Equitable Utilization of Nile Waters–cooperation is better than conflict

Aklog Birara (Dr)

Part I of IV
I have argued based on facts and U.N. conventions on the absence of a fair, just and mutually
beneficiary regime of principles governing transboundary rivers as a result of which Ethiopia and
other Sub-Saharan African riparian nations have been harmed severely. The narrative that I want
to dispel is Egypt’s false and misleading claim that it alone has “natural and historical rights”
over Nile waters. It is incontestable that Ethiopia supplies 86 percent of Nile waters. It has
legitimate sovereign rights to build numerous dams for the betterment of its poverty-stricken
It is vital to remember that, despite Ethiopia’s continuous policy positions that it does not accept
the colonial prescription of 1959 that granted Egypt hegemony over the Nile, Egypt has managed
to use the global and regional geopolitical architecture to scuttle Ethiopia’s efforts to build
hydroelectric and irrigation dams within its own national territory. It has also succeeded in
persuading multilateral financial agencies, most notably, the World Bank from providing funding
to Ethiopia for such projects. As a consequence, Ethiopia has paid an incalculable price from this
relentless Egyptian geopolitical pressure and subversion.; and from the acquiescence of
multilateral lenders.
I shall provide human development examples concerning the harm of hegemony. Ethiopian
females including mothers walk for miles to fetch wood and dung for fuel and carry these on
their hacks. More than 65 million Ethiopians lack access to electricity compared to 100 percent
of Egyptians. More than 50 million Ethiopians lack access to safe drinking water. Egypt exports
foods, including potatoes to European nations. Ethiopia imports wheat.
In light of this imbalance, I ask myself why multilateral donors, especially the World Bank,
refused Ethiopia’s request to finance hydroelectric and irrigation dams; and why it sided with
Egypt during the Washington D.C. sponsored negations from which Ethiopia withdrew?
What then is the way forward?

  1. Focus singularly on the sustainability of the ecosystem of the Nile Basin. Climate change
    is real. The Blue Nile Basin and its entire ecosystem which covers an area of 365,318
    square kilometers or almost 32 percent of Ethiopia and accounts for 70 percent of the
    nation’s water resources is the country’s primary source of life and livelihoods. The vast
    majority of Ethiopia’s 115 million people depend on this Basin. An estimated 86 percent
    of the Nile waters that nourishes the Nile over which Egypt claims hegemony comes
    from the Blue Nile. In turn this river is dependent on a web of tributaries that originate
    from the same mountains that make Ethiopia’s other big rivers including Gibe/Omo,
    Genale Dawa, Wabe Shebele, Awash, Baro-Akobo and Tekeze. In effect, 90 percent of
    Ethiopia’s Rivers are transboundary. Egypt, Ethiopia and the Sudan ought to give greater
    attention to this long-term issue of sustainability.

These rivers are affected by climate change, by increased population and by frequent conflicts,
among these proxy wars. Egypt has and continues to be a major agent of proxy wars. These
conflicts and the opportunity costs emanating from Egypt’s diplomatic offensives, for example,
not to lend to Ethiopia, entail costs in the tens of billions of dollars. Egypt’s intransigence and
belittling Ethiopia’s needs is a costly. It should be rejected by the global community.
Peace and stability are essential for development. The UN system must compel Egypt not to
conduct proxy wars. There must be consequences for aggression. Egypt must believe that a
prosperous and stable Ethiopia is as important for Egypt as it is for the entire Horn and the rest
of Africa.
Egypt’s erroneous preposition of win-lose is no longer acceptable to the vast majority of Black
Africa. The Greek historian Herodotus declared ages ago that “Egypt is a gift of the Nile.” He
did not know its origin or the people who inhabited and governed the mountains or valleys of
this origin. It is Ethiopians. The claim of “natural and historical rights is thus a non-option.
I shall put this in human terms. I do not wish to see an Egyptian girl or mother to cut and haul
woods on her back in the 21st century. I do not wish for an Egyptian family to live in the age of
darkness for lack of access to electricity. I do not wish for any Egyptian family to live without
food or safe drinking water. Ethiopia’s demands are similar. It does intend to harm Egypt or the
Sudan. I know of no hydroelectric dam that ultimately reduced waters to a riparian nation.
I therefore ask this question. Why is it so hard for the Egyptian government to accept that the
Ethiopian people have the same human development aspirations and basic needs as Egyptians?
Why treat Ethiopians as less equal to Egyptians? Ethiopia is not demanding more than fair,
equitable and mutually beneficial treatment? The core issue for me is fairness and equity.
In the debate of filling the Dam, the bigger and more serious issue of sustainability of the
ecosystem is lost. Egyptian society must be cognizant of the fact that the cutting of trees and
vegetation for fuel, soil erosion and environmental degradation, erratic rainfalls, occasional
flooding, Biblical farming technologies and the lack of innovative farming tools, the enormous
challenges Ethiopia faces in creating alternative jobs for youth, scarcity and inadequate
investment capital in manufacturing and industrialization, frequent locust invasions, internal
conflicts over lands, proxy wars and so on contribute to the fragility of the entire ecosystem.
Just take one example. Lake Tana, a major source of the Blue Nile has been devastated by
hyacinth. This devastation has been taking place for 7 years. It has been completely ignored by
the regional and federal governments. Donors and riparian countries such as Egypt and the
Sudan that benefit hugely from the lake as a major global water and climate asset have literally
neglected this lake as well, in part due to negligence from Ethiopian authorities.
I fail to understand why this dangerously fragile ecological setting has been ignored in the
conversation by the global community and by multilateral donors. What may appear to be a
serious existential threat for Ethiopia is equally a major threat for both Egypt and the Sudan.
What is at stake is the long-term viability and sustainability of the River Nile. This should be a
focus of attention.


