Cooperating on the Nile Not a Zero-Sum Game

Article excerpt

"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 than 1 per cent 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 downstream riparian States, therefore, have maintained the right to veto the development endeavours 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 megairrigation 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 endeavours such as HYDROMET, 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 endeavours 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. …