Saturday, July 13, 2024
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Equitable, sustainable use of water: learning from the Danube River

In a recent joint press statement – ninth association council meeting between Egypt and the European Union Council – uncritically endorsed the longstanding flawed Egyptian–Sudanese call for “a mutually acceptable and binding agreement on the filling and operations of the GERD.” I find this self-serving “do I say but not as I do” position unhelpful and rightly rejected by the Nile riparian countries under the Nile Basin Initiative.

What should have come out from the EU was a call for a comprehensive and binding Nile River Treaty (on equitable and sustainable use, dam building, integrated ecosystem management and conservation of the Nile waters), consistent with international conventions and practices, along the lines adopted by the Danube River.

Indeed, the Nile is the only major transboundary river in the world without a comprehensive treaty – owing to the intransigence of Egypt, which currently enjoys an unheard-of monopoly of the Nile waters despite contributing nothing to its waters.

Plainly stated, the Nile is also the only basin where two downstream countries claim 100 percent of the water. Furthermore, the two downstream countries have never consulted, let alone collaborated with the upper riparian countries, when they built large dams such as Aswan and Sennar.

In 1999, the eleven Nile riparian countries together with Egypt and Sudan, established the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), under the motto “One River, One People and One Vision,” to develop a comprehensive Nile treaty anchored in the equitable and sustainable use of the Nile waters. Unfortunately, Egypt and Sudan refused to sign the Cooperation Framework Agreement that resulted from it.

They instead suspended their NBI membership, and essentially halted the negotiations for a Nile treaty after insisting on the status quo that, contrary to international law and practices, shuts out the upper riparian states from equitably developing their water resources.

Over 86 percent of the Nile waters originate in Ethiopia. But the Basin receives an annual average rainfall of about 650 mm (26 in), some 10 percent of what Europe’s Rhine Valley gets. Indeed, the upper Nile (Blue Nile, aka Abbay) ecosystem is severely degraded. Climate change, population growth, displacement, recurrent drought, and low technology intake have made the situation worse. The Nile waters may not exist by 2080 according to a work done by Dartmouth University researchers.

Egypt has immensely contributed to the Nile Basin ecosystem degradation, and hence to the reduction of water flows. “Egypt is widely credited with having blocked a loan from the African Development Bank for a dam project in Ethiopia in 1990.” Development projects that would have provided alternative livelihood sources and helped conserve ecosystem integrity have been denied funding including the GERD, where the investment cost burden of close to five billion fell on the Ethiopian poor.

By supporting the myopic Egyptian position, the EU is going for a pyrrhic victory. What I propose for the EU is to preach what it practices by supporting:

The pursuit of a comprehensive Nile treaty based on international water convention and treaty practices:

This is best done by strengthening the multilateral and post-colonial NBI, now the Nile Basin Commission, with Egypt and Sudan rejoining the Commission. No comprehensive treaty means all would use the river’s waters, but no one cares for its wellbeing. The Nile needs a binding and no-loser Nile treaty that supports the conservation, equitable and sustainable use of the waters and ensures Egypt’s water security as well as that of Ethiopia.

Shared responsibility and instituting Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES):

Recent reports on Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan talks show difficulties in reaching a mutual understanding on drought management. There must be a collective understanding and acceptance of mounting evidence that the Basin is highly vulnerable to climate risks compounded by pervasive poverty, severe habitat loss and technological deprivation.

Restoring the degraded ecosystem of the Blue Nile Basin and the creation of the Nile Green Belt should be a priority agenda of not only Ethiopia but that of Egypt and Sudan. To this end, the introduction of payment for ecosystem services (as practiced in the Danube River) would be a vital step forward.

PES is a market-based mechanism, where downstream water users pay upstream farming communities for providing ecosystem services, i.e., maintain and conserve nature, water bodies, and ecosystem functions.

Globalizing GERD’s financing schemes:

The GERD represents the collective might of the Ethiopian poor. The Dam is perhaps the only major development project of global significance undertaken by a least developed country totally from own sources.

Several studies have established the fact that GERD benefits Egypt and especially the Sudan. Suffice to mention the statement of former Sudanese former Irrigation Minister, Osman Altoom Hamed, who outlined the multiple benefits of GERD to the Sudan.

Instead of punishing Ethiopia for its good deeds of inviting Egypt and Sudan to inspect its dam, what the EU and other development finance institutions, including the World Bank should do is avail the necessary financial resources and technical support needed to complete the GERD, making it fully operational while ensuring that it is not compromised by silt build up and climate change.

(Mersie Ejigu is a founder of the Ethiopian Water Advisory Council (EWAC) and a former Minister of Planning and Development of Ethiopia.)

Contributed by Mersie Ejigu

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