A need for matured Nile politics

In retrospect

Ed’s Note: By the time this magazine went to the press, Bahir Dar city, the capital of Amhara Region some 700 kms North of Addis Ababa, was hosting the 7th Regional Nile Day celebrations to commemorate the establishment of the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) in Feb. 1999. The theme for this year’s celebrations was: “Land Degradation and Climate Change: Address Shared Threats – Sustain Nile Cooperation”, a topic discussed on our editorial of April 2011, re-printed below to mark our 2nd year anniversary.

No one believes managing trans-boundary basin system is a piece of cake. First, it is prone to the good or bad politics in its neighborhood. Second, the undercurrent of ease or tension between countries sharing trans-boundary basins depends on the quantity of the water and its chance to survive increasing natural and manmade threats in order to continue to provide the lifeline to the people who depend on it.

When in 2008, Joern Kristensen, chief executive officer of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) admitted “unless we have a mechanism to regulate water use and support and develop it, we are bound to witness conflicts among countries that share the river,” he was referring to the lopsided flow of the Mekong river that was triggered by both manmade and natural events unfolding in its surrounding.

The story of the Nile basin is no exception.

The recent tension between the Nile basin countries especially that of Egypt and Ethiopia following the latter’s decision to build Africa’s largest hydroelectric dam in the Blue Nile is one such an example to reckon.

Currently, the population among the nine Nile basin states quietly but aggressively reached to an estimated 300 million. The same factor sent an awakening signal throughout Egypt when in July 2009, the state-run news agency MENA announced Egypt’s need for water will “surpass its resources” as early as 2017.

This and other unforeseen but potential threats to the survival of the Nile basin such as climate change and the need to its equitable use among riparian states initiated the establishment in 1998 of the NBI, which received a huge welcome from donors, who poured in their money, and the riparian states, who volunteered to come together and discuss some of the thorniest issues they have avoided to face previously.

Regrettably, before the coming into being of the NBI, most of the nine countries in the basin had been dealing with civil wars of their own making than the now critical issues of the river Nile. Of the few chances they publicly took to discuss the water, they had portrayed each other as enemies at best and had avoided coming face to face to find ways to deal with the water that benefited downstream riparian states – Egypt and Sudan – in the cost of the majority upstream states.

But thanks to the courageous actions taken by the nine riparian states, six of the eight NBI projects under the Shared Vision Program (SVP) for example, have been successfully completed over the past few years. Despite some unexpected delays and hiccups on the way, six out of the nine riparian countries have signed the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA). These are achievements that were unthinkable only 12 years ago.

However, recent politics of the Nile have dangerously shadowed these success stories within the NBI. Most of the projects brought technical people from all riparian countries under one roof to work for one goal. These are professionals trying to deal with the factual challenges threatening the future of the world’s longest river. While the political front of the battle for the equitable share of the river could prove to be equally important, it shouldn’t come at a cost of neglect to these decisive stages reached within the NBI.

The politics of the Nile needs to mature. Beyond jiggling behind each other’s back, the nine countries within the NBI must take a collective responsibility to address pressing issues of the river that are threatening its future. Capitulating to the bad tempers between each other will not easily be shrugged off when cooperation for the good of the water is highly demanded.


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