Nile Waters: Promises And Threats

Nile Waters: Promises And Threats

KHARTOUM (Sudanow) - Written by Sudan’s most famous politician of modern times, Mr. Sadig al-Mahdi (twice elected prime minister (1967) and (1986-1989); this book was published in 2000 but has of late gained wide readership thanks to the ongoing tug of war between Egypt and Ethiopia over the construction by Ethiopia of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (The GERD), across the River Blue Nile, near Sudan’s Southern border.


Mr. Mahdi has accounted for a lot of historical, political and developmental facts about the River Nile. Some observers now consider Mr. Mahdi’s book one of the best studies one can resort to in order to understand the current state of affairs in the Nile Basin and the challenges that face the Nile states. The study, moreover, presents means for overcoming the problems that face the Nile Basin countries in a way that realizes the common interests of these countries. It is enough to indicate here Mr. Mahdi’s early warning (at the end of his book) that: It is indeed very sorrowful that the political positions of the Nile Basin countries as regards the achievement of justice in water resources are very sharply disparate.” That was an early red signal Mr. Mahdi had flashed in the face of the Nile Basin countries, but unfortunately, it passed unheeded. 


The value of Mr. Mahdi’s assertions rests with the candidness and the deepness with which he tackled the divide between the Nile upstream countries (Ethiopia and others) and the Nile downstream countries (Egypt and the Sudan), where the first charge that they do not benefit from the Nile in their economic development because of the pacts formulated during the colonial era while the latter believe that the benefit they make from the Nile water was a historical right guaranteed by several agreements.


Mr. Mahdi accounts for an important incident in this respect: “In February 1997, I met Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zinawi who spoke to me about his country’s grievances regarding the Nile waters. He said Ethiopia was deprived from a natural resource that springs from its own territories, and this is an unjust and an odd situation. Zinawi said:”During the rule of Mengistu Haile Mariam Egypt was keen to discuss the Nile waters issue, but Mengistu was reluctant. But now and when we have become keen to open this dossier, Egypt is turning a deaf ear.” Then he (Zinawi) said:”We have rights in the Nile waters. We are in a pressing need for this water in irrigation and the production of electricity.” Then he (Zinawi) said:”rights do not die by the passing of time.”

The book's cover


Mahdi then goes on to say that two weeks after the encounter with Mr. Zinawi he met Egyptian President Husni Mubarak and communicated to him what he heard from Mr. Zinawi and indicated to him the need for his country to pay attention to its relations with Ethiopia, especially with respect to the Nile waters dossier. Mahdi has asserted that Mr. Mubarak was very attentive to what he said and had understood the gravity of the situation.


Mahdi says that in the same connection he in 1997 visited the Cairo Book Fair “where I found that the tense emotions I felt in some officials were reflected in some books with attractive covers and shouting titles like: Water... the Future War, written by Mr. Adil Abdeljaleel, Water Wars in the Middle East, by Dr. Hassan Bakr, The Water Wars, by John Bullock and Adil Darweesh and other books with different titles but with the same theme that water means war. I was upset by the tense emotions of the Egyptian officials and the exciting book titles and this has increased my concern with the Nile waters dossier.


Mr. Mahdi has urged officials of the Nile Basin countries to depart from “the mentality of suspicion, tracking and submission to the inevitability of collision to the mentality of strategic interconnection.” This departure, he argues, is sure to eliminate bad omens and open doors of hope. Mahdi says this change is possible if we agree that:



The River Nile had always been an Egyptian matter and has of late become a Sudanese-Egyptian affair. And now we have to understand that the factors of need for water in the Nile upstream countries, the need to develop the Nile water resources and to protect the environment dictate a shift towards a position where the Nile becomes a general interest for all the Nile Basin’s member states. 



The water issue is being discussed in a static framework. In this framework the water issue looks difficult to handle, because it is related to quotas of some countries which were given to other countries. However, the matter looks solvable if we approach it in a dynamic framework, a framework in which the Nile Basin states cooperate to increase the flow of the River’s water and protect its purity.



Many people entertain the view that any change in the water quotas in favor of the upstream countries would sure be at the expense of Egypt and the Sudan. This zero sum formula should be skipped and should be replaced with a positive outlook and a cooperative climate, a cooperative effort that benefits all parties.



Water is an economic commodity and the need to increase supply and rationalize demand necessitates the unification of authorities concerned with water resources in each country in a bid to beef up the efficiency of supply and control demand. Accordingly, to convert water from a natural commodity (just like air) into a rare economic commodity is a national, regional and international duty.



The River’s one basin dictates upon the countries that lie on its banks to consider it a one water unit and to consider the management of its resources a common affair. The right way to deal with this one water unit is through a joint management.



The water issue is widely tackled in a superficial manner. This superficial (or rather clownish) handling of the water issue that raises accusations and propagates rumors can only lead to more suspicion and mistrust. For instance, if the source countries call for the division of water resources, claims will pour down that these countries do not need the water and are in collusion with Israel to harm Sudan and Egypt or, else, Egypt is seeking to destabilize the upstream countries (Ethiopia in particular) by instigating civil wars that may distract it (Ethiopia) from its development programs and from the exploitation of its water resources. These accusations create a psychological warfare within the Nile Basin states.



The River downstream country (Egypt), being the most progressive with respect to economic and human development, should not treat the Nile Basin countries like any other countries. It should treat them in a special way and should boost their economic and human development, increase trade exchange with them and establish strong information and cultural relations with them. It should cement its ties with these countries at both the official and popular levels in order to develop a positive feeling among the Nile Basin countries.



There are three circles of belonging in the Northern part of the Nile Basin. These are: the Arab circle, the Islamic circle and the African circle. The first two circles are religiously, nationally and culturally vital. The third circle (the African) is a matter of livelihood. The political development in the recent history has marginalized this circle in the Sudan and in Egypt in a bigger degree. The marginalization of this relation of livelihood is incompatible with the interests of Sudan and Egypt. Its marginalization can gravely undermine the interests of the two countries and their peoples. There is pressing need for Egypt and Sudan to revise their priorities and give the African circle more attention.



The Nile and the other rivers’ basins are now subject of immense international interest with respect to data, the provision of finance and technology to promote them, the enactment of legislations for equitable distribution of their resources and the creation of mechanisms for fair brokering of conflicts along these rivers. That is why Nile waters’ matters have progressed with respect to studies and technical cooperation. But this progress is limited by a political ceiling that prevents their further development. There is loose cooperation among the Nile Basin countries within such organizations as the COMSEA and the Indego Africa, a cooperation shackled by the absence of a comprehensive political agreement about the water resources of the Nile Basin.


The Nile water issue will continue to stand still if it is not tackled with an enlightened political discretion that devises a conclusive solution. This enlightened political discretion is capable of effecting a turn in the above cited points and help cross the present deadlock into open avenues.


After this descriptive review of the nature of the dispute, Mr. Mahdi considers his words as a warning “about evil and harm” that may prevail if a political agreement is not reached about the water resources. My words can also be a good omen when we consider the benefits that may be reaped, if such an agreement is reached, he says.


Mahdi has, further, called for the conclusion of a binding accord among the Nile Basin countries, an accord that opens doors for cooperation and that achieves “a promising bond that brings good and prosperity to these countries.” This accord, Mahdi asserts, is a guarantee against destructive conflicts.


“The Nile Basin countries should live up to their responsibilities with a genuine willpower to achieve the promises of the Nile and prevent its threats,” he asserts.




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