the Nile basin.
This transformation is not reflected in the treaties, by which Ethiopia, for example, contributes 86 percent of the Nile water, but uses only one percent in its dams, whereas Egypt, which supplies nothing, utilises no less than 75 percent of the Nile water.

Another important issue raised by our author is that a river basin such as that of the Nile is a geographical unity; not only because the inhabitants have to share a limited supply of water, but also because action taken in one part of the basin can vary significantly affect water availability in another part.
Take for example the question of dams: since water is a scarce resource throughout the Nile Basin – and can be expected to become increasingly so in the future – one is entitled to consider the question of wastage through evaporation, and to ask which are the best, most economic, locations for dams. Clearly, we may argue, they should be located where best to provide efficient irrigation and/or hydro-electric power rather than prestige for transient political leaders or regimes.
If water is to be allocated justly, in terms of equity, it can be so allocated only on the basis of need and efficiency.

The need for co-operation among the Nile States can be grasped, as the author shows, if one compares the Nile basin with that, for example, of the Tennessee Valley, which is (fortunately) less than one single authority. Such cooperation benefits all concerned – all of whom would suffer if the basin were politically fragmented – as is the case of the Nile today.

Turning to the difficulties of inter-statal co-operation Haïlou Wolde-Giorghis, recognises that every state, almost inevitably, has its own local preoccupations, perceptions and priorities, and often displays little willingness to cooperate with others.
A major obstacle to cooperation, which Haïlou identifies, arises from the tendency of states to operate unilaterally when they find themselves in a position of hegemony: in such case they see no advantage in dealing in terms of equality with less powerful neighbours.
Yet the basic, underlying fact is that unilateral action by the various states would mean not only a loss of wealth for all concerned, but also the danger of the complete disintegration of the community of Nile-bordering nations.

How, our author asks, can a number of different states with divergent interests be brought together to co-operate voluntarily for the common good?
That is the Big Question the book attempts to address.
Even when states with divergent interests arrive at voluntary cooperation where their interests converge, it may be necessary, he believes, to introduce an element of joint supervision, and possible sanctions. Haïlou goes into this issue in some detail. He lists many of the tasks required of a Nile Supervisory Body. They initially include standardisation of data, evaluation of resources, comprehensive river basin-wide plans, equitable water distribution systems, pollution standards, research and transfer of technology, environment protection, and procedures for conflict resolution. Once established the organisation’s paramount duty would be to prevent unilateral action by any state prejudicial to other states.
Haïlou subscribes to the maxim that the ideal may be the enemy of the good, and that there is “a need to adapt to prevalent conditions, and respond flexibly to changing circumstances”.

He also subscribes to the view that the Nile States should share a common collective right to insist that none of them utilise water resources without consulting and cooperating with the others. More controversially perhaps, he advocates that state frontiers touching upon the Nile Basin should be ignored and that the basin should be considered as an economic and geographical unity belonging to the community of Nile States as a whole.

On the basis of this concept of trans-frontier basins, he considers that they should be examined, analysed and managed cooperatively. There is a consensus in Africa as a whole, he believes, that a common approach to the Nile and its waters is needed, and hopefully will lead to the development and management of these waters for the benefit of its peoples as a whole – peoples who have for too long suffered the scourge of poverty.

Given the capacity and experience acquired by the international community in many parts of the world it should suffice, he argues, to find the political will and determination to proceed with the fair distribution of the water resources of this great international river so that the new technologies and management practices of the present century can be harnessed to apportion water resources equitably – and thus to eliminate tensions in relations between the states of the same river basin.

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