Geopolitics on Nile Water: Its Implications on S. Sudan Conflict

By Deng Mading Gatwech

In Africa, access to water is one of the most critical aspects of human survival. Today, about one third of the total population lack access to water, constituting 300 million people and about 313 million people lack proper sanitation (World Water Council 2006). As result, many riparian countries surrounding the Nile river basin have expressed direct stake in the water resources hitherto seldom expressed in the past.

May 5, 2024 (SSNA) — Historical perspective dubbed ancient Egypt to have natural rights on the Nile River, and principles of its acquired rights have been a focal point of negotiations with upstream states. Egyptian civilization has sustained itself utilizing water management on agriculture for some 5,000 years in the Nile River valley and virtually depends on agricultural-led economy. The fact that this rights exists means that any perceived reduction of the Nile waters supply to Egypt is tampering with its national security and thus could trigger potential conflict. Sudan also has hydraulic potential and has created four dams in the last century. This has resulted in the development so far of 18,000 km² of irrigated land, making Sudan the second most extensive user of the Nile, after Egypt, but South Sudan benefited nothing of the Nile water though the water passes through its corridor. Ethiopia’s tributaries supply about 86 percent of the waters of the Nile for Egypt’s sustainable economic development whilst receives nothing out of its own waters but savagery from the downstream mainly Egypt.

Arguably, the lack of common understanding over the use of the Nile basin with respect to whether or not “sharing water” or “benefit” has a tendency to escalate the situation into regional conflict involving emerging dominant states such as the tension between Ethiopia-Egypt over the Nile river basin imminent. The article further contributes to the C-H conflict model in order to analyze the regional challenges, and Egypt’s position as the hegemonic power in the horn of Africa contested by Ethiopia. C-H model is used to predict the probable occurrence of conflicts as a result of empirical economic variables in African states given the sporadic civil strife in many parts of Africa. In order to make sense of the analysis, I focused on Ethiopia and Egypt to explicate the extent of water crisis in the South Sudan conflict, which is part of East Africa.

This article examines the water scarcity in the North, Horn and Eastern Africa with an attempt to focus on Egypt, Ethiopia and South Sudan through the C-H model of theory of civil wars in order to construct the model on water scarcity with an attempt to reconcile the tensions over water resources and its effects on the people of the South Sudan and Eastern African people.

There have been several applications and interpretations of the earlier conflict theorists propounded by earlier scholars such as Karl Marx, Lenin, and Weber. Collier-Hoeffler, also known as the C-H model is one of such interpretation of recent times. The analysis on conflict is based on the framework of many variables such as tribes, identities, economics, religion and social status in Africa. Subjecting the data to a rigorous econometric regression analysis of the many variables identified in Africa concluded that based on the data set that economic factor rather than ethnic, or religious, identities are the base of conflicts in Africa. In complementing this model with the earlier conflict theory propounded by Karl Marx recognized the significance of the social and interactions within a given society. These interactions according Karl Max are characterized by conflicts. Hence, the conflict between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie of the capitalist system forms a synthesis of the forces of the interaction within the system.

Marx, again reiterated the fact that these social and human interactions is dialectical in the sense that when a dominant nation seeks to control dependent nations or peripheral countries what yields in consequence is the tension to rebel against the oppressor by dependent states in order to agitate for equitable and fair share of national resources. This point is consistent with the C-H model when they argued with empirical data on the causes of conflicts in Africa, and concluded that economic factors are the significant predictor of conflict in many parts of the African continent. Therefore, according to C-H, economic reasons contributed to a large extent the greater portion of conflicts in Africa constituting the physical involvement of Egypt into current South Sudan conflict.  While these economic reasons are varied and numerous due to the resources available in a given region and the allocation of resource whether naturally endowed or man-made, any form of competition to control these resources or allocation of resources will naturally generate two outcomes: tension and potential conflict, and cooperation. In this case, Egypt’s sole access to the Nile for centuries now has invariably gratified itself as the sole control of the Nile water resources without considering the real damage imposed on the upstream countries.

The manifestation of the greed of Egypt on the Nile water reflected on the army involvement in the South Sudan current conflict and the agitation of other negative forces opposing to the EPRDF rule. There is now military coordination between Cairo and Juba to fight the rebel as the proxy war against Ethiopia to back down from constructing the Grand Renaissance Dam. The imminent concern of Egypt over the political tension and instability in South Sudan stems from its interests in the Nile waters. For Cairo, South Sudan is the most important strategic Nile basin country because of the possibility of implementing projects to increase Egypt’s share of the river’s water by harnessing water currently lost on South Sudanese territory to swamps but channel through Jonglei canal direct to Egypt, a project that was halted in 1984 after the inception of the SPA/M. Egypt’s current shaky relations with the Sudan and Ethiopia are also a key factor in the desire to expand ties with Khartoum’s South Sudan rival.

In 2002, a senior Kenyan minister Raila Odinga, called for the review and renegotiation of the 1929 treaty, which gave Egypt the right to veto construction projects on the Nile river basin, and said “it was signed on behalf of governments which were not in existence at that time.” In actual fact, the accords are signed in the absence of the upstream countries including among other, Ethiopia, South Sudan just emerged, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Rwanda and Burundi, which Egypt put on the radar in case there are capital projects impeding the flow of the waters down Egypt. This implies threat to Egypt’s national security and basic livelihoods.

Cascao, argued that the asymmetrical flow of water resources in the Nile river basin and the access to physical flow of the blue Nile by Egypt and Sudan in the downstream has extremely heighten hydro-political tension over the Nile. These tensions have attracted the United Nations organizations interventions and other international organization on matters concerning the distribution and allocation of water resources in the Nile river basin and in which compensation are offered to other riparian countries unequal access to the distribution of water resources, especially those on the upstream who only benefit rainfall.

