Keep it together
The River Nile in the Post-Colonial Age: Conflict and Cooperation among the Nile Basin Countries (2010), edited by Terja Tvedt, the American University in Cairo Press, Cairo-New York
One of the leitmotifs of contemporary Egyptian foreign policy is that Cairo must engage more intensely with nations that it has tended to ignore in the past. President Hosni Mubarak spelt out the importance of fostering relations between Egypt and the Nile Basin nations.
One of the main problems facing the Nile Basin nations is that they lack strong relationships at the top. It is time to correct this faux pas.
Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif, too, has indicated that Egypt must improve its lines of communication with the upstream Nile Basin nations.
The editor of The River Nile in the Post- Colonial Age Terje Tveldt, professor of geography at the University of Bergen and professor of political science at the University of Oslo, eloquently expounds the theory that British Nile policy and the conflicts it engendered brought the "kaleidoscopic process of civilisations" in the Nile Basin nations into the "maelstrom of world politics". Tveldt, indeed, "provides significant insights" as the Times Literary Supplement opined. Still, the whole of this work does not equal the sum of its parts.
Professor Tveldt, the author of The River Nile in the Age of the British, not to be confused with the work under review, puts the entire conflict in historical perspective. "The history of the Nile Basin in the age of the British is one of water wars, of hydropolitics on a grand scale, and of a river empire stretching from the Mediterranean to the heart of Africa." If that was the case in the past, there is no reason for the anachronistic and megalomaniac mentality that dominated past debate about the Nile to tarry unabated today. But there are those, it appears, who have a vested interest in ensuring that the debate should hang there.
"British expansion upriver was a rational imperial policy driven by a complex mixture of economic and political considerations that were influenced by how they understood the structuring capabilities of the Nile's geographical and hydrological characteristics," Tveldt notes.
The River Nile in the Post-Colonial Age is the result of a seminar convened at the University of Bergen, Norway, in the Spring of 2007 -- well before five upstream Nile Basin nations signed the controversial New Nile Framework Agreement. The entire venture was funded by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs as Tore Saetersdal, director of the Nile Basin Research Programme, indicates in his foreword to the book.
"For any student of Nile development, this volume will be indispensable to a proper understanding of the complex modern history of the river basin, the politics surrounding it and the efforts that are now being made to jointly manage it," Saetersdal states.
Tvedt comes straight to the poignant point. "Egypt has throughout the post-colonial period been by far the most important actor on the Nile, and has also been the state that has benefited most from the Nile arrangements institutionalised by the British Nile Empire," he stresses. Few in Egypt or elsewhere can dispute such a statement. However, what some might consider contentious is Tvedt's allegation that Egypt's determination to "tame the river within the borders of Egypt" came at the expense of the interests of upstream nations.
The turning point came with the completion of the construction of the Aswan High Dam in 1971. "The Egyptian government has since then determinedly pursued water control projects within Egypt's borders, while at the same time recognising upstream countries' development of the Nile's waters as a potential national security threat," Tvedt postulates.
Against such a backdrop, it is important to remember that Egypt is reluctant to change radically the import of the 1929 and 1959 treaties. The 1929 treaty was signed by Egypt and Britain, representing its African colonies. African countries resent the fact that the treaty that to this day ordains the manner in which Nile waters are divided was signed on their behalf by a colonial power. Another agreement signed in 1959 between Egypt and the then newly independent Sudan permits Egypt the exclusive use of 55.5 billion cubic metres -- or 87 percent of the Nile flow, with Sudan enjoying the exploitation of 18.5 cubic metres only.
"In the 1970s and the 1980s, Egypt stated its willingness to resort to military measures to secure its water supply," claims Tvedt. "The old, deep-seated cultural notion that Egypt was entitled to the waters of the Nile could not be maintained in the modern post-colonial era, challenged partly by a growing body of international water law but also by a growing political strength in the upstream countries," he argues.
Egypt must begin to look southwards instead of eastwards and northwards. The prosperity of Egypt, to a great measure, depends on its capacity to develop closer economic and trade ties with the countries to its south. Africa is the continent of the future, and Egypt is an African country that is poised to play a greater role in African affairs.
Africa is a continent of tremendous economic potential, and the Nile Basin countries in spite of the abject poverty many of them find themselves in, have tremendous resources. Irrigation and hydro-electric schemes, if managed properly, can prove to be the key for the region's prosperity.
The Nile is Egypt's lifeline, without the Nile there would have been no Egypt. While some other Nile Basin nations have alternative water resources, Egypt has none. Egypt is almost exclusively dependent on the Nile waters for its water supplies in agriculture, industry, tourism and household usage. Egypt has technical capabilities that some other Nile Basin countries lack, and it is in Egypt's interest to accelerate the pace of development in the countries of the Nile Basin. As these countries develop and prosper so will Egypt too flourish. Indeed, developing the economies of Nile Basin countries can become the engine of growth for the Egyptian economy. Gone are the days when the overriding political philosophy was "beggar thy neighbour."
