Wednesday,22 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1194, (24-30 April 2014)
Wednesday,22 August, 2018
Issue 1194, (24-30 April 2014)

Ahram Weekly

International interest in Nile Basin investment

A number of countries, primarily China and Israel, are part of the wider picture behind conflicts over water between Upper Nile Basin countries and their downstream counterparts, writes Maghawry Shehata

Al-Ahram Weekly

Nile Basin countries — especially those at the sources of the river — are the focus of international interest for developmental and investment purposes, especially in agriculture and electricity generation projects. Foreign powers’ eagerness to invest in such projects, in spite of the many environmental and other challenges that loom in every Nile Basin country, throws into relief the conflicts that are currently unfolding between the upper riparian nations and the estuary nations with regard to the reassessment and redistribution of Nile water quotas among these countries. The following presents some of the challenges confronting hydraulic projects and the extent of foreign interest or presence related to such projects, in the tributary Nile Basin countries in particular. The challenges range from natural (environmental/ topographical) and demographic to economic and political. Among them are the following:

TOPOGRAPHICAL AND GEOMORPHOLOGICAL CONSIDERATIONS:  In a previous article, I shed light on the geomorphological and topographical properties of the Nile Basin and their effects on water resources and development projects. I have addressed the mountainous terrain, steep geographic inclines, the nature of the bedrock and other such factors that affect the surface flow, the formation of lakes and rivers, and the ability to control them. On the basis of those factors, I stressed that natural circumstances were the chief obstacle to Nile Basin countries’ ambitions for harnessing water resources. This applies in particular to the upper riparian nations and their aspirations for harnessing the precipitation in their countries. The following outlines some of the chief topographical, geomorphological and climatic circumstances of some Nile Basin countries and the extent to which these factors affect their development prospects.
In Egypt, the demographic distribution is extremely uneven. Around 92 per cent of its territory is uninhabited due to nature and distribution of available water resources. The heavy population concentrations in the Nile Valley are a source of economic and social strains. Egypt also suffers a shortage of supplementary water resources. These are primarily restricted to the groundwater found in relatively few aquifers in the Western Desert (the Western oases) and other areas.
Elsewhere in Egypt’s desert areas, such as the Eastern Desert the Sinai, groundwater is scarce. Such climatic and geomorphological properties are the chief factor that governs the utilisation of desert land.
Ethiopia’s climatic and geographic properties could not contrast more starkly, but they also vary considerably internally. There are heavy seasonal rains in the south, but precipitation is considerably lower in the north. The Ethiopian plateau, which covers nearly the whole country, is characterised by rugged terrain that features towering cliffs, precipitous ravines and deep fissures and that sits atop an igneous bedrock made up for the most part of hard and sometimes fractured basalt. About 30 per cent of Ethiopian territory falls in the Nile Basin. This is only one of the 11 river basins in the country through which flow some 90 billion cubic metres of water derived from an average annual rainfall of 1,250 millimetres.
Ethiopia has long been dependent on rainfall for agricultural purposes. Only three percent of its land is under permanent irrigated cultivation. However, in view of periodic draughts, especially in the east and north and after felling extensive tracts of forest to clear land for agriculture, Addis Ababa has begun to demand a larger share of Nile waters for irrigation purposes and to produce hydroelectric power. Ethiopia was encouraged in this direction by some foreign governments that expressed their interest through investment. Foreign direct investment in Ethiopia rose from $135 million in 2004 to $265 million in 2007, of which 32 per cent was invested in agriculture. By 2009, FDI had climbed to $3,500 million. The soaring rates of investment reflected mounting international interest in development in Ethiopia, in spite of the many challenges.
China is the largest investor in Ethiopia and has undertaken numerous development projects there. Ethiopia is planning to become a part of the comprehensive aid system in Africa. Following China as the largest partner in the Ethiopian investment system is the EU, the US, Japan and Italy. Chinese development investment focusses on agriculture, clean energy, health, and debt relief. China also established a petroleum exploration company that has begun drilling for oil.
Kenya is the largest economic power in the African Great Lakes region. With the aid of China, India, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, it is concentrating on developing its agricultural sector in spite of the natural impediments, most notably draught and floods. Kenya’s river system helps feed Lake Victoria, but it contains few aquifers beneath its largely granite bedrock and in spite of rainfall it suffers draught in part due to its inability to utilise its water resources. As with Ethiopia, China is the largest investor in Kenya with projects in road works, sports, media, petroleum excavation and clean energy production.
Tanzania, to the south of Lake Victoria, has the same complex geomorphological conditions. In general, the topography tilts towards the lake to which it contributes through several river basins. The Tanzanian economy is heavily dependent on agriculture, which contributes 27 per cent of the GDP. Its chief exports are coffee and cotton. The country also produces around four billion kilowatts of electricity a year according to 2007 estimates. It has already made progress in reducing poverty rates in line with a long-term development strategy for 2025. China is one of the top 10 investors in Tanzania, with which it has signed a six-year agreement, ending in 2015, for the development of the country’s livestock and fish wealth. China also has around 40 companies in Tanzania pumping in the neighbourhood of $114 billion into the economy.
Uganda, to the north of Lake Victoria, is just as if not more topographically and geomorphologically complex with an intricate lithological distribution that affects the nature of its bedrock and soil. In spite of its vast water resources, agriculture contributes only two per cent of Uganda’s GDP. It produces around four billion kilowatts of hydroelectric power per year according to 2007 estimates. Kampala has been working to enhance its relations with South Sudan, Kenya and Tanzania.

