A few weeks ago, on a trip to Egypt, Yemane Gebreab, Political Adviser to the President of Eritrea, expressed support for Egypt’s position regarding the Nile.1 Many commentators decried Eritrea’s intervention as needless provocative and purposeless, apart from aggravating Ethiopia.
It is important, as with everything else, to take these developments in context. The Eritrean National Charter states: “Eritrea [shall] coexist in harmony and cooperation with its neighbors by contributing, to the extent of its capability, to regional and global peace, security and development.” Water is the very source of life, and unlike its fellow riparian states, Sudan and Egypt do not have sufficient annual rainfall to sustain their populations. (The other riparian states are Eritrea, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Uganda) As a strategic resource, the Nile has the potential to cause conflict.
Egypt’s position on the use of the Nile river is assumed to have remained unchanged since the fall of President Mubarak, who followed a tough line towards Ethiopia. The position however seems to be softening – it has been suggested that Ethiopia’s sustainability studies, for it’s “Grand Renaissance Dam,” are woefully incomplete.2 The consequence of the dam, if it is as unsustainable has it seems, is that some 90 million Egyptians could be left without water. Of course, water rights is far from a novel subject – in fact in the United States, the subject is similarly fraught.
Throughout the eastern United States, water is flush and the frameworks for its use is permissive. Riparian flows on the eastern seaboard are relatively stable and perennial, leaving users without much to guess with regards to future flows. As a result, users are regarded as equals. In the western United States however, water is far more scarce, with flows alternating between high and low with irregularity. In spite of this conflict has been limited by creating an equitable framework – here, there is an order to water rights, “first in/first out.” The principal here is that the senior user should appropriate his usage right in full before the junior user. Water waste is curtailed by limitations imposed by the State Water Engineer, who may limit water draw based on the beneficial use of the draw.
In this context, it is clear that the latter, “first in/first out” system, would be more appropriate for the Nile Basin as the flow is variable and water is otherwise scarce. Egypt’s position thus, is akin to that of the western United States and therefore all members of the Nile Basin should in fact support a more equitable distribution. Here, the Nile Basin Initiative members could appoint experts to function as “State Water Engineers” and provide assessments for the appropriate distribution of use. This will lead to a more peaceful and cooperative region, an outcome Eritrea supports.
Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a legal opinion. It is provided for informational purposes alone. I am not a lawyer.