Water is not only an economic resource that can be developed by technology, but, more importantly, water also has important political, ethical, religious, legal, health and democratic dimensions writes Getachew Mekonnen.
The Nile is a source of life that plays a crucial role in the economics, politics and cultural life of 11 countries and their more than 370 million inhabitants. The population of these countries is expected to double within the next 30 years. This means that an astounding three quarters of a billion people will depend on a single river with dwindling flow for their livelihood. Moreover, from an eco climatic point of view, most of the region extends across semi-arid and arid zones.
The semi-arid belts have been particularly affected by cycles of drought and desertification in the past decades. Socio-economically, the Nile region is characterized by a rapidly increasing population (especially Ethiopia), which has resulted in a sharp decline of per capita water availability during the last decades. The socio-economic problems are severe in many Nile riparian countries. Thus, the Nile River is one of the most important river basins with regards to the socio-economic conditions and climate change for a major part of Nile riparian countries.
The historical use of the river water still very much determines present day water use and hydro political problems. Historically, Egypt and Sudan have decided water allocations within the basin. The 1929 Agreement between Egypt and Britain gave Egypt the right to use 55.5 billion cubic meters and Sudan 18.5 billion cubic meters of water. 14 percent from the water flow come from the White Nile while 86 percent from the Blue Nile. The 1959 agreement between Egypt and Sudan allocated 75 percent to Egypt and 25 per cent of the river water to Sudan.
In 1999 the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) was initiated with a broad agreement. The NBI is a regional inter-governmental partnership led by the ten Nile riparian countries, namely Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda. Eritrea participates as an observer. Several occasions since 2011 have added to the complexity of the situation. The Arab Spring brought hope for improvement on aspects of democracy and human rights. But it also opened up new negotiations on established agreements, and the expected improvement in living standards will increase the demand for water resources.
In 2011 Sudan was divided into two countries. Potentially, this could have led to a more peaceful situation in the two countries and in the region as a whole, but it has already created tensions that have to be met with cautious conflict handling. In 2011 Ethiopia started the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Earlier, Egypt had threatened war if Ethiopia tried to block the Nile flow. Ethiopia responded that no country could prevent it from using the Nile (about 86 percent of the Nile river flow originates in the Ethiopian highlands). Egypt’s only sustainable water source is the Nile. At the same time Ethiopia’s economic development requires better use of the hydropower potential of the Nile water. Historically, Egypt used to be the most populous country of the Nile Basin. At present, Ethiopia has surpassed Egypt in terms of population. The upstream countries represent 240 million and the downstream 130 million people.
Clearly, the upstream majority has moral right to use water for improved living conditions. Evaporation at Lake Nasser in Egypt is about 10 billion cubic meters per year. Consequently, water for Sudan and Egypt could be more effectively stored in Ethiopia. Countries like Ethiopia which has significant hydroelectric power aspiration could sell power to Sudan and Egypt. Upstream dams could trap sediments thus reducing storage losses due to silt sedimentation. These measures could reduce the potential for conflict and increase the effective sustainable water volume. There are also opportunities to increase irrigation efficiency especially in Egypt that traditionally uses water-wasting border and flooding irrigation. These measures are quite obvious and could easily save many tens of billions of cubic meters every year.
There are signs and plans for solving and handling the scarce water resources in the region. One example is the above-mentioned Nile Basin Initiative. Even so it is not implemented on a larger scale. Why is that? What are the obstacles that prevent politicians from implementing even very simple and inexpensive measures to reduce water waste and improve the water situation in the Nile Basin? Hydro diplomacy has been brought forward as a way to improve water management and to share scarce water resources in an equitable way.
Hydro diplomacy is an essential aspect of hydro politics. It is about skillful political interactions and processes exercised between riparian states over the use , management , protection and conservation of shared water resources and it is also a branch of diplomacy, applied to bilateral and multilateral negotiations on water issues between and among states. It is about dialogue, and reconciling conflicting interests among riparian states. It argues the importance of negotiation, mediation and intercultural communication. It supports for the wider diplomatic process. It offers an opportunity to develop mutual relationships and international partnerships. Given that water management is not a zero-sum game, and multiple nations can benefit simultaneously if water is used efficiently, hydro diplomacy among basin states is imperative. Riparian states especially Egypt must increase communication and show a willingness to relinquish hegemonic water rights in order to manage the Nile River basin. In other words, it is the lack of political willingness on the side of downstream states, particularly, Egypt to recognize the natural rights of other states to share from the benefits of Nile. The Nile Basin offers opportunities for hydro diplomacy which offers a win-win situation for all riparian countries.
Hydro diplomacy is a key to security, poverty eradication, social equity and gender equality. Water cooperation instead of water dispute could generate economic benefits, preserve water resources, protect the environment and build peace. Hydro diplomacy principles thus mean broad cooperation or solidarity around water resource use and management. The goal of hydro diplomacy is the cooperative, unified management of shared water resources, whether at the national or the international level. Consequently, hydro diplomacy is based on ethics between water consuming sectors (agriculture, industry and domestic use), between humans and ecosystems, between present and future generations and means cooperating over administrative, political, religious and cultural borders.
The fundamental concept is that water is not only an economic resource that can be developed by technology, but, more importantly, water also has important political, ethical, religious, legal, health and democratic dimensions. A better understanding of hydro diplomacy function can thus improve the efficiency of water use via an improved upstream and downstream collaboration. Hydro diplomacy can be viewed as a larger umbrella to holistically capture both old and new water-management practices in this way; it can be seen as more of a manifesto on how to frame water management today. It is not surprising, then, that it has been influential in shaping dialogue about Trans Boundary River like Nile. So much so that it can give foreign policy makers a toehold for making progress on conflict prevention. Hence, hydro diplomacy must be enhanced for managing the Nile basin. To sum up colonial and post-colonial induced agreements and international water laws constitute entry points for diplomats aiming for high peace dividends by hydro diplomacy because it can help to reframe negotiations by promoting resolution of conflict with a climate of dialogue. It can add also urgency to the task of building trust and a shared understanding of the challenges. Furthermore, the way forward is to find a robust solution, to argue about options, trade-offs and solutions. A non zero-sum approach may not always be possible and a win- win solution may not always be found or agreed upon. This also depends on the deepest motives of the parties and whether they are willing to think beyond the status quo and the existing allocation regime, and consider alternative, more optimal allocation scenarios. This willingness is often correlated with the level of symmetry between countries and the existence of options for linking a variety of issues. It is frequently informed by deep-seated beliefs about justice and fairness, and the extent to which parties allow existing uses and vested rights to be re-negotiated. Hydro diplomacy may thus provide a basis for diplomatic negotiations.
Ed.’s Note: Getachew Mekonnen writes on political and foreign policy issues. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. The writer can be reached at [email protected].