DOMESTIC PRESSURES, FOREIGN INTERVENTIONS AND NILE BASIN DEVELOPMENT: Countries of the Nile Basin are vulnerable to a range of internal and external pressures that affect their relations with each other. It is well known that most of these countries have varying degrees of instability and that their political and economic regimes are fragile and easily penetrable from abroad due to high poverty rates, tribal conflicts, high population growth rates, and hunger and disease.
The conflict in the Nile Basin is quintessentially political in spite of the surface appearance that the dispute is about water. Water has become a trump card to be used in political tugs-of-war.
Theoretically, foreign interventions can work to encourage cooperation or, conversely, to stimulate conflict. Most dangerous are those that proceed from the Israeli concept of the importance of water. The question that arises in this context is whether Israel seeks to obtain a quota of Nile waters or whether it is following a form of a policy of containment, using upper riparian nations in order to pressure downriver countries, Sudan and Egypt.
In like manner, does US interest in the water conflict among Nile Basin countries stem from its desire to support Israel, or is it more related to halting any attempt to obstruct US interests in the face of the Chinese, Japanese and Russian presence among the Upper Nile Basin countries and also the likelihood of an Al-Qaeda presence in Ethiopia or Somalia?
As for international interventions that stimulate cooperation, these are largely limited to the efforts of international cooperation institutions and UN agencies. Unfortunately, such bodies are sometimes unable to perform an effective or constructive role, as was the case with the Tekeze Dam, which was constructed without prior notification of other Nile Basin nations. Neither Egypt nor the World Bank, or the countries that supported the Nile Basin Initiative, objected to the construction of that dam. Also, in general, the World Bank only commits to what it is interested in committing to.

Any discussion of development and foreign investment in the upper riparian countries of the Nile Basin must take into account the Israeli role. Israel has numerous investment projects, especially in agriculture and energy, in these countries, but Ethiopia is of the greatest interest to Tel Aviv. There, Israel focusses primarily on agricultural projects through cooperation between the International Cooperation Centre in Israel, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development in Ethiopia and the US Agency for International Development, which have co-developed, for example, a seedlings project, an irrigation development project and the agricultural excellence project. With investments in the neighbourhood of $236 million, Israel is the third largest investor in Ethiopia.
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s tour of three African nations in September 2009 resulted in pledges that an Israeli company responsible for water resource development in Israel would undertake 40 hydraulic projects on the Blue Nile in order to reclaim land in South Sudan. The envisioned projects, to be carried out in collaboration with USAID, included 26 dams to permit for the irrigation of 400,000 hectares of land and the production of 38 billion kilowatts of electricity. An estimated 80 billion cubic metres of water would be required for these projects and some doubt whether that quantity is technically feasible. Israel also provided both the Congo and Rwanda with detailed studies for the construction of three dams.
In Uganda, Israel is carrying out irrigation projects in 10 provinces, most in the north of the country near the borders of Sudan and Kenya. Israel has cooperated with Kenya in the production of flowers and their export to Europe and has invested $105 million in clean energy projects in that country.
In general, Israeli thinking is to give the impression that its development projects in Ethiopia involve only the construction of dams and amending Nile waters distribution conventions. Ethiopia cooperates with Israel in numerous projects, including drinking water production projects and various hydraulic engineering projects, such as the construction of dams. These include the construction of four dams on the Blue Nile in order to build water reserves, control the flow of water towards Sudan and Egypt and generate electricity. In addition, the question of a dam at Mek’ele, the capital of the Tigray state in northern Ethiopia, has resurfaced recently now that it appears that Israeli funding for the project will be forthcoming through an Ethiopian company that is co-owned by an Israeli.
In short, Israeli-Ethiopian collaboration in dam construction is in full swing. It should be borne in mind that when speaking of collaboration we are also speaking of Israeli intervention, not to secure water for Israel but rather to promote demands for the redistribution of Nile water quotas between the upper riparian countries in the Nile Basin, on the one hand, and Sudan and Egypt on the other. That the Israelis have entered the fields of agriculture, and mechanised agriculture in particular, in Ethiopia is a subject that cannot be viewed in isolation from Israel’s investment in water and hydrological projects. After all, there is no such thing as agriculture without water.

The writer is former president of Menoufiya University and an expert in water issues.

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