Home Editorial Rumors of War On the Nile: A Critical View of Ethiopia

Rumors of War On the Nile: A Critical View of Ethiopia


Ethiopian Renaissance Dam
Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam currently under construction

Meles Zenawi hoped to build the “Grand Renaissance Dam” as the mother of all dams on the African continent to outdo Nkrumah, Mobutu and Gadhafi. Like all of the African white elephants, this Dam is a vanity make-believe project partly intended to glorify Meles Zenawi and magnify his international prestige while diverting attention from the endemic corruption that has consumed his regime as recently documented in a 448-page World Bank report. Meles sought to cover his bloody hands and clothe his naked dictatorships with megaprojects and veneers of progress and development.  The “Grand Renaissance Dam” is the temporary name for the “Grand Meles Memorial Dam”. Meles wanted to be immortalized in that largest cement monument in the history of the African continent. To be sure, he had a “dry run” on immortality when he commissioned the construction of  Gilgel Gibe III Dam on the Omo River in southern Ethiopia which has been dubbed the “largest hydroelectric plant in Africa with a power output of about 1870 Megawatt.”

The Dam and the Damned

There is little doubt that IF the “Grand Renaissance Dam” is completed, it will have a significant long term impact on water supply and availability to the Sudan and Egypt. The general view among the experts is that if the dam is constructed as specified by the regime in Ethiopia, it could result in significant reduction in cultivable agricultural lands and water shortages throughout Egypt. According to Mohamed Nasr El Din Allam, the former Egyptian minster of water and irrigation, if the dam is built “Millions of people would go hungry. There would be water shortages everywhere. It’s huge.”

The regime in Ethiopia claims the depth of the Dam will be 150 meters and the water reservoir behind the Dam could be used to irrigate more than 500,000 hectares of new agricultural lands. Experts suggest that the water reservoir behind the dam could hold as much as 62bn cubic meters of water; and depending upon seasonal rainfall and the rate at which the reservoir is filled, there could be significant reductions in the flow of water to Egypt and Sudan. The environmental impact of the Dam in Ethiopia will be catastrophic.Experts believe such a dam if built will “flood 1,680 square kilometers of forest in northwest Ethiopia, near the Sudan border, and create a reservoir that is nearly twice as large as Lake Tana, Ethiopia’s largest natural lake….” The so-called tripartite committee of international experts is expected to issue its report on the potential environmental impacts of the Dam in May 2013.

The Legal Dimensions of the Nile Water Dispute

The are many knotty legal issues surrounding the treaties and agreements concluded between Britain as a colonial power and the countries in the Nile basin (Burundi, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Eritrea, the Sudan, and Egypt) on the use of Nile water. Beginning in 1891, Britain concluded at least seven agreements on the use and control of the Nile. In the major treaties, the British included  language which effectively prevented Ethiopia and other upstream countries  from “construct[ing] any irrigation or other works which might sensibly modify its flow into the Nile” or its “tributaries.” For instance, the May 15, 1902 Treaty regarding the Frontiers between the Anglo- Egyptian Sudan, Ethiopia and British Eritrea, restrained “His Majesty the Emperor Menelik II, King of kings of Ethiopia” from “construct[ing] or allow[ing]  to be constructed, any works across the Blue Nile, Lake Tsana or the Sobat,… except in agreement with his Britannic Majesty’s Government and the Government of the Sudan”.

The current legal and political controversy over the Nile water revolves around the 1929 Nile Waters Agreement (which guarantees disproportionately high volumes of Nile water (85 percent) to Egypt and gave Egypt the right to monitor the Nile flow in the upstream countries and veto powers on all Nile projects upstream) and the 1959 agreement between Britain and Egypt in regards to the use of waters of the River Nile for irrigation purposes which recognized “Egypt’s natural and historic rights in the waters of the Nile and its requirements of agricultural extension…”

A number of the upper-riparian states including Ethiopia, Tanzania and Burundi have rejected the validity of the 1929 Treaty and believe that they have the right to do whatever they choose with the water that flows through their boundaries (“Harmon Doctrine”). In 1964, the Government of Tanganyika openly disavowed the 1929 agreement (“Nyerere Doctrine” which asserts that a newly independent state has the right to “opt in” or selectively succeed to colonial treaties):  “The Government of Tanganyika has come to the conclusion that the provisions of the 1929 Agreement purporting to apply to the countries ‘under British Administration’ are not binding on Tanganyika.” On similar grounds, Uganda and Kenya subsequently rejected that agreement. Even Sudan has challenged the allocation ratio of the water it got under that agreement.

Ethiopia’s legal position on the various colonial treaties is explored in full in Gebre Tasadik Degefu’s authoritative work, The Nile: Historical, Legal and Developmental Perspectives (2003). Gebre Tasadik challenges the validity of the treaties on the grounds that “while Ethiopia’s natural rights in a certain share of the waters in its own territory are undeniable…, no treaty has ever mentioned them. This fact would be sufficient for invalidating the binding force of those agreements, which have no counterpart in favor of Ethiopia.” He also points out significant technical issues in the treaties. He suggests  that the “English version of the 1902 agreement obliged Ethiopia to seek prior accord with the united kingdom before initiating any works that might affect the discharge of the Blue Nile… The Amharic version does not oblige Ethiopia to request permission from the British Government…”

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Others have argued that Ethiopia is not bound by the 1902 treaty with Britain because the “treaty never came into force as Britain did not ratify it and the Ethiopian government had rejected it in the 1950s”. Even if that treaty were valid, Britain is said to have violated its terms by “supporting and recognizing the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in violation of Article 60 of the 1902 agreement”. Technical interpretation of the relevant clauses of the 1902 treaty are also said to favor Ethiopia since that treaty “does not prohibit use of the Nile” but obliges Ethiopia “not to arrest of the Nile, which is interpreted to mean total blockage.”

The 1959 Nile Waters Agreement between Egypt and Sudan sought to give the two countries full control and utilization of Nile water by modifying certain aspects of the 1929 agreement. But that agreement completely ignored the interests of any of the upstream countries, particularly Ethiopia.

Egypt has refused to renegotiate the 84-year-old treaty and insist on the perpetual binding authority of the colonial era treaties as legal formalizations of Egypt’s historical and natural rights over the Nile water. They also insist that the international law of state succession makes the treaties made by colonial Britain binding on successor post-independence African states.

The general consensus among informed commentators is that the Nile treaties are not binding in perpetuity. They point to the inequitable elements of the various agreements on upper riparian states and the radical change in the scope of obligations under the agreements over the past eight decades to challenge the validity of the colonial era treaties.

The paramount question is not whether the Nile water dispute can be resolved in an international court of law or other tribunal but what political accommodations can be made by the basin states to equitably benefit their nations and strengthen their bonds of friendship. Equitable sharing of Nile water is necessary not only for regional stability and amity but also to meet the growing energy and food production needs of the populations of all Nile basin countries in the coming decades. There is no shortage of predictions of doom and gloom over the looming water scarcity worldwide. Over a decade ago, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan warned, “Fierce competition for fresh water may well become a source of conflict and wars in the future.” Insisting on the eternal validity and binding nature of the Nile water treaties is untenable and unreasonable.

Part Three


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