Ethiopia: the enduring food crisis and legal politics of the Nile River
By Tadesse Kassa, Doctoral Research Fellow, University of Oslo
The enduring state of deprivation and vulnerability in which the state of Ethiopia placed itself has for decades been the subject of intense media exposure and unenthusiastic reflection. In contrast to civilizations that prospered in a midst of turbulence, for over a century, Ethiopia performed shoddily in nearly all key indexes impinging on the development of the single most vital sector that profoundly affected the lives of millions of its population: agriculture. Its farming remained prehistoric, crops failed regularly, and draught and famine have simply recurred. The portrayal of its image can barely be any worse that today, in all fitting discourses, famine literatures have securely positioned Ethiopia along with the great famines of the mid-20th Century in China, India, Bangladesh, the Biafra province of Nigeria and later, in the Sudan.
The scale and impact of the privation had varied. Since the incidence of the worst episode-the Great Ethiopian Famine of 1888-1892, the prevalence of hunger, typically absorbed in pockets of northern Ethiopia, has gradually but unabatedly, broadened its horizons. If sporadically, it has claimed the lives of its citizenry, destabilised the demographic composition of its communities, and even more, has gravely challenged the social and economic fabric of its existence.
And decades of an interminable state of food insecurity has exposed the nation to appeal for a progressively more benevolent handout of the international community. As with the preceding regimes, the ethical dilemma and political implications of the misfortune have been dreadfully colossal that only recently, the Federal Government had to engage in contemptible media crusade that merely endeavoured to trim down the count of ‘millions’ affected by the food shortages.
A blend of causes associated with human-ecological imbalance, land degradation and misguided government policies account for the predicament. The subsistence nature of agriculture exclusively relying on the munificence of an erratic rainfall pattern has furthermore exacerbated the trouble.
The distasteful irony of the experience is however that the national challenge has routinely ‘befallen unto the land of antique civilization’ endowed with a unique set of hydrologic configuration and an incredible mass of water resources relative to its human demand. The Blue Nile River basin alone, the unfailing spectacle that sprang from the outlying fountainhead of the Gish Abay stream in Sacala district of Gojjam, and yielded precious waters since the dawn of human history, discharges as huge a volume as 49.5 BCM of annual average at the Rosaries, just across the Ethio-Sudanese border, and swanks more than 2 million hectares of potentially irrigable land. Ethiopian mean contribution to the main Nile’s surge through the three head streams, the Sobat, the Abay, and the Atbara-Tekeze has been computed at 68.7 BCM of waters at Aswan, i.e. 82 percent of the entire Nile flow.
In spite of nature’s rare bequest and the vast potentials of the river in reinvigorating growth, sadly, the complexion of Ethiopia’s irrigational infrastructure and farming practices lagged far behind developments in Egypt and Sudan. While the annual inundations of ‘our river’ presented the foundation of one of the most stable and structured eco-political society of human history in the lower most reaches and unceasingly sustained the world’s single-largest agricultural scheme at the Gezira, the state of Ethiopia basically remained a bystander, too feeble to nourish its own people.
Officially and in public opinion, the lasting misfortune has partly been appreciated as a direct corollary of a legal snag instituted by British colonial administration, political vacillation, inert visionary acumen and sheer failure of the successive Ethiopian governments to capitalize on packed prospects of its wealth, including the Blue Nile River. Sequences of policies and strategies designed at different epochs with a view to deflecting hunger and guaranteeing food security at household levels have in point of fact failed.
No doubt, the thwarting state of affairs and the ensuing moral annihilation has confronted the good conscience of its citizenry. Whereas it is for the learned government functionaries to design a national scheme which tenders an immediate and realistic resolution, at least, in so far as part of the key way-out proffered by the Nile River resource and prospective chances of its utilization is concerned, nothing short of an aggressive, astutely considered policy and political subtlety can secure Ethiopia’s emancipation.
Developing full potentials of the Blue Nile has never been an easy commission for any of the regimes in Ethiopia. The fragile composition of the Nile basin establishment has continued to impose legal, political and financial constraints, and to impede exploitation of the Nile resources not only in Ethiopia, but also in the East and Central Africal riparian states. Evidently, the precedent established by British era imperial water diplomacy had inflicted irreparable damage.
