COOPERATING ON THE NILE NOT A ZERO-SUM GAME

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.