By Nurye Yassin
Fear, mistrust, mutual suspicion, and alarmist discourses of ‘water wars’ have hovered over the Nile River in North Eastern Africa for centuries. Demands and threats of conflict have been made for over six hundred years, the most recent only a few short months ago. Discussions have made little progress, and recently Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, Chairperson of the African Union Commission came up with possible new approach to resolve the stalemate on the use of the waters of the Nile.
She urged the region to produce “a win-win solution in a new context…[that] of Pan-Africanism and the African Renaissance” by discarding the zero-sum game mentality of colonial powers. The surprise is that no one has come up with this suggestion before for, indeed, Pan-Africanism must be an obvious framework for helping the Nile Basin countries find mutually acceptable solutions to remedies for the use of Nile by becoming a force for integration to help quell the challenges of the region in particular as it is for Africa in general.
Some might question how the ideology of Pan-Africanism could release the showers of cooperation and integration to rain eternally in the region and end the geo-political impasse over just and equitable utilization of the waters of Nile. In the first place, the essence of Pan-Africanism is aimed to blossom “unity, solidarity, cohesion and cooperation among the people of Africa and of African states,” according to Kuruvilla Mathews, Professor of International Relations at Addis Ababa University.
Besides, the ideology of Pan-Africanism, with the support of the African Renaissance encourages Africans to discover the great works of their ancestors all across the continent. In the words of Thabo Mbeki, “the giant sculptured stones of Aksum in Ethiopia, the Egyptian sphinxes and pyramids, the Tunisian Carthage,…the Zimbabwean ruins,…the varied artistic creatures of the Nubians,…the intricate sculptures of the Makonde of Tanzania…,” and other great works encourage the understanding and development of Africa in world affairs and history on the basis of peace, stability and sustainable development of the continent.
Secondly, of course, Pan-Africanism was tested when it ignited the fire for Africans to liberate themselves and gain independence from the colonial masters in the second half of the 20th century. Today, there is no reason it cannot be an instrument to settle contentious issues in the internal affairs of African states, including the fundamental threats of climate change, population explosion, and conflict in the Nile basin.
The context of colonialism, which dubbed Africa the ‘heart of darkness’, opened the gate for the unjust and unfair agreements of 1891, 1902, 1906, 1926, 1929 and 1959 which supposedly guaranteed Egypt absolute ownership and veto power over use of the waters of Nile. These ‘agreements’ entrenched the self-serving interests of Egypt and Sudan while totally neglecting the share of upstream countries, particularly Ethiopia from whose mountains the Nile River flows to flower the water-thirsty deserts of Egypt. Egyptian leaders, politicians, think-tanks, and media have equated the issue of Egypt’s ‘historical and legal rights’ with the Ethiopian saying: “Heavens cannot be ploughed, a king cannot be tried.”
The world wept when Ethiopians were consumed by the famine caused by droughts in the 1980s ignoring the fact that any use of the waters of Abay, Tekeze, and Baro were shackled by unfair treaties that prevented their use for growing crops. The famine in Ethiopia made it clear that the ‘historical rights’ were absolutely, in the words of Sebhat Nega, executive director of EIIPD, ‘historical wrongs.’ In fact, the famine was also partly a failure of the then regime in Ethiopia but the traditional claims of Egypt certainly contributed through its efforts to prevent the use of the waters of the Nile.
Since then, Egypt has continued to insist that the situation should remain unchanged, according to Daniel Kendie, Associate Professor of History, repeating its mantra: “he who controls the Nile controls Egypt.” Former Egyptian president, Mohammed Mursi, similarly reiterated the oft-repeated phrase ‘our blood is the alternative’, following it the footsteps of his predecessors in response to the start of the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).
The context of Pan-Africanism along with the role of the African Renaissance offers an alternative, creating a conducive environment for African countries to become potential actors through regional integration and cooperation, to lift out their peoples from economic, political, and cultural marginalization with the aim of renewing Africa. They bring the concepts of integration, solidarity, and people-centered Africa into the forefront. This means that they can pave the way for discussion, cooperation and integration on how to resolve disagreements between upstream countries claiming ‘equitable and reasonable use’ on the one hand, and Egypt firmly setting out its position on its ‘inherent and existing rights’ to the use of the Nile River on the other.
Indeed, under the umbrella of African Rebirth, both the upper and lower riparian countries can work together to exploit the opportunities and minimize the threats, using modern diplomatic efforts to push the shared interest of all the development endeavors for the Nile Basin. For instance, Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA), under the shade of the Nile Basin Initiative, is a cooperative tool that drives all riparian nations to act collectively based on mutual benefit abandoning the lopsided agreements on Nile.
The region cannot shun the considerable importance of cooperation in economic, environmental, legal, and security grounds as well as the contemporary imperative to eradicate poverty for the sustainable development and stability of the peoples of the basin, according to Yacob Arsano, Associate Professor at Addis Ababa University. That is CFA can be considered as a Pan-African institution that annuls the spirit of the Berlin Conference of 1884-85 European architectural agreements and negotiations over the use of Nile.
It is very clear that now, in the 21st century, the best option for reaping the benefits of the Nile River is economic integration. In this respect, Harry Verhoeven, lecturer at Oxford University, emphasized that the Nile riparian countries must move forward an idea of regional economic partnership to help them focus on the division of labor: clean energy infrastructure in Ethiopia, massive agricultural production and industrialization in Sudan and Egypt, and oil production in South Sudan. This suggestion, entailing integration, can bring peace within the spirit of African Renewal by establishing interdependence among the countries of the Nile River.
