Atlantic Council on Conflict and Opportunity on the Nile

J. Peter Pham | June 19, 2013

Atlantic Council 

Last week, Ethiopia’s parliament unanimously ratified a treaty with five of its neighbors that opens the way for broad regional cooperation on the use of the waters of the Nile River. In response, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, whose government was not part of the pact, angrily declared that “all options are open,” implying that force might be used to prevent Ethiopia from completing a dam across the Nile’s main tributary that would be Africa’s largest hydropower project.

The Nile is the longest river in the world, with a length of over 6,650 kilometers from its remotest source in Burundi’s Luvironza River. Most of the water flowing through the great lakes of equatorial Africa to eventually form the White Nile is lost to evaporation in the Sudd, the vast swamp of southern Sudan. Thus by the time it joins the Blue Nile at Khartoum, the White Nile contributes barely 10 percent of the total flow. Together, the shorter Blue Nile, whose remotest source is the Felege Ghion spring held sacred by the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, and the Nile’s other major tributary, the Atbara River, which likewise originates in the heart of the Ethiopian highlands near Lake Tana, account for nearly 90 percent of the water and over 95 percent of the sediment carried by the Nile proper. The combined drainage basin of these river systems covers one-tenth of the area of the African continent.

While the Nile has provided for the livelihoods of the peoples along its banks from time immemorial, rapidly expanding population (the slightly more than 400 million people who live in the river basin are expected to double in number by 2025) combined with industrialization and urbanization—to say nothing of the effects of climate change on Africa—will place unprecedented demands on the river’s fixed supply of water. This, in turn, has led to increased tensions between the eleven independent countries in the Nile Basin—Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda—which together constitute the largest number of sovereign states in any river basin in the world. Each of these states has a distinct interest in the river’s waters as well as varying capacities to exploit the resource. The Egyptians, for example, rely on the river for more than 97 percent of their freshwater; as the late historian Robert O. Collins noted, “Without the annual flood of the Nile waters cascading down, Egypt would consist of only sand and rock and wind.”

Given this context and the fact that they currently also faced with a collapsed economy and growing restiveness among the populace, it is no surprise that Morsi and other politicians in Cairo would find it expedient to respond to the move by Ethiopia and its neighbors with nationalist rhetoric and threats of violence. At a certain level, bombast may be all they have.

First, insofar as it has a legal case at all, Egypt’s claims rests on rather weak foundations. During the colonial era, a May 1929 exchange of notes between Egyptian Prime Minister Muhammad Mahmoud Pasha and the British High Commissioner in Egypt, Lord Lloyd of Dolobran, stipulated that no projects affecting the Nile flow would be undertaken in Sudan, then under the Anglo-Egyptian “condominium,” or any other territory then under British rule without the agreement of the Egyptian government which asserted its “natural and historical rights” over the river. Following Sudan’s independence, that country signed the Nile Waters Agreement with Egypt in 1959, which allocated 55.5 billion cubic meters (bcm) of water annually to the Egyptians and 18.5 bcm to the Sudanese. The problem is these deals are probably legally null and void—which probably explains why no Egyptian government has ever submitted the Nile issue for even an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice. After all, a bedrock principle of classical international jurisprudence is nemo dat quod non habet (“you cannot give what you do not have [or own]”). The lack of reference to other riparian countries and their interests leaves open the question of the Nile Agreement’s legal validity to bind any parties other than Egypt and Sudan which, moreover, contribute virtually nothing to the river’s flow. Ethiopia, the source of an overwhelming part of the Nile’s water, was never a party to either of the agreements, although it was an independent state at the time of both—in fact, at the time of the 1929 accord, Ethiopia had been a full member of the League of Nations for some six years, while Egypt, then under a quasi-protectorate, was not accepted into the organization as a full-fledge sovereign member of the international community until 1937. Moreover, Burundi, the Congo, Eritrea, and Rwanda, are likewise not parties to the accords, having been ruled by other colonial regimes—thus the British did not have any pretext by which to sign away the water rights of those territories.

Second, for all the talk in Cairo about not ruling out any options and the cottage industry that has cropped up to speculate about possible attacks against the $4.3 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), the Morsi regime’s threats are as empty as its treasury: quite simply, the Egyptian military does not have the aerial refueling capability for its aircraft to even make it into Ethiopian airspace, much less to inflict sufficient damage to stop work on the GERD project and then return home. (It is another matter entirely whether the Egyptian regime, unable to achieve its goals any other way, might resort to covert action, such as supporting and even arming dissident groups seeking the overthrow of the Ethiopian state, irrespective of their prospects for success. It is certainly possible to interpret along such lines the visit two weeks ago of a high-level Egyptian military delegation to Mogadishu where its members were reported to have expressed interest in equipping and training the latest Somali regime’s forces for possible action against the unrecognized, but de facto independent Republic of Somaliland—which, coincidentally, is one of landlocked Ethiopia’s vital accesses to the sea.)

Fortunately, despite the tensions, even as it was ratifying the new treaty with its upper riparian neighbors, the Ethiopian government went out of its way to reach out to downstream countries, including representatives from Sudan and Egypt as well as international members in the International Panel of Experts that recently reported on the impact of the GERD. This unprecedented openness on a question of core national interest is a most welcome development, as is the new agreement, reached on Tuesday following the Egyptian foreign minister Mohamed Kamel Amr’s visit to Addis Ababa, for the three countries to conduct further impact studies.

While the environmental, economic, political, and other benefits to be obtained through cooperation by the countries of the Nile is evident, before that comes about, a more satisfactory, permanent legal settlement of the dispute between Egypt, Sudan, and the upstream riparian states is needed. Thus the countries find themselves on the horns of a dilemma. The current water usage is unsustainable, but without a formal accord there can be no rational management, much less reallocation, of a resource whose ownership is so hotly contested. Increasingly, securing their access to water will be a vital component of the national security of the riparian states and, given the geostrategic significance of this subregion at the crossroad between the Middle East and Africa, all the more greater importance to global security in general.

Given the enormous stakes which it has in both Cairo and Addis Ababa, it behooves the United States to see the current conflict defused and the parties resolve their dispute through diplomatic negotiations. Thus far, however, there has been little political appetite in Washington for tackling a problem that does not seem to be immediate, even if the damage that US interests would suffer should two of America’s most important partners in Africa—Egypt and Ethiopia—come to blows is incalculable. This shortsightedness is even more regrettable given the significant opportunities for US diplomacy and American private-sector firms to help the two countries work together to develop the Nile as a whole—to say nothing about how such engagement would not only be the right thing to do by the peoples of the region, but also advantageous to the nation’s own security and global standing.

J. Peter Pham is director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center.

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