Ethiopia’s deceptions on the Nile

Nader Noureddin
Monday 19 Sep 2022

Ethiopia is set on monopolising all the water sources emanating from its territory and of attempting to deceive the Nile Basin countries about its true intentions.


Ethiopia is forever trying to drive a wedge between the Nile Basin nations. Its first major attempt towards this end was its call to conclude the Entebbe Agreement on the redistribution of Nile waters in 2010. The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), South Sudan, Sudan, Egypt and Eritrea all refused to sign. The result was a major rift between the countries that shared the same river thanks to Ethiopia’s declared thirst for the Nile. 

Some 71 billion m3 of Nile water originate in Ethiopia. The six White Nile Basin states share only 13 billion m3 of water from that branch. Ethiopia has been trying to delude the countries of the White Nile into believing that it wants to redistribute Nile water quotas more fairly. But there is no physical connection between the sources of the Blue Nile in Ethiopia and the source of the White Nile in the Equatorial Great Lakes. 

This means that Ethiopia knows full well that there is no means to deliver water from the Ethiopian source to the upper White Nile states, especially given that the water from Ethiopia would have to flow uphill through the White Nile towards the Great Lakes and that the same applies in the reverse: water from the White Nile would have to flow uphill from Sudan to the Ethiopian plateau.

Moreover, how would an equitable redistribution policy work if Ethiopian waters do not reach Sudan and Egypt, or if water from the White Nile does not reach South Sudan, Sudan, and Egypt? It could not be more obvious that Ethiopia has its sights set on monopolising all the Nile sources emanating from its territory and that it is bent on deceiving the upriver White Nile countries that this would be in their interests. 

It is equally obvious that this is directed against Egypt, which has checked Ethiopian ambitions in Sudan and Eritrea since 1905. More recently, Cairo denounced Ethiopia’s attempts to monopolise the Omo, which flows southwards into Kenya. It built three large dams on that river, depriving northern Kenya of its rightful share of this transboundary water source. 

Addis Ababa has apparently forgotten the natural flow of the Nile, which nature created, not Egypt or Ethiopia. Cairo has never asked the Upper Nile countries to forego deriving optimal benefit from the river’s waters, from which Egypt receives only the surplus after they have used it, as has been the case since the dawn of history. But Egypt does oppose altering the course of the Nile or blocking its flow because this runs counter to the natural flow of the river. 

In keeping with its stratagem to fracture the unity of the Nile Basin, Ethiopia organised a meeting on 5 September to which it invited only four of the 11 Nile Basin countries: Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, and South Sudan. Rwanda, Burundi, the DRC, Sudan and, of course, Egypt were not on the guest list. The DRC was snubbed because it refused to sign the Entebbe Agreement against Egypt and Sudan after catching on to Ethiopia’s strategy to use the upper riparian states as a screen in its strategy to monopolise control over the Ethiopian sources of the Nile.  

Recent exchanges on visits between Rwanda and Burundi and Egypt and other signs of improving relations between Egypt and these countries also displeases Addis Ababa, which is working to keep Egypt from drawing closer to the upper riparian nations because it fears Egypt’s growing influence. In addition to its awareness of Ethiopia’s monopolistic designs on the Nile, Egypt also knows that Ethiopia has stirred up problems, tensions, and conflicts with each of its neighbours, whether Somalia and Eritrea to the east or Kenya and Sudan to the south and west. 

Ethiopia gave its deliberately divisive conference the title “The Reasonable Use of Nile Waters.” One is immediately struck by how the wording is severed from its original context in the UN Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses. The correct formula, as stated in the law, is the “reasonable and equitable” uses of international river ways. But Ethiopia is not interested in equitable, which is why it left it out. In fact, in its obsession to divide and conquer the Nile Basin, it also cares little about “reasonable.”

Note that international law uses the term “equitable,” as opposed to “equal,” which Ethiopia ingenuously wants to advance above international law. The lawmakers went to great lengths to clarify how equitable should be understood in this context. This is why, for example, they linked the concept to the amount of water resources, such as rivers, artesian wells, and rainfall, available to the countries in question, or the lack thereof. 