Discuss and agree on shared responsibility
If nothing else compels Egypt, Ethiopia and the Sudan to discus, agree, cooperate and propose a
global commitment for massive engineering and the injection of financial capital, the
regeneration of the ecosystem of the Blue Nile in particular and the Nile River in general can and
should be a central objective. The benefits that would accrue to Ethiopia–an upstream nation–
through reforestation (Ethiopia is doing this on its own), soil and water conservation, improved
livelihoods for millions of Ethiopians who rely on the fragile ecosystem for sustenance, rural
electrification linked to the future African Grid, alternative manufacturing and industrialization
that will spur millions of jobs, etc. will contribute substantially to Nile River reliability and
sustainability. The shared benefits are peace, stability and prosperity.
Egypt, the Sudan and the global community especially, multilateral donors such as the World
Bank, the UNDP and the African Development Bank must embrace this proposal as a win-win
for all stakeholders, including the planet itself. Restoration and regeneration are a common good.
I urge Egyptian and Sudanese societies, especially academics and the media to focus on this
critical option rather than preoccupying themselves on Ethiopia’s national resolve to fill, operate
and manage the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. The Dam is a huge investment for Ethiopia.
Its technical foundation and parameters are unmatched; and recognized by Sudanese authorities.
Egypt must accept the notion that Ethiopia has invested its scarce resources collected from
citizens including the poor by paying due diligence to technical quality; and by ensuring that the
Dam will be an enduring project. You do not invest almost 5 billion dollars and take a risk. So,
the argument that there is a flaw on the technical foundation of the Dam is bogus. It is better than
the Aswan Dam!!
Ethiopia has propriety rights to the GERD.
Egypt, the Sudan and the global community should also recognize and accept the notion that
there is no acceptable and legitimate Nile River Treaty that binds Ethiopia. Ethiopia’s primary
responsibility and accountability is to ensure that its waters and electricity services are available
for families, farms, health centers, manufacturing and industrial firms as well as to other modern
institutions such as schools. Ethiopians should never ever again accept to live in abject poverty.
To conclude this proposal, Ethiopia has a legitimate and sovereign right to fill the GERD
unilaterally and to operate and manage it independently. Ethiopia must be firm on this. There
cannot be two different international standards: one for Ethiopia and another for Egypt or for
Turkey or for the U.S. A. etc. Remember that Ethiopia was never asked to give its opinion on the
Aswan Damo or any of the others Egypt and the Sudan constructed.

  1. The second proposal I would suggest is a new River Nile Treaty.
    The River Nile is the only significant transboundary River without a legitimate treaty. Ethiopia
    and newly independent African riparian nations never accepted colonial treaties on the Nile. This
    is the primary reason for constant conflict, including proxy wars. This is also the reason why
    Ethiopia paid a huge price with regard to its development projects. Creditors such as the World
    Bank refused to finance irrigation and power dams that would have helped transform Ethiopia’s

economy for the better. Ironically, the same institutions had opinioned numerous times that

Ethiopia’s rivers can and should be harnessed in order to make the country food secure and self-
sufficient. They have failed to walk the talk. They provided Ethiopia fish to eat but failed

Ethiopia to empower it how to fish; and further failed to provide it the tools to fish so that it
never starves again and again and again. Ethiopia should never succumb to dependency and
A fair, equitable and mutually beneficial treaty is therefore imperative. Such a treaty can draw
from best practices around the globe; and from the menu of laws and conventions agreed by the
United Nations. In Africa itself, the Senegal River is bound by an agreement. Lesotho and South
Africa have a treaty and agreement under which South Africa pays annual rent or royalty to
Lesotho each year. Ages ago, Egyptian rulers, for example, the Ottomans, used to pay rent or
royalty to Ethiopia for waters from the Nile. At the time, they recognized explicitly that Ethiopia
had legitimate rights to Nile waters. It is colonialism that changed this fact.
I recognize that the World Bank, the UNDP and numerous other donors had done a remarkable
job by sponsoring the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI). This promising project conducted numerous
studies on the ecosystem. They proposed several projects that promised to pay dividends for all
riparian nations. They also initiated a comprehensive agreement that Egypt rejected.
NBI must be resurrected. I urge all Nile Basin nations to convene a conference facilitated by the
African Union, the EU or another independent and impartial body and come up with a Treaty
that is fair, just, equitable and mutually beneficial.
Egypt should no longer be allowed to get away with its dismissal and obstructionist policy and
deny the sovereign and legitimate rights of Sub-Saharan African riparian nations. Egypt, the rest
of the Arab League, the United States and other nations must, at last, must accept that these
nations are no appendages of a colonial, exclusionary and racist system. They are free and
independent nations with the same hopes, aspirations and needs as the rest of the world.
Equally, it is time for all members of the African Union to take a stand. At minimum, the AU
must engage more boldly and proactively and help facilitate resolution of the impasse among
Egypt, Ethiopia and the Sudan. It is insufficient to argue that the Nile is an African problem.
That is a given. An African problem requires that African nations participate directly or
indirectly and push for fair, equitable and mutually beneficial solutions. It is solutions not side
shows that history will record.

June 10, 2020
Part II of IV will discuss the essentials of the current impasse on the GERD and present two
policy options.
Aklog Birara served as Senior Advisor of the World Bank and can be reached at

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