The Nile: Empowering the African Connection

2011 § Leave a comment

Negotiations over the construction of the biggest African hydroelectric plant appeared to cool down after Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi agreed on postponing the signature of a Nile Water agreement, due on the May 14. According to Zenawi, this will allow Egypt to stabilize the country’s current political crisis and take up a more active role in the negotiations.

The move followed the visit of a 48-member Egyptian delegation to Addis Ababa aiming to dissuade Zenawi from the sudden “arms race.” When Zenawi announced the construction of the Millennium Dam in mid-March, Egypt was dealing with the culmination of its popular uprising, which had ousted President Hosni Mubarak and his ruling regime. After decades of hostile relations with Mubarak, upstream countries finally saw an opportunity to uphold their demands and ask for what they said was their rightful water share to be recognized.

Most of the controversy lies in the fact that even as Ethiopia’s tributaries contribute some 85 percent to the Nile flow at Aswan, Egypt still enjoys the lion’s share of almost 90 percent of the river’s water, approximately 55.5 billion cubic meters yearly. The share of Nile basin water between riparian countries is still regulated by colonial agreements dating back to 1929 and 1959, respectively.

In a bid to agree on a fairer distribution of Nile water share, upstream countries Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya and Burundi recently signed an understanding that would lead to the re-discussion of the treaties’ terms.

But Egypt heavily depends on the Nile. As intensive exploitation of Nile water allowed the Egyptian population to grow up to more than 80 million people, water is going scarcer in Egypt, feeding fears that any dam or plant built on the Nile would close the tap to Egyptian agriculture and domestic water use. While it is undeniable that all riparian countries should enjoy equitable rights to water use, Egypt’s high dependence from Nile water seems to be locking negotiations into a loophole.

Dams and tanks

Zenawi provided the Italian company Salini Costruttori with a no-bid contract for the construction of the Millennium Dam. The company holds long-standing relations with Zenawi’s government, and managed the construction of several other plants in Ethiopia, including the catastrophic and the more than controversial Gibe 3.

“Gibe 3 is the most destructive dam under construction in Africa. The project will condemn half a million of the region’s most vulnerable people to hunger and conflict,” said director of International Rivers’ Africa Program Terri Hathaway.

Well-positioned sources told Bikya Masr that President Zenawi might have came out into the open with the Millennium Dam project without carrying out necessary environmental and feasibility studies. This was aimed not to alert downstream countries of his plans and avoid their encroachment.

Apart from this, a main problem lies in the fact that Zenawi lacks the financial capability to uphold this unprecedented project. Former Egyptian President Mubarak repeatedly tried to divert financial aid to upstream countries and hinder their development projects. Nonetheless, after Mubarak’s fall Ethiopia is still unable to find proper funding.

In answer to this, Zenawi launched a nation-wide campaign to support the Millennium Dam, and called for Ethiopians to buy Millennium bonds from the Ethiopian Central Bank in order to fund the dam’s construction. Some regard Zenawi as a benevolent leader, willing to free the country from the bonds of poverty and international dependance. Others doubt the earnestness of his declarations, suspecting that behind this popular campaign hides the attempt to keep the people from thinking of their dire existence and prevent popular uprising.

Sources told Bikya Masr “if someone wants [to] start a nationalist campaign, it is better to see people buying bonds for a dam than for tanks.”

But according to PhD candidate Getachew Begashaw, “the government of Meles Zenawi has a bond rating of CCC-, which is less than what is called Junk Bond (BBB- rating by Standard & Poor’s). How such a government with poor rating can be a reliable guarantor of corporate bond is open to question.

“Zenawi is cunningly using the project to perpetually milk the hard earned money of the Ethiopian people, including those in the Diaspora,” added Begashaw.

By raising international tension and by coercing people to pay money for the construction of a much controversial and unpredictable project, Zenawi might easily fill the gap between dams and tanks.

Cooperation and Diversification

The mounting tension between Egypt and Ethiopia finds its root in Egypt’s dependence on the Nile. Water for agricultural, industrial and domestic use and the country’s energetic autonomy depend greatly on the river’s flow. Diversifying water resources in Egypt can be a first step towards relaxing geopolitical tension related to the river’s water and providing the nation with a more reliable water system.

“The immediate answer is to turn towards non-conventional sources such as water recycling, reuse of drainage water, treated industrial and sewage effluents, rainfall harvesting and desalination,” writes Fouad el-Shibini from the National Water Research Centre of Ismailiya.

Desalination plants have been developed on the Saudi Arabian shore or the Red Sea and might be a suitable solution for industrial use also in Egypt. Development plan in the Qattara depression might open new highways to the exploitation of underground and sea waters.

Increasing diversity means decreasing dependance. A stronger Egypt could be leading a regional renewal, encouraging developmental projects in upstream countries and sharing with them the fruit of their investments. In the last 40 years, Egypt has been at the receiving end of a profitable developmental corridor that drove into its treasury millions in aid investments from the International Financial Institutions (IFI) and the U.S. Egypt’s new role in a re-energized African connection can be greatly profitable for up and downstream countries alike.

Decreasing dependence would also mean decreasing Egypt’s interest in hindering other nation’s development, for example exercising its veto power in the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI). Fear of Egyptian and Sudanese encroachment in Ethiopia’s plans legitimized Zenawi’s acting in the shadow, coming up with a project that lacks of funding, risks provoking long-lasting geopolitical repercussions, and of endangering the environment and wasting the citizen’s savings. A stronger Egypt will benefit the whole region and cannot be built on the others’ weaknesses.

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