Throughout its colonial tenure as overseer of Egyptian and Sudanese concerns, London had assiduously worked on and dismissively deduced from the Anglo-Ethiopian Treaty of May 1902 signed with Emperor Menelik II that Ethiopia, ‘barely endowed with any irrigational interests to defend’, was obliged to completely refrain from laying any water control work on or across the Blue Nile and its tributaries, the scale of any such construction notwithstanding. The manipulative legal scheme was part of a broader imperial design that projected to promote its geo-political position in the Suez Canal, and in chorus, meet the craves of its Lancashire textile industries for stable cotton supplies. The dominant thinking at the Foreign Office had then reasoned that the economic prospects of the colonies of Egypt and Sudan as well as the competitive advantages of the British cotton industry, then a dominant pillar of its capitalist enterprise, could not be realized without a treaty stipulation that espouses an exclusive downstream user rights.
Predictably, of course, the independence of Egypt and Sudan came about with an even more reinvigorated monopolistic perception that has to date continued to put the two states at odds with Ethiopia and the rest of the riparian states. Irrigational expansions, colossal land reclamations and industrial developments consuming sizable proportions of Nile waters have been resurrected againt rising discontent and confront over rights of water use.
Likewise, nearlly all development projections along the Blue Nile River in Ethiopia have routinely instigated a bubbling row in downstream diplomatic front, and occupied a foreward position in regional hydropolitics.
Quite obviously, Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt have historically harboured a perturbed relations. Since the earliest years of Emperor Haileselassie, Ethiopia has in fact espoused an external relations ‘policy’ that did disservice to long standing hydraulic interests of the downstream states.
All the same, camouflaged by political niceties that endeavoured to play down the presence of deep-seated incongruence between the underlying values that steer national policies, the crest of the political leaderships in Egypt and Sudan has untiringly worked on and effectively relegated Ethiopia’s positions.
Naturally, this lamentable proprietory perception deeply engrained in the psyche of downstream political establishment can not be expected to falter with out effort and sombre provocation. And the million dollar question has been how precisely Ethiopia shall pursue prospective juridical dealings in the basin.
A new regional arrangement may soon be in place impacting on the customary patterns of use of the Nile river resources. For what it is worth, the pleasant resilience unveiled in contemporary basin-wide diplomacy working on institutional and legal framework, and accompanied by novel thinking over issues of use and allocation of the river’s resource, has constituted a hitherto unparalleled forum where time-honoured position of the Ethiopian state can potentially be staked eloquently.
Egypt and Sudan have tended to get to terms with new realities of the global political order. The increasingly international orientation of their water policies, mostly dictated by adoption of a sensible approach that only closer economic and political association would ultimately guarantee their stable water use patterns, and to a measure, by progressive development of the rules and principles governing transboundary rivers, has generally drawn-in a pale optimism over some sort of regional water utilization accord.
With stakes so high and views so divergent, the Nile basin states have vigorously struggled to draw up a charter composing the rights and obligations of the riparian states and regulating collective uses of the resource. Details of this clandestine diplomatic undertaking have largely been kept confidential. A recent Ministerial Conference of the Nile basin countries, only one of such numerous meetings held in the past decade, concluded a landmark gathering in the D.R. Congo adopting a legal framework constituted in 39 articles, and deferring one provision over which the water ministers failed to find a middle ground. In a four months period, the heads of states of the riparian countries are expected to proffer the ultimate verdict on the future of the majestic river.
After one full century of rough treatment, the regional diplomatic discourse appeared to present Ethiopia with an inimitable opportunity of dealing with the legal and political predicaments involving the Nile River, and bid farewell to old accounts of disagreement and mistrust. If judiciously exploited, the occasion can potentially herald novel perspectives where the resource is no longer viewed as causing stacks of nuisance to the nation’s security, stability and international association.
For millions of Ethiopians, though, a theme of great speculation remains: if the country’s sovereign interest has been constructively represented in the ongoing negotiations and where it does, how.
The Nile River resource is as such too scarce to meet the stoutly competing claims of all the riparian states. It is only natural to assume that the regional initiative has gone through complex and painful political processes thus far.