Harry Verhoeven goes on to point out that the riparian states , if they cooperate effectively and integrate their activities, can minimize the risks associated with development and even more with climate change, including ecological damage, poverty reduction, population growth, water scarcity, and other menaces. Climate change is one of the major human security threats to the Nile Basin countries. The region has been long plagued by environmental degradation. According to John Markakis, the East African region has been frequently blown by the storms of “deforestation, soil erosion, desiccation, desertification and loss of biodiversity.” Ethiopia was affected by waves of famine as a result of drought in the 1980s.
One effect of this tragedy was the precipitation of a gigantic reduction of the volume of water in the lower riparian countries, with the levels of water in the Aswan High Dam falling to a point, according to Haggai Erlich, at which Egypt almost had to stop its industrial and agricultural production. In 2009, drought hit the eastern part of Sudan with production losses in Gedaref rising to 90%, and ‘famine-like’ conditions occurring widely. There were serious conflicts over water resources in Jonglei in South Sudan, according to a 2011 Chatham House report.
There can be no doubt that climate change poses critical threats to the regular flow of the river, and it is order to minimize this challenge that Ethiopia is now following a ‘green’ economic model which can harmonize the ecology of the Nile Basin on behalf of all the peoples of North Eastern Africa. Ethiopian farmers are participating the associated eco-societal restoration by practicing in water conservation on a massive scale, planting trees and growing drought-resistant crops.
The model also gives high priority to renewable energy sources, including hydro, wind, solar and geothermal power as part of the effort to ‘green’ the environment which, in turn, increases the flow of Nile River. The GERD hydro project is one manifestation of a genuine vehicle for mutual benefit that will reduce floods, sedimentation, and siltation to lower riparian countries as well as avoiding evaporation from the deserts of Egypt and Sudan. In other words, it will increase the amount of water available.
The overall impact will unquestionably make an immense contribution to the sustainable development and lasting peace and stability of the Nile Basin countries and to the normal flow of the river. So, to allow the Nile to give life to all riparian countries, they must all work to resolve the gap between the bright future for the peoples of the Nile Basin and the contemporary experience of ecological damage. The Nile River can only work in the way that nature intended when all the riparian countries cooperate to jointly restore the relationship of human beings and the ecosystems of the basin within the spirit of Pan-Africanism and the ideals of the African Renaissance.
Population growth is another pressing issue within the Nile basin. There is an increasing gap between the population explosion and the possibilities for socio-economic development. According to UN projections, Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia alone will have a population totally 272 million by 2025 and 360 million by 2050. This population surge threatens havoc as the increased population will need far more water to boost agricultural production and for other uses.
That means a huge impact on agricultural production, intensifying fierce competition for the use of water. In order to tackle this threat, Ethiopia has been demonstrating significant progress through family planning and reproductive health services, deploying thousands of health extension workers and substantially increasing relevant education. Additionally, it is enhancing agricultural productivity without utilizing additional land that could damage the environment. This approach must be shared and expanded among all riparian countries for the critical benefit of the sustainability of the ecology of the Nile River and the effectiveness of overall development projects. The threat of a population explosion with all its repercussions must be minimized and diverted before the Nile runs dry, through widespread discussion and negotiation within the true spirit of Pan-Africanism.
Different perceptions have been the divisions that have split the region for years. Egyptian leaders, politicians, think tanks, and journalists have long projected an image of Ethiopia claiming that Ethiopia will one day stop the Nile and cause irreparable harm. As a result, Egypt has on a number of occasions attempted to control the Nile River within Ethiopia, supporting insurgents to weaken the country and lobbying international financial institutions to prevent any financial assistance for building dams in the Nile gorge.
This is a false perception rooted in misunderstandings of the meaning of Ethiopian or Ethiopia. Ethiopia, in the words of Poet Laureate Tsegaye Gebremedhin, “the root of the Genesis of Life; the human family was first planted here by the evolutionary hand of Time.” Ethiopia, the source of all human evolution and the birth place of humanity, can never even consider stopping the Nile or harming the peoples of Egypt. Tsegaye also poetically answers the question of what an Ethiopian is: “A simple human being, conscious of African civilization, African culture, conscious of world civilization, world culture, of equality, of world brotherhood.” Ethiopia and Ethiopians, in fact, look to a new, fair, and just regime to mutually sip the waters of Nile under the spirit of African Renaissance.” Nothing more.
In this regard, the late Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, challenged the self-serving argument of Egypt’s ‘historical rights’ said: “while Egypt is taking the Nile water to transform the Sahara Desert into something green, we in Ethiopia, the source of 85% of that water, are denied the possibility of using it to feed ourselves.” The mutual, shared interests, are one crucial tenet of Pan-Africanism that can transform the region under a fair and equitable regime based on the principles of equitable and reasonable use of the Nile., principles which are best defined in the 1997 UN Convention on the Law of Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses and the 2004 Berlin Rules on Water Resources.
Dr. Seif Hamad, chief technical adviser of Sudanese Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation, has emphasized that “cooperation is not a choice, it is a necessity. Our children will not forgive us if we do not do it.” This is a recommendation that defines the road that must be taken by all the countries of the Nile Basin.The 21st century has room for an African Renaissance that defines nations as winners, co-opting and integrating them in socio-economic development efforts. It is a concept that abrogates any self-help functions for promoting political and ideological interests.
Real and greater cooperation and integration of all the riparian countries over use of the waters of the Nile will fast-track the efforts of the Nile Basin states for social, economic and cultural development. This in turn will facilitate the way for North Eastern Africa to regain and renew its own past glories and help to enable Africa as a whole become a real mover in the changing world order, shaping it towards a sustainable and a just future. Equitable bathing in the waters of the Nile is a Pan-African path which will help all the riparian countries drink that cup of peace and prosperity that can purify the hearts of the people and sweep away their long-established misperceptions and misunderstandings.