Debt on the Nile? Sharing the rivers on the African continent


Troubles are brewing on the Nile. For years, the use of the river was mainly related to the needs of Egypt, by far the largest and most powerful riparian country in the basin. But since the Arab Spring of 2011, the situation has changed considerably. Egypt’s turmoil over the past decade has weakened its ability to project energy south, while the upper riparian states, Ethiopia in particular, have experienced a period of economic growth and relative stability, which led them to consider the great river as an important national resource. . Tensions have come to a head since Ethiopia announced the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which is now nearing completion. When full, the resulting reservoir will be larger than all of Greater London. Much of the water it contains would previously have reached Sudan and Egypt largely unhindered.

As the time to start filling the vast new GERD reservoir approaches, these downstream neighbors have been unable to reach consensus with Ethiopia on its plans for the river. Although still a remote possibility – and one that will hopefully never materialize – military confrontation is not completely out of the question. Indeed, all parties often refer to it as the worst alternative to a negotiated agreement. The need to reach a settlement is becoming more urgent by the hour.

This is a classic negotiation problem in the international management of water resources. Ethiopia is in the process of constructing a vast hydroelectric facility on the upper Blue Nile, entirely within its own sovereign territory. With an installed capacity of over six gigawatts, the dam is the largest in Africa and will generate enough power not only to support the country’s industrialization, but also to export power to neighbors including Sudan. . The sale of this energy will be a crucial source of foreign currency for a country whose own Ethiopian birr is not traded in international markets.

The problem is that the Blue Nile is also the main tributary of the Nile, accounting for around 85% of the total flow that reaches Egypt. As the dam draws to a close, the problem of filling the reservoir has come to the fore. During the replenishment period, which will last for several years, the Egyptians and Sudanese maintain that their water supply will be severely affected unless an agreement is reached in which Ethiopia releases enough water to meet the needs of its neighbors and undertakes not to interfere. regardless of throughput, or even cut off supplies altogether, in the future.

Ethiopia argues that the hydropower plant will not be a large consumer of water once the reservoir is filled. On the contrary, it suggests that Sudan will in fact benefit from a more regulated flow. Egypt meanwhile has the Aswan High Dam, whose huge reservoir, Lake Nasser, can hold twice the annual flow of the Nile, more than enough to cushion any temporary reduction, the Ethiopians say. Why would they cede control of their own waters to a country that has never shied away from exercising sovereignty over the entire river?

Cooperation is the key

A thorny situation, but technically soluble. The stalemate is more about geopolitics and trust than engineering. The Nile Basin Initiative—the partnership of ten riparian countries launched in 1999—has made heroic efforts to try to create a framework in which trust could be built. Ensuring that Egypt and Sudan have enough water, while allowing Ethiopia and others to reap the benefits of the river, requires cooperation and understanding that decisions that might benefit one party today will not create a precedent that would jeopardize the future of others. Such cooperation may also require incurring politically difficult costs at the national level – intervening in agricultural water subsidies in Egypt, for example, or reducing the rate at which Ethiopia’s GERD becomes fully operational and irritating. thus the large number of Ethiopians whose savings provided crucial funding for the huge project. .

International coordination along the Nile is a long-simmering issue. During this brief period of the early 20and century, when Britain controlled almost the entire basin, from Lake Victoria to the delta, engineers and bureaucrats devised an integrated solution that would allow complete management of the river, water storage and access to the ‘irrigation. After Egypt regained its independence in 1922, the problem of sharing the Nile with Anglo-Sudan led to a 1929 agreement. Other riparian countries were excluded from the agreements, even though from 1930, Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia in particular had become an increasingly influential international player. The same happened with the next major agreement in 1959, leading Selassie to invite the US Bureau of Reclamation to produce a plan for the Blue Nile, in a clear plan across the arcs of its downstream neighbours. Nasser’s Aswan High Dam then established a major downstream demand for water in Egypt, reaffirming the supremacy of that country’s permanent needs over the river, and seemingly marking the unilateral conclusion of its reconfiguration. So far, that is.

All of these developments, whether implemented or simply threatened, have been supported by the presence of a dominant underwriter – be it the British Empire, the US State Department, the World Bank or the Soviet Union. . The mechanisms by which funding can be extended to its development have always been a critical factor in the Nile negotiations. Basically, it’s not just about paying for the construction of individual projects, it’s also the lubricant for the development of non-zero-sum game solutions. Jumping from continents to Asia, the famous Indus River Treaty between India and Pakistan is another example. If Kashmir allows it, it continues to function to this day as a testament to international riverine cooperation between uncomfortable neighbors. However, its origin was not only based on well-meaning international cooperation. The treaty was negotiated with a large financial commitment orchestrated by the World Bank, to pay for Pakistan’s overhaul and separation of the intertwined irrigation networks.

Coordination is conditioned by the national actions of all parties, the cost of which must be politically acceptable. Funding can help make them such by consolidating them both in providing the necessary infrastructure and ensuring that actions can be spread over time. Therefore, a central issue in the development of a negotiated solution between riparian states that share a river should be the financing of such a solution.

The stakes are high

Cooperation is not just about financing major infrastructure, of course. Elsewhere, for example, The Nature Conservancy has worked with riparian countries on another major African river, the Okavango, to create a fund that would ensure upstream resource protection and protect the ecologically irreplaceable delta. The hope is that by mobilizing additional concessional resources, it will be possible to reshape the incentives of riparian countries on the upper and lower reaches of the river, leading to a use of its waters that is better balanced between human needs and those of nature. . The stakes are also high on the Okavango: the absolute development of Angola’s water resources upstream could irreparably compromise the state of the delta, one of the most important ecosystems on the planet and a crucial source of tourism revenue. for Botswana.

Getting it right is extremely important. The situations on the Nile and the Okavango are important harbingers of much more to come. Most African countries are landlocked; many are also crossed by a shared river like the Congo, Zambezi or Niger. Transboundary problems will become the norm rather than the exception on a continent that has only scratched the surface of its potential for generating hydroelectricity and regulating the increasing variability of its tropical rainfall patterns.

The question is, who will provide the underwriting to find better, more coordinated solutions on the scale needed for the development and environmental challenges these countries face? At first glance, China is the most obvious candidate – it has already provided large loans to a number of African countries, in particular Angola for the upper Okavango and Ethiopia for the upper part of the Okavango. upper Nile.

So far, however, these interventions have been limited to investments and advice for individual infrastructure elements like the GERD. Whether China will be keen to embrace greater optimization of Africa’s major transboundary rivers – whether it will be willing to engage beyond engineering interests and play the role of influencer – is not Pure speculation at this point.

And so, the international community faces a conundrum. Historical experience and current experiments, such as those that The Nature Conservancy is piloting, suggest that ensuring cooperation on critical water management issues requires defining terms in a way that is fundable and having flexibility. money on the table to back it up. We do not yet know where these financial resources will come from, but we should not have any illusions: if the countries bordering the Nile do not reach an agreement, the repercussions on the whole continent could well lead in the long term to turbulent waters over all major regions of Africa. rivers.

Giulio Boccaletti is Chief Strategy Officer and Global Water Ambassador for The Nature Conservancy, a global conservation organization. A physicist and atmospheric scientist by training, Giulio is an expert in environmental and economic sustainability.

Photo credit: People living near the Blue Nile Falls, Tis-Isat Falls, meaning big smoke in Amharic in the Amara region of Ethiopia, East Africa, Courtesy of, all rights reserved.


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