Yet, when it comes to the composition of the legal framework due to be endorsed in four months time by heads of states, it has to be duly spotlighted that Ethiopia’s long term strategic gains and immediate state of agricultural despair would barely call for vaguely constructed political compromises attended by hyperbolical doctrines and pledges. Nothing short of a concrete legal prescription and a modus operandi that indisputably settles or otherwise recognizes Ethiopia’s fair share of the Nile inundations can recompense the damage and utter deprivation it has for long sustained.
The political leadership’s involvement shall seriously be tapered along this course. In particular, in its final dealings with Egypt, Great Britain’s undeviating progeny in convoluted water diplomacy skills, the Federal Government has two or so lessons to draw on.
First, in the interest of transparency, accountability and legitimacy, the Government should endeavour to guarantee that no single provision of the framework agreement will be endorsed before it is subjected to adequate public and professional scrutiny. It only suffices to remind that on two occasions when this requirement had been flagrantly circumvented and Ethiopia was rushed in to tying an accord on the Nile, it had only paid so dearly and found itself in diluted legal and political position.
In the immediate aftermath of conclusion of the Anglo-Ethiopian Treaty of May 1902, a defectively composed Article III where in Emperor Menelik II purportedly undertook to ‘refrain from constructing any hydraulic works which shall block the flow of the river’ had provided the UK, then a colonial power over Sudan and Egypt, more than an opening for making out a highly contentious case. In deed, in the ensuing decades, the UK successfully marshalled the accord in all diplomatic forums and effectively stifled Emperor Haileselassie’s aspirations for irrigational and hydropower development in Ethiopia.
In particular, in the mid 1920’s when Ethiopia was engaged in intimate association with an American company, the J G White Engineering Corporation, and was on the edge of realizing the Tana Dam Project through a concessionary bargain, the vast power and influence of Great Britain was more than enough to sway both the US government and the Company’s executives that in view of the 1902 Treaty, the White Engineering Corporation could not develop the Tana scheme nor any other water control works along the Blue Nile course with out British sanction and participation. In consequence, Ethiopia missed a great opportunity that could have carved the hydro-political configuration of the basin differently than is noted today.
Of course, the Emperor had constantly been aware that the contemporaneous British perceptions and initiatives solely intended to meet the economic and political necessities of the downstream states, and had in consequence disputed the legal basis on which UK’s claims had been formulated.
Yet, in spite of four full-decades of exigent post-Treaty diplomatic wrestle with a domineering colonial neighbour, the agreement’s overtone was too sturdy that his efforts to defend his nation’s legitimate causes had ended in complete wreck. With the independence of Egypt and the Sudan, attended by a bilateral treaty and a complete set of hydraulic and irrigational developments on the ground, Ethiopia’s position has even degenerated.
A similar conotational qualm recurred shortly after Egypt and Ethiopia, potential woes in prospective Nile waters development claims, hurriedly signed a cooperative accord in July 1991. Under Article IV of the pact, the parties agreed to gear and define their respective rights in accordance with the core principles of international water resources law. In chorus, Article V emphatically required both parties ‘to refrain from engaging in any activity related to the Nile waters that may cause appreciable harm to the interest of the other party.’
Although the initiative to restructure and reconcile Ethio-Egyptian relations and thereby institute equitable pattern of water uses was a commendable commission, the ensuing developments have simply revealed that in anticipating genuine and swift changes in seasoned Egyptian policies, the Ethiopian Government had in deed displayed an act of naivety and imprudence.
Egyptian authorities disconnected the overall context of the 1991 Agreement, maneuvered to highlight only the fitting parts, and campaigned to read the accord as restricting Ethiopia’s rights of undertaking development projects that adversely affect the River’s flow down the stream. Two-pronged dialogues foreseen under the deal were never held, nor a joint technical commission projected to work on the details of the arrangement established. If only belatedly, of course, the Ethiopian Government had grasped Egypt’s wicked diplomatic machination and furiously snapped against its bad faith and streamlined ploy. If anything, the incident was more than an exemplary lesson that trading with a cunning and intransigent regional power requires a far more subtlety.
Today, where the basin states have found themselves at the crossroads of an important historical juncture where a comprehensive legal regime regulating the Nile River is about to be adopted, the diplomatic and juridical dexterity is even more imperative. With out a display of political prudence and wide-ranging professional scrutiny, there is no guarantee that the proposed regional agreement on future utilization of the Nile River in the ten riparian states would not fall prey to Egyptian veiled plot, and once again distress Ethiopia’s interests.
