The Politics of the Nile – Girma Kassa

December 8th, 2010 Print Print Email Email

Some accuse the Zenawi regime of using the Nile issue to divert attention away from its human right records and portray itself as nationalist. As evidence, they site the Ethio-Egyptian 1993 Nile Accord known as the “Framework for General Co-operation between the Arab Republic of Egypt and Ethiopia” which they consider to be a sell-out of Ethiopia’s interests.

“The July 1993 accord signed in Cairo strips Ethiopia of its right to use the Nile River for development schemes. Article 6 of the accord states: ‘The two parties agree on the necessity of the conservation and protection of the Nile Waters. In this regard, they undertake to consult and cooperate in projects that are mutually advantageous, such as projects that would enhance the volume of flow and reduce the loss of Nile Waters through comprehensive and integrated development schemes.’ In other words, Ethiopia must first get approval from Egypt before undertaking any development projects on Nile.”

wrote Ethiopian Review, a popular opposition website.

A careful analysis of the 1993 Accord though, does not support such claims. Nowhere in this accord do we see any clause indicating that Ethiopians must get approval from Egypt before undertaking any Nile-related developments. This 1993 Ethio-Egyptian accord solely highlighted that the two countries would try to address the Nile issue in a dialog conforming to International Law.

“The two Parties agree that the issue of the use of the Nile waters shall be worked out in detail, through discussions by experts from both sides, on the basis of the rules and principles of international law.”

declares Article 4.

From this Accord, we see that the Zenawi regime was successful in bringing Egypt to the negotiating table. No major decisions were made in this Accord that short changed Ethiopian interests. The decision that was made was to put aside any prior agreements Egypt may have signed with other countries and start a new dialog.

Ethiopia and Egypt agreed on the need to resolve their differences based on International Law. That by itself was an indirect admission by Egypt that the 1956 agreement it had with the Sudan would have no impact on Ethiopia. This indeed was the beginning of Ethiopia’s victory.

Since Egypt and Ethiopia have agreed to abide by International law, it would be helpful to understand the main focus of the Law.

Here are two major rules that are often mentioned when it comes to water usage. Article 5 of the United Nations Law of Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses , which is known as the rule of equitable utilization, unambiguously asserts that watercourse nations shall …utilize an international watercourse, in an equitable and reasonable manner.

Per this Article and contrary to the 1956 agreement which states that Egypt assumed the right to veto any construction projects that would affect its interests adversely, Ethiopia, the source of the Nile , does have the full right to use the Nile water for its critical development projects.

Article 7, known as the rule of no-harm, is another UN article that may seem to contradict Article 5. It states that “Watercourse nations shall exercise due diligence to utilize an International watercourse in such a way as not to cause significant harm to other watercourse Nations”.

Egypt may try to use the no-harm rule and put international pressure on Ethiopia to prevent it from using its Nile waters. It may saw confusion and exaggerated claims to mislead the International Community that Ethiopia’s use of the Nile would seriously harm its interests.

However, it would be a hard task for Egypt to sway reasonable minds against Ethiopia’s use of the Nile water, a country from which 85% of the Nile water originates and whose population is often stricken by drought; while at the same time it is irrigating millions of hectares of its arid land.

Though at times Article 7 and Article 5 may be seen as contradictory, the rule of no-harm is subordinate to the equitable utilization rule. Therefore, regardless of the no-harm rule, the right of Ethiopia to use the water is one that is very firm and undisputed.

Looking at the no-harm rule from another angle, one can clearly see that it can be turned around and used by Ethiopia to strengthen its position. By not using the Nile water, Ethiopia is basically letting millions of its people starve and be dependent on foreign food aids. Is that not harming Ethiopia? Couldn’t that be considered a violation of the no-harm rule when one riparian country (Egypt) is using all the waters and harming other riparian countries like Ethiopia?

Per the spirit of dialog displayed in the 1993 Accord, other Nile Basin countries were added and intense discussions continued until May 2010, when Egypt and Sudan took drastic and unfortunate measures that poisoned the spirit of dialog.

Allow me to list some of the major milestones unfolded since 1993 when it comes to the Nile water:

• The year the 1993 Ethio-Egyptian Accord was signed, the Technical Cooperation Committee for the Promotion of the Development and Environment Protection of the Nile basin (TECCONILE) was established.

• In 1995 the NRBAP Nile River Basin Action Plan (NRBAP) was prepared.

• In 1997 the World Bank, and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) began working as “cooperating partners” to facilitate dialog among the riparian states.

• In 1998, all riparian states except Eritrea (Ethiopia, Egypt, Sudan, Burundi, Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Democratic Republic of Congo) began discussion

• In 1999 – A transitional mechanism for cooperation was officially launched in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. The Process was named the Nile Basin Initiatives (NBI)

• In 2002 – A secretariat was established in Entebbe, Uganda.

• On May 14, 2020 – The NBI Agreement was finalized for countries to sign. Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya signed the agreement. Burundi and Congo are expected to follow suit. (So will a likely future independent southern Soudan). Sudan and Egypt rejected the Accord and are currently engaged in the politics of intimidation and threat.

The other very important and significant achievement that needs to be stressed is the fact that Ethiopia has brought together many Nations to its side. It is not like the old times where Ethiopia had to deal with Egypt alone. Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania, possibly Burundi, Dr Republic of Congo are on the side of Ethiopia. Ethiopia has surely gotten the upper hand diplomatically, legally and of course morally.

Egypt has no choice but to sign the NBI agreement and try to solve any issues it may have in dialog and with the spirit reflected in the 1993 Accord it signed with Ethiopia. The threat of war is not the politics of the 21st century. It does not help Egypt. What is in the best interest of Egypt is to sign this agreement and work with Ethiopia.

Returning back to local Ethiopian issues, I highly stress that it is high time for Ethiopians to set aside their differences and send a clear and unequivocal signal to Egypt that ETHIOPIANS ARE UNITED WHEN IT COMES TO THE NILE. All truly patriotic opposition parties must release statements asserting that ETHIOPIA HAS THE FULL RIGHT TO USE ITS NILE WATERS.

Surely some of the local policies of the Zenawi regime are not helping to unify Ethiopians for a common cause. In view of the unhelpful track record the regime has domestically, the critical and bitter opposition some are exhibiting against the regime is understandable.

However, political differences must not blind us from looking at the long term interests of Ethiopia. Mr. Zenawi will go tomorrow. Ethiopia will be there for generations yet to come.

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