Today we know better. The rallying cry of a "United Nile Basin" cannot be dismissed as a merely histrionic gesture. The successive Nile Basin nations meetings give an inkling of what true cooperation is, or what it ought to be. Full cooperation still has a long way to go, but the cornerstones of closer cooperation is well underway. Most crucially, as Tvedt underscores, "all the actors, including the leaders of Egypt, also know that extolling cooperation also sits well with the international donor community."
No one Nile Basin country has the upper hand, all work in tandem to create a more prosperous economic future. The region is locked in a battle to accelerate the pace of social and economic development and the Eternal River is the key to fulfilling the aspiration of the people of the Nile Basin.
President Mubarak pronounced clear directives that only a few senior officials should be entrusted with making statements on the question of the Nile. The president also signaled that he would not tolerate provocative language by unauthorised Egyptian officials.
Still, the stream of articles on the Nile Basin Initiative has been negative, pessimistic and even somewhat abrogating. The saving grace of this fault-finding exercise is that it draws attention to the prerogative of the Nile Basin nations to tackle seriously the mounting challenges the mighty river they share hurls at them and the opportunities it presents. The signing of the New Framework Agreement in May that revised the traditional quota system for Nile Basin states confirms the conclusions foretold in this work.
Tvedt's theory has significant policy implications for upstream countries as much as for Egypt, the key player. "Egypt's policies have been formulated within a context of conflicting aims: the need to control the Nile while sharing sovereignty over it; balancing the inherent vulnerability of a downstream country with military strength far exceeding that of the other Nile countries; dealing with a permanent food shortage through imports from Nile neighbours instead of from Argentina and Australia; and maintaining a status quo in water-sharing issues that is unsustainable for Egypt itself, for its needs more than it has and looks to projects in southern Sudan for close to 20 bcm of extra water," Tvedt records. He outlines Egypt's priorities in a language that is easily comprehensible.
"Egypt's official policy has been to stress that regional cooperation is in Egypt's own national interest, and should not be dismissed by sceptics as a mere shift in tactics," Tvedt notes. "In upstream countries," he observes however, "rumours have often had it that Egypt instead has aimed at sustaining instability and weak governments there, so as to indirectly hinder them in developing their water resources."
It is difficult not to derive from this line of reasoning that Egypt is an overbearing miscreant sabotaging the spirit of true cooperation among Nile Basin nations. At times it appears that Egypt is indeed the villain of the volume.
Tvedt touches a raw nerve when he talks about the Nile Basin disputes as essentially a tug of war between Egypt and Ethiopia. His sympathies unquestionably lie with Ethiopia and other upstream countries.
"Since the 1980s the governments of Ethiopia and Egypt have repeatedly aired sharp differences over the use of the Nile," Tvedt predicates. "In addition to the legal arguments, the Ethiopian government has also pointed out that existing and planned Nile projects in the deserts of Egypt and Sudan are wasteful and irrational water management practices when viewed from a basin-wide perspective. They argue that water would be much more effectively stored on the Ethiopian plateau."
Tvedt tries to steer a course between the two extremes: the Egyptian and the Ethiopian perspectives, respectively. The differences in opinion between Egyptian and Ethiopian viewpoints with regard to the Nile is just one of the themes on which Tvedt hangs his absorbing reflections on the complexities and contradictions of Nile Basin politics. But he is by no means the only voice to pronounce judgement on conflict and cooperation. After Tvedt's introductory chapter, a deluge of national perspectives commences. Beginning with Burundi's Pascal Nkurunziza's and Rwanda's Robert Baligira's on the Nile and water management systems in the two Lilliputian Great Lakes nations.
Next, Honest Prosper Ngowi gives an overview of Tanzania's Nile Basin approach. Raphael Tshimanga then outlines the Congolese outlook on Nile waters in its vast territory. Mary Mwiandi deciphers the socio-economic dynamics of Nile waters in Kenya and James Mulira analyses hydro-electric projects and the exploitation of Nile waters in Uganda. Fadwa Taha examines the history of the politics of Nile waters in Sudan and Yacob Arsano takes a close look at the institutional development of water management in Ethiopia. Hossam Rabie Eleman describes the Egyptian perspective and Tvedt conjures up a convincing conclusion.
There is something a little disagreeable about looking at conflict and cooperation in the Nile Basin from a purely nationalistic perspective. Surely the Nile Basin cannot be reduced to the respective policies and positions of the various Nile Basin nations. The peoples of this vast and diverse region are no more susceptible to the international pressures of Western powers, whether they are contemporary donor nations such as Norway or the old-fashioned colonialists of yesteryear such as Britain. Tvedt and his colleagues have conjured up an engaging map of Nile Basin nations peopled by larger-than-life states in an all too familiar setting.