Water War or Water Diplomacy? Which Way?

Water War or Water Diplomacy? Which Way?
Arabs in Egypt believe they have a right to Africa’s resources

AFRICANGLOBE – The politics of the Nile is full of tension, mistrust, anxiety, mystery and diplomatic confrontation among the downstream and upstream riparian countries since time immemorial.

The basin has never seen cooperation until recent times. However, there has been cooperation between the two downstream countries (Sudan and Egypt) with the decoration of the 1959 water sharing agreement. The upper riparian countries (Tanzania, DRC, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya, Eritrea, and Ethiopia) which generate 100 percent of the Nile waters, were neglected from any negotiations and agreements on the utilizations of the river by the colonial powers.

Historical records have shown evidences that demonstrate the occurrence of diplomatic struggle and direct military confrontations between the upstream and downstream countries. This is partly because of the unfair distribution and utilization of the Nile waters among the basin countries. Egypt has been attempting to ensure the continuation of the zero-sum game politics on the Nile waters by undermining the rights of the lower riparian states.

Relations between Ethiopia on the one hand, and Sudan and Egypt on the other, have been characterized by love and hate depending on the continuity and the change of the colonial status quo on utilization of the Nile waters. Besides, their foreign policy orientations have been drastically shaped and reshaped by the political dynamism in the Horn region. Generally, and in Nile politics particularly. In fact, the upstream countries have exploited the Nile water resources for their socio-economic developments by calming the 1929 and 1959 colonial agreements and by weakening the upstream states.

The net effect of these treaties was to deny the rights of the upper riparian countries from using the waters of the Nile without prior approval of Egypt. What is surprising is that these colonial agreements have excluded and downgraded the right of Ethiopia which contributes 85% of the Nile waters from getting its legal share from the Nile. The 1959 agreement has allocated 55.5 billion cube meters of water to Egypt, 18.5 cubic meters for Sudan, and 10 cubic meters to evaporate in the Sahara desert to keep the ecological balance of the environment.

This has been the status quo of the Nile politics in the past. However, due to geo-political, security and environmental transformations in the region, the colonial status quo has been challenged in a way that generates mutual benefits to the basin countries. Hence, the basin countries have strengthened their cooperation for regional joint planned growth under the framework of the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) for the last decades.

The NBI provides a wide-basin framework to fight poverty and to promote socio-economic development among the ten Nile basin countries. It is a historical phenomenon in Nile politics in the sense that it is the first institutional regime on a shared and equitable use of the Nile Waters and for meaningful negotiations as well. Apart from real negotiations, the signing of the Comprehensive Framework Agreement (CFA) by the upstream countries in 2010 became instrumental in bringing new dynamism to Nile politics that significantly changed the colonial status quo and the zero-sum game politics.

This dynamism which challenged Egyptian apartheid policy on the utilization of the Nile waters has led to new political and diplomatic development. Issues surrounding the Nile have become the agenda of the Egyptian public after the official announcement of the diversion of the normal flow of the Nile water by the Ethiopian government. Following the redirection of the water, discussions among Egyptian politicians and policy makers in Egypt indicated possible foreign policy strategies and approaches to the Nile to quickly respond to the new dynamism. These possible foreign policy and security strategies that Egypt will put in place have direct or indirect implications to EthiopianS. Egypt may resort to either water diplomacy, water war, or the combination of the two strategies simultaneously to tackle the new development in Ethiopia.

Egyptian Strategies

Egypt, in spite of its geographical location in the Sahara desert and its absolute dependence on the Nile waters for its very existence, has been following a foreign policy and security strategy that ensures the uninterrupted flow of the Nile waters. The Nile water has been a key national interest concern of Egyptians, and thus is the central element in the circle of Egyptian foreign policy towards the Horn of Africa and Ethiopia as well. With the recent diversion of waters by the Ethiopian government, Egypt may take the following foreign policy and security strategies which have solid messages to the people of Ethiopia.

Water Diplomacy

Diplomacy has been described as the weapon of weak and poor states. In fact, it is important to transform the emotions and positions of opponent parties by imposing all possible diplomatic pressures. This includes sanctions at political, economic and diplomatic levels. Many states used to apply diplomacy in matters of national interest before resorting to war. In this regard, hard diplomacy has been frequently used by Egypt to ensure the perpetuation of the zero-sum game politics in the Nile basin. However, Ethiopia has been insisting on a win-win approach in dealing with matters of the Nile.

Egypt may use the hard diplomacy to react to the current diplomatic and security developments in Ethiopia as part of their propaganda. For instance, it may:

•Attempt to divert the diplomatic negotiations by presenting a distorted image of the dam and by magnifying its negative socio-economic and environmental impacts. Egypt may also present the construction of the dam to the Arab world and the international community at large as a planned strategy by Ethiopia to damage its national interest. By doing so, it will create confusion and ambiguity.

•Take the matter to the Arab League using its influential position as the seat of the League, so as to impose diplomatic sanctions on Ethiopia and to reduce the flow of foreign currency income by disconnecting its trade ties. It may also convince the Arab countries not to export oil, which will gradually aggravate inflation and living expenses and could be translated in to a political crisis.

•Submit the case to the AU, UN, UNSC and ICJ arguing that the construction of the dam severely reduces its “historical share” of the water, for the sake of bringing hard diplomatic pressure on Ethiopia.

Part Two