Sharing the water of the Nile River

The Nile River has utmost social, historic and economic significance to the more than 350 million people in the region who rely on its waters for their basic human needs.

A general view of The Nile River, houses and agricultural land from the window of an airplane in Luxor, Egypt October 9, 2019 (photo credit: REUTERS/MOHAMED ABD EL GHANY)
A general view of The Nile River, houses and agricultural land from the window of an airplane in Luxor, Egypt October 9, 2019
A live webinar that was held few days ago on the topic "The Quest for Equitable Share of the Nile Waters” was very remarkable. The presentations by the renowned historian Professor Haggai Erlich, Emeritus Professor of Tel Aviv University and my friend, an engaging intellectual Dr. Ofir Haivry, Vice President of the Herzl Institute enlightened me on the subject matter. 

The Nile River has utmost social, historic and economic significance to the more than 350 million people in the region who rely on its waters for their basic human needs. In his introductory statement, Ambassador Reta Alemu gave remarks to set the stage for the panel discussion. He noted that “the historical injustice installed during the colonial period in the 1929 and 1959 agreements need to be corrected." He said it is time for Ethiopia to secure a fair share of the waters of the Nile. 

Professor Haggai Erlich, a very prominent Israeli scholar on the Middle Eastern and African History, stressed the need to address the issue of equitable water share and offered ideas based his book on the topic From Aswan to Renaissance Dam, reflecting on the nexus between history and current situations in the region. The Professor said that, “the Aswan dam is an embodiment of Egypt’s demand for historical rights while the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) symbolizes the need for equitable share on the Nile.” The filling of the dam is an essential accomplishment that must be welcomed by the three countries. Egyptians need to accept the reality and adjust their perspective about the GERD which is beneficial to all. 

Another historian, Dr. Ofir, Vice President for Academic Affairs of the Herzl Institute and the Director of its National Strategy Initiative, presented his views and stated that an innovative regional approach that employs technology could be a win-win solution to address the challenges of water stress, drought and climate change. While stressing that Ethiopia has the right to use its share of the Nile River, he called for a new partnership that uses an Israeli technology and a potential investment from the US for sea water desalination. Dr. Ofir said that the Nile River is fed by the White Nile (which begins in the Tanzania and Burundi) and the Blue Nile which originates in the Ethiopian highlands. Now it is time to create the Red Nile by desalinating the waters from the Red sea. He underlined the need for a new partnership which should recognize GERD as a source of cooperation and regional integration for Ethiopia, Egypt and the entire region. 

There are 11 riparian states in the basin including Ethiopia and Egypt. Ethiopia contributes 86% of the waters of the Nile. Egypt and Sudan has established a water sharing arrangement which ignored Ethiopia’s right to use the water. In the past thirty years many initiatives have been taken to share the waters of this world's longest river; none of these enterprises have become fruitful. With the help of partners, namely the European Union, the World Bank and the US, the Nile Basin Initiative brought a significant progress. With the support of the NBI, the riparian States negotiated the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) for over ten years, which was finally open for adoption at the meeting held in Egypt in 2009. Egypt and Sudan failed to endorse it. 

Ambassador Reta said that “Ethiopia has embarked on a course to demand for equity many years ago. This call had been ignored. We have never been silent yet we remained patient and persistent, fully convinced that we are pursuing the correct path that benefits not only our people but also the entire riparian states.”
When the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project was launched in 2011, the concern for potential conflict has been heightened. Ethiopia invited the downstream countries for consultation to jointly address the potential political, economic and hydrological impact.

During the webinar, Ambassador Reta noted that the Nile can be used as a means to boost regional integration and partnership. The three parties have concluded the Declaration of Principles (DoP) that was signed in March 2015 by the leaders of Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan. Ethiopia has always respected and implemented the DoP.
The tripartite negotiations among the three countries have been undertaken based on the DoP. Ethiopia has continuously engaged in these negotiations in good faith and with a constructive spirit, listening and accommodating the legitimate concerns of the two riparian states. While the focus has been placed on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project itself, there is a need to highlight on the main issues that have much time in negotiation between Ethiopia and its downstream riparian neighbors.

As a journalist and as a person of Ethiopian origin, I have followed the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam since it began in 2010. During my previous visits I recognized that the Ethiopian government was determined to respond to the legitimate aspirations and needs of its people. The government is constructing the dam using all the resources from each and every Ethiopian and persons of Ethiopian-origins. For millions of Ethiopians who do not have access to water and electricity, the dam is a matter of existence.  In this nationwide vigorous effort, Ethiopia all Ethiopians are committed to map their future. It is a land mark and a source of pride to all of us. For Ethiopians the dam is a flagship national development project that could boost its political and economic stature. The dam is expected to generate 6,500 megawatts of power, when it is completed and fully operational.   

Dr. Ofir stated that the disputes over water allocation, climate change and issues emanating from poor water management in the river basin have intensified the problems because the availability of the water resource comes under continued stress. The negotiation between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan may reach a deadlock for lack of vision and failure to understand the problems. He proposed options on possible way out to set a vision for the future. We all hope that reaching into a clear understanding on the equitable share would avert any crisis. 

I understand that the Nile is the main source of water for the three countries and they have to reach to an agreement on the fair share of the water. When I heard the remarks by the US president, I was bewildered, because it is far from the reality. It is my understanding that the three countries have been committed to engage in a negotiation under the auspices of the African Union. Most of the technical and legal issues have been resolved. We all hope that the remaining issues would be addressed through the African Union facilitated negotiation process. 

At the AU led negotiations, Ethiopia is asking Egypt, and Sudan to join hands to design an agreement that advances their common long-term interest. At the conclusion of the webinar, in his closing remarks Ambassador Reta said that “the quest for equitable share of the Nile has been at the center of the negotiation among the riparian countries. It has also been one of the contentious issues of the current negotiations on the GERD. This quest is a genuine call for a win-win cooperation based on the relevant principles of international law.” The countries that share the Nile bear the burden of creating the legal framework for sharing it equitably. It is my understanding that now it is vital to start considering the Nile issue as a source common cooperation to address the challenge in the allocation and management of a shared resource by distributing water equitably. In light of the complex history of the basin, a sustainable resolution can only be found in a sincere collective effort that recognizes the shared destiny of the riparian countries.