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Find A Compromise under International Law, Much Less Costly Than a Cost of War


Tekleab Shibru Associate Professor of Geomatics, Chicago State University


Following Ethiopia’s decision to skip the Nile Dam talk, and agreement that would affect Ethiopia’s right to use its natural resources, news from Egypt has been sensational and reckless. Just today a newspaper known as “Egyptian independent” and “Egypt today” came out with headlines entitled as, “Egypt warns Ethiopia not to start filling GERD under any circumstances” and “Egypt slams Ethiopia for Renaissance dam remarks”; respectively. Israeli newspaper Haaretz, citing the Egyptian sources, came with headlines that, “Egypt Vows to Use 'All Means' to Defend Nile Interests after Ethiopia Skips U.S. Talks”. Given results of previous wars between Egypt and Ethiopia; and socio-economic and environmental devastation a modern warfare could bring, finding a compromise under international law is the best bet for the two countries.

The article IV and chapter II of international law for users of Transboundary Rivers clearly declares equitable use of water by all basin states. According to the law, each Basin State is entitled, within its territory, to use a reasonable and equitable share of the beneficial uses of the waters of an international river. Hence, it cannot be any clearer that not just Sudan and Egypt, contrary to Nile Agreement 1959, but also Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Burundi and Democratic Republic of Congo all have the privilege of the law to use the Nile Water, while the river is passing in their territory.

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Moreover, the international law gives further explanations as to what the terms equitable and reasonable share mean. The Article V of the law clearly explains the factors considered to determine an equitable and reasonable share of water of Transboundary River. Accordingly, factors such as geographical extent of the drainage area in the territory of the basin state, the amount of water contributed by a basin state, historical and/or existing water utilization, and economic and social need of each basin are considered for determining country’s water use allocation. It is also determined based on climate affecting the basin state, degree to which the water need of the basin is satisfied without causing significant injury to downstream basin countries; size of population dependent on the water, and practicality of compensation as a means of averting possible conflicts.

Obviously, the law is not only proponent of upstream states’, such as Ethiopia’s, shared use of water, but also gives cases for Egyptians to present and argue their concern legally. For instance, Egypt can use historical and/or existing Nile water utilization, hostile climatic condition of their land, size of population depending on the Nile River water and unavailability of alternative water resources to argue their case. Ethiopia and other upper basin countriescan legally rebuttal these cases based on merits and/or produce alternative compelling arguments to justify a need for a reasonable and equitable share of water and a need for water use projects such as the constructing Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).

This is by far a superior alternative for the people of Egypt and neighboring upper basin countries, including Ethiopia, than resorting to war. Therefore, it is worthwhile if Egyptauthorities stop harassing their good neighbor, Ethiopia by rhetoric and a threat not to use “a drop of water” or face a consequence of war. This is not just unwise and ungrounded but really outdated too.  War cans easy besaid and its drum can easily be beaten, but the impacts of war on the society, environment and economy are enormous.

In addition, the outcome of it is not predictable or always favorable. For instance, TwoEthio-Egyptian wars are recordedin history. The wars were conducted in response to Egypt’s attempt to control the source of Nile River. The first battle took place in the morning of November 16, 1875 at a battlefield called Gundet near the locality of Mareb river and the second war took place at the battlefield of Gura between March 8-9, 1878. Both wars completed by overwhelming victory of Ethiopian army. Following the defeat in Gudet, Egyptian regrouped and sent much larger well-armed forced to revenge but the outcome is that a well-equipped Egyptian army were crushed and any aspirations toconquerEthiopia. This was despite that Egyptian Invasions wereled by well-trained American and European officers. Prince Hassan is an American army officers hired based on his leadership on American civil (1861 to 1865); a Danish officer called Colonel Adolph Arendrup, who was a graduate of Danish Royal Military College, was also recruited to lead the army; andWerner Munzinger, a swiss officer hired to lead one of the 3 fronts of Egyptian attack.

Still Ethiopia doesn’t want a war with Egypt. Ethiopia knows warfirst hand; what war means and its devastative consequences.According to Necrometrics, the battle deaths to Ethiopia’s the long and recurrent wars (i.e., in the late 19th and 20th century) have consumed millions of lives. Casualties of Ethio-Eritrean War (1936 – 37)is in the order of 200,000 people. In addition, the battle deaths of 36,000 people were recorded during Somali border war (1972 – 1980), and 70,000 during Eritrean war 1998 – 2000); respectively. This is without accounting causalities due to Ethiopian civil war, which amounts to another 200,000 – 230,000 from 1962 – 1991. A tragic consequence of war is again human refugees and displacement andfor instance, theEthio-Eritrean war (1998 – 2000) displaced 600, 000 – 1,000,000 people. In spite of the consequences, Ethiopia has effectively repelled its enemies in all theseencounters.

On the other hand, Egypt went to war 6 times since independence 1922 for the total of only 3 years and defeated in all encounters. For instance;

1.      In 1948, the First Arab – Israel war with the help of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, Egypt waged war against Israel. It lasted 9 months and ended in Egypt's defeat and the Israel occupation 50% of areas allocated for Arabs;

2.      In 1956 Egypt again engaged and led in the second Arab – Israel conflict, to retake areas occupied. The war lasted only 8 days and resulted in Israel occupation of Sinai, Egyptian's territory;

3.      In 1967 the 3rd Arab – Israel war, Egypt waged war against Israel. This war again lasted only 6 days and resulted in humiliating defeat of Egypt and her allies. Israel occupied Gaza Strip, West Bank and Golan Heights;

4.      War of Attrition (from 1967 – 1970) the longest war Egypt has ever engaged by the help of Russians. The war was to retake Egypt's territory occupied by Israel i.e., Sinai. The war ended after Egypt failed to retake;

5.      The 1973 the 4th Arab – Israel war which lasted for 19 days and resulted in Egypt's defeat and Israel’s consolidation on occupied Arabs territories and the

6.      1977 Libyan-Egyptian war, which last only 4 day and resulted in Egypt's defeat and repulsion;

Almost in all these wars Egypt enjoyed the human, logistic and economic supports of allies of Arab states like Syria, Iraq and Jordan and the supper power like Russia. And yet Egypt miserably defeated in all of them. It is worthwhile noting that of Egypt’s 91 independence years, Egypt's war years are summed up to only 3 years and clear indication that Egypt can not bear long wars, contrary to Ethiopia, which endurance and perseverance are hallmark of Ethiopia’s war history. Moreover, Egypt has not engaged in any war since 1977 for almost 37 years.

The war that Egyptian authorities are now craving may not going to be for days, like previous Egyptian wars, once it is started, especially ifthe Ethiopia’s investment (i.e., Grand) is sabotaged. Additionally, it may not be determined by the current state of armaments but endurance, perseverance and resilience.Egypt may have to prepare for a long war that will be incurring serious and severe human, material and economic cost to all parties involved. Therefore, it is with these historical backgrounds and looming disaster that Egyptian authorities must be economical with tones of theirrhetoric andsensationalizationof events surrounding the water use of Nile River, on which 90% of the 100 million Egyptian populations depends. Nile is not the only Transboundary River and international laws have resolved competing conflicts of these rivers, around the world.

Literature Cited:

Jesman, Czeslaw. "Egyptian Invasion of Ethiopia." African Affairs 58.230 (1959): 75-81.

Matthew White (2011) Necrometrics (2011) Death Tolls for the Major Wars and Atrocities of the Twentieth Century, 

Piero Scaruffi (2009) Wars and casualities of the 20th and 21st centuries,



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