COOPERATING ON THE NILE NOT
A ZERO-SUM GAME
UNITED NATIONS CHRONICLE (SEP. - NOV. 2001)
By Seifeselassie Lemma
November 22, 2001
The Nile is a river shared by ten riparian States. Out of these countries, five are among the ten
poorest in the world. Their state of poverty, coupled with the alarming population explosion and
environmental degradation, necessitate the development of the Nile Water resources by all
riparian States. "The treaty for the full utilization of the Nile", concluded between Egypt and
the Sudan in 1959, divides the entire flow of the Nile between the two countries. Other riparian
countries, notably Ethiopia-a country with a population of more than 60 million (projected to be
120 million by the year 2025) and which contributes about 86 per cent of the annual discharge
of the Nile-to date use only less that 1 percent of it. Although the need has always been
there, Ethiopia has failed to develop its water resources to feed its needy population, mainly
because of a lack of the required financial resources. Policies of international financial
institutions like the World Bank, which have made it difficult for upper riparian countries to
secure finance for development projects without the consent of the downstream riparian
countries, have a significant contribution in this regard. Bilateral sources of finance have not
been any better. Foreign investments for the development of the Nile waters have been almost
out of the question. The down-stream riparian States, therefore, have maintained the right to
veto the development endeavors of the upstream States.
The Nile status quo is such that Ethiopia, whose name has almost become synonymous with
drought and famine, is condemned to be a bystander, while few downstream States have almost
utilized the entire water flow. Moreover, to make matters worse, they keep on introducing new
mega irrigation projects even further.
As a result, upper riparian countries are naturally left with very little choice other than to resort
to a reciprocal measure of unilateralism. However, many in the Nile Basin, including Ethiopia,
believe that although sharing the Nile water resources may trigger conflict, it surely is a better
reason for cooperation.
Cooperation on the development of the Nile is not a totally uncharted territory. There have
been efforts deployed by some to bring about cooperation over the Nile-cooperative endeavors
such as HUDROMT, UNDUGU and TECCONILE. However, attempts at cooperation under these
arrangements were doomed to failure, mainly because they could not win the confidence of the
riparian States and get them on board. Many, including Ethiopia refused to be associated with
such endeavors for the obvious reason that they were considered to have the sinister motive of
institutionalizing the unjust status quo in the Nile Waters, as evidenced by the 1959
Agreement. Bilateral efforts of cooperation could not fare any better either. The minimum
degree of trust and confidence required for cooperation has been in short supply all along. But
all is not that gloomy; there appears to be a flicker of hope in the horizon.
The United Nations, the World Bank and other international bodies, which were perceived by
some riparian States to be part of the Nile quagmire for too long, have decided to be part of the
solution. The facilitation by the World Bank and the United Nations Development Programme
(UNDP) engendered two all-inclusive projects: the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) and the Nile
Cooperative Framework. Because they involve all the riparian countries, these projects are
qualitatively different from their predecessors. Given the degree of mistrust characterizing the
Nile, securing the participation of all these countries in projects dealing with the development of
the Nile Waters should be considered a significant move in the direction of cooperation.
The NBI vision-to achieve sustainable socio-economic development through the equitable
utilization of and benefit from the common Nile Basin water resources-is endorsed by all riparian
States. They have even gone beyond the statement of vision and attempted to articulate and
translate it into project portfolios. These attempt at defining and articulating the vision and
translating it into projects is a significant achievement. But one cannot lose sight of the fact
that the task ahead is much more difficult and complex.
It is no secret that the unwritten but real strategy of NBI is to secure the consensus of all the
riparian countries on the less controversial issues by postponing the key but difficult issues of
the Nile to a future date or for succeeding generations. There is no disagreement on the fact
that the projects under NBI essentially have confidence-building as their main objective.
Questions, therefore, arise on whether these "confidence-building" measures stand a chance to
improve the chronic state of mutual mistrust and suspicion that have characterized the
development of the Nile Waters. Would NBI help the riparian States address the unjust status
quo prevailing over the Nile? More specifically, would Egypt be ready to settle for a lesser flow
of the Nile Waters in favour of these being used by countries like Ethiopia? Would Ethiopia be
able to pursue its development agenda without significantly reducing the flow of the Nile
Waters? Would the Sudan be able to overcome its unwarranted paranoia and be ready to play a
catalytic role for the amicable settlement of the Nile issues? Would other riparian States be
agents of real cooperation by abandoning the luxury of standing between polarized positions?
If these questions were to be answered in the affirmative, then one would talk of real
cooperation on the Nile and the possible realization of the NBI vision. Otherwise, the fate of the
Initiative and its vision would not be any different from its predecessors. In fact, the failure of
NBI would mean more mistrust and suspicion among the riparian States, frustration on the part
of the facilitators, and a full-fledged unilateralism, which would be a recipe for a conflict over
the utilization of the Nile Waters. The success of NBI, on the other hand, would mean security
and sustainable supply for the downstream States and a chance for development for the
upstream Sates like Ethiopia.
Institutionalization of cooperation on the Nile is imperative. With the view to address the legal
and institutional aspect of cooperation, "a Cooperative Framework Project (D3)" was initiated in
1997. This pioneer, all-inclusive project, facilitated by UNDP, is designed to have the
"establishment of a functioning Basin-wide multidisciplinary framework for legal and institutional
arrangements", and the "development of a process with clear objectives that will lead to
determination of equitable and legitimate right of water use in each riparian country".
These stated objectives go to the core issue of the development of the Nile Waters, i.e. the
equitable entitlement of the Nile Waters to all the riparian States. Entitlement has always been,
and still remains to be, the single most important of all the Nile issues. A lot of progress has
been registered under the Nile Cooperative Framework Project over the last three years. The
panel, composed of three experts from the Nile riparian countries, has managed to identify,
despite the prevailing sense of mistrust, key issues and articulate their differences. Attempts
on attaining convergence on some of the important issues have been made. Ways and means
to get around dividing issues were also explored.
It is encouraging to note that the panel of experts has developed a draft Cooperative
Framework Agreement, understandably marred by many square brackets. The fact that a new
agreement is being negotiated by all riparian States is a step forward. The differences between
these States, especially Egypt, the Sudan and Ethiopia, on some of the important provisions of
the draft agreement may be resolved if the experts' work can be complemented by the goodwill,
determination and courage of the political leaderships of the riparian States and, of course, the
continued facilitation by the international community.
Poverty reduction in the Nile Basin requires the development of the Nile water resources by all
riparian States. Naturally, utilization of the waters for consumption results in reduction of the
Nile discharge. If Ethiopia is to develop projects involving the use of the Nile Waters, the
amount of water that reaches its riparian neighbors would naturally be less. Cooperation,
therefore, may mean less water for them and, as such, it is not surprising that non-cooperation
has remained the Nile modus operandi for too long. The question is: "Is this monopoly status
sustainable?" Cooperation or no cooperation, countries like Ethiopia have reached the stage
where they are left with no choice other than to utilize the Nile Waters for irrigation,
hydro-power generation and other population needs.
Confrontation has been the state of affairs that has characterized the Nile for no less than a
century. The outcome has been insecurity, which has almost become the Nile way of life.
Cooperation has been denied a chance by some who have been under the mistaken impression
that the unjust Nile status quo could be sustainable. Now it should be clear to all that the only
viable alternative is cooperation. And Nile cooperation is not a Zero-sum game. As such, it
takes the goodwill and resolve of all riparian States to realize the development of the Nile
Waters for the benefit of all.
Seifeselassie Lemma, Acting director General for Legal Affairs of the Ministry of Foreign
Affairs of Ethiopia.