We will start out with a recent history of the Nile basin countries, when they were under the tutelage of colonial rules. Before these countries got their independence from the colonialists, (British/French/Belgium) there was hardly any talk about the Nile, outside of the official narrative that was mostly put in place by the aggressive majors. Though independent, even Ethiopia didn’t have much of a leeway when it came to matters concerning the Nile (Blue Nile.) After the colonialists departed, meaningful discussion about the Nile remained muted, a kind of ghostly diktat,remnant of the colonialists, prevailed in the form of archaic treaties that neglected the interests of all riparian countries, Egypt (probably Sudan) excepted! The old agreements excessively favored the lower riparian countries, not only because they were more dependent on the Nile than the others, but also because the arrangement was to the colonialists’ geopolitical interest. After independence however, things inevitably started to change, albeit gradually!
For a start, the population of the whole Nile basin exploded, literally. Ethiopia has now more people than Egypt. The overall population of the region more than doubled since decolonization. That brought a new equation to the old calculus in regards to the basin’s water regime. The imperative of growing more food for expanding population, as well as the need for diverse energy supply to facilitate modernization projects necessitated the revision of old colonial treaties. Such concrete situations on the ground started to put pressure on the status quo regarding the longest river in the world that crosses the largest/hottest desert on earth. Enter the spirit of decolonization.
In 1956, the Egyptian government under Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal (from the British.) The British and the French threatened to go to war; in fact if it weren’t for the Americans they would have done so. The US government told the British, unless they stop their reckless adventure, the American government would dump the massive British pound in its vaults, thereby crushing the currency and subsequently the whole British economy to the ground. The British didn’t have much choice, but to retreat. The US figured; as an ascending empire, it would be to its long-term advantage to allow Egyptian sovereignty over the Suez Canal, for all eventualities. Besides, the US also wanted to send a clear signal to the world that it plans to conduct matters a bit more differently than before. A case of ‘change of heart’ or in the lingua of the politicos, a ‘change of (geo) politics/policies’!
At the time the Egyptians might not have realized it but by the mere act of defying a diktat of a defunct order, they were ushering an empowering process amongst colonized people all over including Africa. The situation resembled the ‘Battle of Adwa’ that inspired political independence amongst those who were deprived of it. That is why Gamal Abdel Nasser became a hero for many of the new African leaders. Even the Ethiopian political leadership was mesmerized by Nasser’s boldness and didn’t want to spoil the fun by rushing in contentious issues concerning the Nile. It was a euphoric time and the wish was to consolidate newfound independence via unity. Many of the riparian countries, particularly Ethiopia, didn’t want to look like a party pooper. Be that as it may, it was such acts (nationalizing Suez) of defiance against colonial arrangements that ultimately pushed upper riparian countries to take matters on their own hands.
In February 1999, the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) was formally launched. Member States were Burundi, DR Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda (Eritrea as an observer.) South Sudan was admitted as the tenth member of NBI in July of 2012. The Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) is a partnership among the Nile riparian states that ‘seeks to develop the river in a cooperative manner, share substantial socioeconomic benefits, and promote regional peace and security.’Amongst its objectives;‘to achieve sustainable socio-economic development through the equitable utilization of and benefit from the common Nile Basin water resources.’After thoroughly deliberating on pertinent issues for over fifteen years, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda signed a ‘Cooperative Framework Agreement’ (May 2010-Entebbe) with a view to forming a permanent Nile Basin Commission. In 2011, Burundi joined the group and South Sudan is expected to sign the document during the 21st council of ministers (NBI) meeting in Juba this week (July 20, 2013.) What is the significance of the agreement? In a nutshell, unlike before, upper riparian countries don’t need prior permission from Egypt to responsibly utilize the Nile!
By the same token, it also means Egypt must come to terms with changing ways/times, not only on issues of the Nile, but also in regards to its political attitude towards black Africa. Naturally, Egyptian anxiety must not be undermined by any of the other states; after all, Egypt is the lowest of the riparian countries. The question is not about its justifiable worries but rather how it should engage in the upcoming new processes and impending new realities. Again we admit the issue can be very disturbing to the average Egyptian whose life fully depends on the flow of the Nile. We believe the other countries must magnanimously understand Egypt’s position and should not rush into unproductive engagements, just because some hotheaded Egyptians are airing non-constructive opinions.
Ethiopia’s new hydro dam under construction is scheduled to produce about 6000MW. We believe the project should be viewed as a collaborative effort by all riparian countries. Yes, the project is huge by any measure; for comparison, the Aswan high dam had an initial installed capacity of 2100MW and the bill was about 2 billion USD when it was first financed/built by the USSR in the 1960s. Technically speaking, Egypt knows better than any of the other riparian countries what the impact of the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Nile would be. Modesty and secrecy aside, Egypt has well developed expertise on such matter and honestly speaking, its qualified experts are not overly worried. Again the question is not technical but rather political. But politics always change as it had changed on the British Empire when it was told to stop its nonsensical claim over the Suez Canal.
The right thing to do, we believe, is to accept the changing reality and try to make the best out of it. Many of us had (and still do) to live by/on our wits. Incidentally, when it comes to wits, the Egyptians have plenty of it! We hope they will use it to figure out their next productive move, which we hope would be more engaging and collaborative. We sincerely believe Egypt should participate not only on hydro projects, but also on irrigation schemes that can produce food for its population. Egypt is the largest importer of wheat in the world and almost all of it comes from the US. Isn’t it time the Egyptians grow their own food in their own continent and haul it on hydroelectric driven rail system, all in collaboration with their African brethren? After all, what is this massive volume of wheat, but only an importation of water in a different form. It takes humongous amount of water to produce the grain Egypt imports annually.
We also believe it is time to start thinking outside of the box and contemplate transformative projects that would be beneficially integrative. Most importantly, it is time to get rid of our age-old fixations built on the foundation of profound mistrust. Over a hundred fifty years ago an enlightened Egyptian (the Arab’s world ‘first feminist’) and founder of the national movement, including Cairo University, passionately advocated women’s rights; declaring ‘they were slaves of their husbands, with no identity of their own and that this refusal of natural rights kept the nation in the dark.’ The progressive developmentalist proceeded to scold us all: “Our laziness has caused us to be hostile to every unfamiliar idea.” Qasim Amin (1863-1908.) Good Day!