The Nile has always remained a collective jewel of all the riparian states. It is quite evident, however, that in bilateral and international discourses, only Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan have genuinely battled for factual and legal control of the resource. It is not therefore astounding that under the regional initiative working on a basin wide framework, Ethiopia alone has constantly found itself at odds with positions advocated by Sudan and Egypt.
One issue of unending contention has been the fate of old colonial agreements. In defence of its legitimate claims, and quite naturally so, Ethiopia has for decades looked to contentiously structured and vaguely defined principles of international law governing the use of transboundary water resources. In ordered diplomatic altercation, it has campaigned to obliterate downstream misconception that it is endowed with adequate rainfall, and had repeatedly called for rectification of the inequitable use of the Nile resources. Although the exact setting and prominence of the principle is still contested, it has in multiple forums demanded Egypt and Sudan to unequivocally embrace the principle of equitable utilization. Its Nile related development strategy has generally been premised on the fundamental assumption that if any, limitations against Ethiopia’s freedom of use of the river’s resources shall only stem from the new international legal order, hence deriding all colonial-era treaty undertakings and ‘self-proclaimed prescriptive quotas’ of any substantive import.
For Egypt, on the other hand, the ‘sanctity of the established pattern of water use’ has simply been as paramount as the question of its own existence. Two water sharing agreements signed with Great Britain in 1929 and the Sudan in 1959 and Ethiopia’s utter state of absence from the scene have so far done the job. In fact, beyond the ‘quota’ it has traditionally enjoyed under the 1959 Agreement with Sudan, the execution of new agricultural land reclamation programs in the Toshka and Sinai districts has skyrocketed its total annual water requirements to about 70 BCM, i.e. only slightly lesser than the entire average annual surge of the Nile River. With in the regional initiative, a ‘clean slate’ approach under any guise would therefore leave the extensive irrigational and hydraulic works developed over a century without adequate security. It can barely permit the new framework to supersede the old treaties unless the framework entitles it to water security of at least the volume it has customarily drawn on.
In legal parlance, this can be achieved in several ways, and most notably, by demanding basin states to officially recognize a quantified volume of waters or by inserting in a treaty an express stipulate urging contracting parties ‘not to cause significant harm’ against each other. This downstream conception, invariably employed by states with already established irrigational and hydraulic works, effectively forestalls impending dangers occasioned through unilateral withdrawal of waters by late-coming states situated upstream, including of course, Ethiopia.
Ethiopia’s stand on the fate of the old colonial agreements should be unequivocal. It had simply endured enough ill treatment in the past century that the new arrangement shall not be allowed to serve, even obliquely, as instrument of continued legitimacy of downstream stakes at its own expenses. How this can in fact be achieved and what approach is adopted in a particular scenario is simply left for assessment of duly appointed government negotiators who enjoy access to substantive details of the prospective accord.
By way of caution, though, it can be pointed that if Ethiopia’s high stakes are to be satisfied and the new document is to represent some thing more than ostentatious political demonstration, the framework arrangement shall not be stuffed with pompous and controvertible principles which shall call for decades of clarification before the nation can draw on its natural waters.
Whereas it remains a pity that the legal framework will not be structured in a mode that expressly quantifies Ethiopia’s equitable shares, future institutional dealings must certainly be geared along this course. If lofty principles are incorporated, and inevitably they would, extensive orientation should be sought beforehand to grasp their precise contents and ramifications in contemporary international water resources law discourse, and most importantly, the imminence of the concept of ‘equitable utilization’ over the principle that advocates the ‘duty not to cause harm’ must be explicitly hammered out.
It is evident that Ethiopia’s legitimate share can be guaranteed only if Egypt and Sudan, who currently consume the entire annual flood, consent to proportional reduction of their water uses. If Ethiopia shall evocatively benefit from the scheme, any endeavour that works on equitable shares of the Ethiopian state shall not overplay the relative impact of prior uses and established hydraulic structures down the stream. Without unwarranted prejudice to legitimate water security concerns of Egypt and Sudan, existing facilities and precedents of use shall make out only one of the manifold factors conjointly considered in the process of determining equitable benefits.
And as such, Ethiopia must vigorously advocate a position that would ultimately secure as much water as is practical, in relative terms, and clutch the resource base materially used to rid itself from the cycle of draught and famine that has for long defined its existence.