As already mentioned and by extension Herodotus comments on Egypt as “the gift of the Nile,” has been extrapolated by Egypt in order to exercise hydro-political power in the Nile river basin for several decades. This status Egypt has enjoyed for some time now without allowing any riparian countries along the Nile to negotiate any form of control on water resources and development projects such as hydroelectric power by neighboring countries. The asymmetrical flow of water resources in the Nile has also afforded Egypt a position of dominance compared to other riparian countries situated upstream on the Nile.

With emerging hydro-political powers in the region, Ethiopia and Egypt could dominate other countries and for that matter wage physical wars in order to control water resources. The recent demonstration in Ethiopia by Oromo students through the long hand of Egypt is the clear violation of the sovereignty of Ethiopia. On the basis of the above discussions, it can be safely concluded that the nature of tension in North Eastern Africa most, especially the Nile riparian countries are on a brink of conflict over the control and use of Nile water resources. As already pointed out, and by extension Collier-Hoeffler’s economic analysis of conflicts in Africa did not cite the potential trigger of conflict as a result of the Nile, what is significant about his model is the paradigmatic nature upon which his theory of analysis are based. And since water is a vital part of the economic resources of Africa, this article concludes that the water resources just as any other economic resource has a full potential of tension and conflict over the Nile river basin by riparian states.

Sharing such a vital and potentially scarce resource as water is seldom easy. In the case of the Nile, water management has always been a delicate exercise. With a combined population of nearly 430 million spread over eleven countries (Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR. Congo), Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda), the Nile is one of Africa’s most complex cross-border river basins. From the historical point of view Burton and Speke in February 1858, discovered Lake Tanganyika as the main source of the Nile but the expedition extended by Speke, who had by now recovered from ill, set off in command of a small party and in August 1858 came upon what he later described as ‘a vast expanse’ of ‘the pale-blue waters’ of the northern lake, which was named Lake Victoria and believed, correctly, that it was the source of the Nile. However, there were long delays before the same explorers reached Gondokoro (in Juba), 750 miles south of Khartoum, in February 1862, believed to be the source of the Nile. In the bid of the above analysis, one conclude that Egypt manipulated the upstream countries together with British denies these countries their rights of water utilization and these agreements between the two states signed without the consent of the countries in question. Therefore, fighting the war against Egypt is justifiable and direct compensation would be required from the British as stakes getting high.

However, Ethiopia’s decision to continue with the construction of the so-called Grand Renaissance Dam has recently heightened disputes over water security. The dam is set to become one of Africa’s largest hydroelectric plants, but some studies indicate it could have a major impact on the whole basin and significantly affect the water supplies of neighboring countries. As an effort to settle the disputes, a ‘Tripartite Technical Committee’ was created to assess the dam’s impact in Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan excluding South Sudan. At this juncture Egypt dominant strategy came into play and able to stretch its long hand reaching out to the desperate government of South Sudan militarily. The inclusion of high-level NBI representatives in the Committee is worth noting, but its limited technical mandate may hamper its capacity to provide political solutions.

In recent years, the politics of water sharing and its related diplomatic frameworks have become less predictable. The resignation of Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and the death of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in 2012 removed two old regional hands, raising many questions about the future. Domestic instability has come to characterize also the DRC, Eritrea, Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya, Somalia and at the crossroad South Sudan. Inter- state tensions remain dormant, but could suddenly reawaken despite the formal end of the conflict in 2000, relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea remain shaky; South Sudan has recently declared its intention to use the Nile to develop its hydropower potential, which may revive disputes with Sudan; and cross- border tensions over the Great Renaissance Dam are far from abating.

Water politics in the Nile may thus be reaching a critical juncture, especially if local political ‘entrepreneurs’ decide to use the Nile as a ‘trump card’ in elections. If this is the case, the stability of the whole region may then be put at stake. Egypt with no doubt exploited the South Sudan conflict supporting government of Salva Kiir Mayardit through military hardware and supplies, evidently the capture of 12 Egyptian fighters (their names are as follow: Aches Ahmed Gou, Capt. Abaur Ahmose, Amran Saleh, Amum Thori, Abduraman Petei, Salatis Omar, Osman Gosh, Abdulahi Said, Mohamed Raad, Yusuf Abdu, Capt. Ali Semut and Shemstedin Tihrak) as POWs in the recent battle in Ayod County of Jonglei is a significant prove. The offensive launched by the government and allied forces on rebel position meant to push them deep into the Ethiopian territory as planned by the government of South Sudan and Egypt, the consequences will have direct bearings on the construction of the Ethiopia Grand Renaissance Dam. In this regard groundwork is already prepared and this position will be used as a launching pad for Egypt to strike on the Ethiopia Grand Renaissance Dam. The government of Ethiopia should not fold its hand watching the looming threats towards its territory by Egypt and South Sudan as if the war is between the rebel and the government of South Sudan.

Multiple interests play in and those interests group should protect their sovereignty, territorial integrity and the national constitution with the great intention of safeguarding their national interests of either Ethiopia or the Sudan. It should be noted that South Sudan together with Ethiopia should see the Nile water as a binding constraint for stability and development in the region and work for mutual benefit, but Salva Kiir should not be victim for short sighted political benefits vis-à-vis Egypt’s hegemonic power against the Nile water, and should refrain from opening a space for destabilizing forces that would have a spillover effect to regional peace. In this brief analysis, Ethiopia should stand tall to defend the aggression by the Egypt in the overcoat of supporting the government of South Sudan in the fight against the rebel.

Deng Mading, a South Sudanese exiled in East Africa and researcher in the area of “Democracy & Good Governance, Local & International Politics and Strategic Security Studies”. He can be reached at <[email protected]>.

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