In this context, we should bear in mind that the 2012 report of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) states that of the 122 billion m3 of water that flows through Ethiopia’s river basin annually, only 71 billion m3 flows into the Nile through the Atbara, the Sobat, and Blue Nile, leaving Ethiopia with the remaining 51 billion m3. In addition, it has Lake Tana, whose 40 billion m3 reservoir is exclusively for Ethiopia’s use. 

Ethiopia also receives an annual 936 billion m3 of rainfall that feeds its far-flung grazing land for 100 million head of livestock. As the above-mentioned report points out, Ethiopia possesses the largest amount of animal wealth on the continent, and it contributes 24 per cent of the revenues of the agricultural sector. Then there are the 10 billion m3 of subterranean water resources plus another 10 billion m3 in the Tekezé Dam reservoir near the border with Sudan, which Ethiopia uses without restraint to generate electricity for agricultural and industrial purposes. Another 75 billion m3 of water is being accumulated in the reservoir of the mammoth Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) that will also be for Ethiopia’s exclusive use. 

When we add all these water resources together, we find that they exceed the amount of water available to all the other Nile Basin countries put together. But Addis Ababa still refuses to take all those other sources into account in any calculations for sharing the water of the Blue Nile, the Atbara, and the Sobat with Egypt, and for this reason it insists on the word “equal” rather than the “equitable” division stipulated in international law. 

It took exactly the same line in the talks on the regulations for filling and operating the GERD. It wanted to keep a third of the 49 billion m3, or 17 billion m3, leaving the rest to be divided up between Egypt and Sudan, the only other countries the Blue Nile serves. It conveniently overlooked the fact that the Blue Nile is only one of four Ethiopian tributaries to the Nile, the others being the Atbara, the Sabat, and the White Nile. 

Ethiopia has been described as Africa’s largest water fountain. But apparently it still cannot get enough water. Perhaps its ambition to monopolise its control over all those sources of water is driven by a desire to sell it to other countries, including its neighbours in the Nile Basin who have just as much right to that water. The UN would naturally disapprove of this, and it has warned of the potential water wars that could ensue between countries that share the same transboundary watercourse. 

Ethiopia has used a similar ruse when addressing the international community. It is poor, and its poor people lack electricity that can be generated cheaply from Ethiopian rivers, it tells the community of nations. Then it turns to Sudan, South Sudan, and Egypt with offers to sell electricity before supplying electricity to its people first. 

Ethiopia is a major agricultural country with ​​35 million hectares under cultivation, and it exports a variety of organic and inorganic foods, livestock, and coffee. This in itself is concrete proof of its abundance of water. Water-deficient Egypt, by contrast, has only 3.5 million hectares of land under cultivation and imports 65 per cent of its food needs due to a lack of water. It has only eight million head of livestock compared to Ethiopia’s livestock wealth of 100 million. Egypt receives practically no rainfall, and it does not have a freshwater lake like Ethiopia. It has no river but the Nile, not even tributaries, and 95 per cent of Egypt’s population lives along the banks of this river because most of the rest of the country, 94 per cent of its area, is arid desert. 

Clearly, it is unfair for Ethiopia, with its copious water resources, to covet the relatively small amount of water that comes from the Nile to irrigate impoverished Egypt. Moreover, it is unacceptable for it to try to pull the wool over the eyes of the international community or the upper Nilotic states under the rubric of the “equal” as opposed to the “equitable” use of its rivers. 

Ethiopia recently had an anthem composed to celebrate the third filling of the GERD. The lyrics refer to the Blue Nile as the “traitor” that once took Ethiopia’s waters to others, but that has now repented and returned to the homeland. This anthem is a frank admission of Ethiopia’s attitudes towards its neighbours and its own self-serving ambitions.

* The writer is a professor of land and water resources at Cairo University.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 15 September, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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