The Nile Basin: Beyond Jingoism and Parochial Rhetoric

12 mins read

As matters stand now the dispute over the Ethiopian dam particularly between Ethiopia and Egypt can possibly be exacerbated to open military conflict. That will certainly defeat the very purpose for the formation of the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), the regional organization with a membership of the eleven countries of the Nile Basin founded on the principles of cooperation and equitable use of the Nile waters.

Should the dispute lead to war?

This article argues that it shouldn’t and, in fact, goes beyond that assumption and argues that without prevalence of close cooperation between all the countries of the Nile basin they are all doomed as far as the use of the Nile waters go. Cooperation between state parties of the Nile basin is not just a necessity but a matter of existence for the entire basin. The need for reinvigorating cooperation and bringing it to a new height is more urgent than at any other time.

The added values of cooperation are numerous while conflicts and wars only bring destruction and loss of lives and therefore are meaningless. Cooperation is so essential and beneficial that one has only to refer to the many trans-boundary projects initiated by the NBI that benefited so many countries in the basin. However, in face of the natural calamities prevailing now in the entire Nile basin such as the consequences of climate change, the need for cooperation is more crucial than ever.

Strategically, what are the most probable scenarios if the deterioration of the environment in the basin continues?

Let’s first look at the threats that the basin as a whole is facing. As the sources of the Nile are Lake Victoria (I wish we use the original African name) in Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya as well as Lake Tana in Ethiopia, the continuous availability of water in the Nile river depends on the conservation of nature and protection of the environment of the catchments around both lakes.

This is absolutely crucial and detrimental. No conservation and protection of the catchments, eventually there can be no water. If the land degradation and environmental destruction taking place now in both catchments continue, the result will be the eventual shrinking of both lakes and their gradual drying up. Then there will be no water for any purpose whatever. Therefore, the environmental state of the catchments is the raison détre for the Nile as a whole. That is fundamental.

In the White Nile basin, we have Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi, DR Congo and South Sudan. These countries need to come in active cooperation in protecting the natural surroundings and environment of the Lake Victoria catchment and even of their own respectively as there are a number of tributaries to the White Nile originating from these countries.

There is a great deal of deforestation and other forms of environmental degradation going on in these countries as a whole and in the catchment in particular. If this continues, siltation in the lake will continue and we know that siltation eventually leads to dryness of lakes as we have witnessed in the cases of Lake Alemaya and Lake Lange in Ethiopia.

The other serious problem that Lake Victoria faces is the massive pollution of its water that is destroying the quality of the water supposedly the largest fresh water in the world. Fishermen from Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania use chemicals to catch fish and there seems to be no effective government or inter-governmental authority to regulate the use of chemicals in fishing.

The third serious problem that Lake Victoria faces is the massive hyacinth that has been sprouting as invasive species for decades now. Little is visibly done by the three countries with immediate proximity to the lake, i.e. Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya, jointly or individually to mitigate the disaster. As the Ugandan New Vision reported recently, a group of scientists from the US conducted a study on the threats that Lake Victoria is facing and concluded that the lake can most likely dry up in a matter of decades if the threats that it is facing (hyacinth, pollution, siltation, etc…) continue. Therefore, as a possibility, the White Nile as we know it can also cease to exist. Whither the Nile?!

On top of all these, there is also a global danger that definitely will impact on all lakes: global warming as a result of climate change. Again scientists from all over the world recently issued a warning to the effect that if the nations of the world now in 2020 fail to act in unison to adopt a drastic measure to mitigate climate change globally, in a matter of twelve years from now, the world will be doomed as it will be impossible afterwards to reverse the consequences of climate change. Certainly, climate change also affects the Nile Basin particularly by affecting its potential to generate water.

Lake Tana in Ethiopia which is the source of the Blue Nile also faces similar problems namely the massive sprouting of hyacinth as an invasive species and the environmental degradation of its catchment. Let’s add to this the impact of climate change to and we can see the dangers looming over the Blue Nile as well whether a dam is built on it or not.

Following the dispute between the governments of Ethiopia and Egypt as well as the barrage of jingoist and parochial propaganda campaigns in their respective countries, the threats and counter-threats issued by both governments, one cannot help asking: are these people aware of the dangers looming over the two Nile Rivers as a whole?

I can’t claim to be well acquainted with the amount and content of media literature issued in Egypt, but in Ethiopia, there seems to be no one asking such questions. Although it is identical to the saying “two bold men fighting over a comb”, eventually the current propaganda war can possibly be over a “river” that once was. Nobody seems to reflect on the strategic and, therefore, serious environmental and man-made problems that threaten both Victoria and Tana to dry up.

If we concentrate on the problems of Lake Tana and the Blue Nile for instance, the responsibility of protecting its catchment is not just that of Ethiopia but also of Sudan and Egypt. Egypt whose life depends on the Nile waters, instead of lamenting and bragging about possibilities of war over the Nile, has to come forward and invest on the protection of the catchment of Lake Tana as well as that of Lake Victoria.

Protecting the Nile, i.e. the catchments of both lakes, should not be the responsibility of the countries with immediate proximity to the lakes only but of all countries in the basin. Being obsessed about the Nile cannot bring solutions to problems that are glaringly posing a serious danger to the very existence of the river. If the lakes dry up, everybody will lose, not just Egypt.

It is in face of such dangers that we now see the wisdom in the very principles of the NBI. The NBI visualised and, in actual fact, generated development projects along trans-boundary cooperation ventures that are/were of immense use to the communities across the Nile basin. Away from jingoist and parochial rhetoric, such cooperation is the way out.

Egypt, more than anybody else, must champion in protecting the catchments of both lakes as almost its entire population depends on the Nile water. In this sense, whether or not Ethiopia constructs a hydro-electric dam is a technical question. The main question is however, to bank on the very raison d’être of the Nile.

As such, the countries of the Nile basin should take it upon themselves that reinvigorating the NBI is absolutely essential. It should be the countries of the Nile basin that must oversee and manage cooperation among its members. If the split that occurred within the NBI is over the draft Framework Agreement, can’t there be a different modality for ascertaining cooperation on the equitable use of the Nile waters? Why don’t the governments involve scholars and academics to reflect on the problem and let them come up with a certain formula for reviving cooperation?

Secondly, problems among NBI state parties should be addressed and solved solely by its members. The notion of seeking mediation outside the framework of the NBI should not even be entertained. Above all, involving a man who seems to have no idea about Africa (remember what he said round the time he took office in the White House trying to call a country in Southern Africa, Nambia?) as mediator is to say the least an insult to the intelligence of Africans as a whole.

In addition, there are international laws and the UN has also come up with a convention on water rights to which most countries are signatory. The NBI must be the principal institution to deal with disputes. Otherwise, it should be the UN.

Melakou Tegegn (PhD)

The writer can be reached at:

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