Exaggerated and outdated concerns over the Nile

(MoFA June 17, 2011)- Apocalyptic prophesies have been around for centuries. Eschatology, millennialism and obsession with Armageddon and the Day of Judgment have all too often resulted in mass hysteria and heavy losses of life. This variant of end-of-the-world prediction is still around—Harold Camping‘s prophesies spring to mind— but it is mostly the stuff of Hollywood blockbusters

Another, more recent strain of prediction can be found in what are normally considered more heavyweight mainstream publications. Recent newspaper headlines in the New York Times or the Washington Post, not just the National Enquirer, show a dangerous trend. This isn‘t alarm about climate change where there are real existential concerns for the entire human race. It is the publication of articles predicting disaster and making outrageous and unsupported claims where there is little or no evidence for it, cashing in on the public interest in catastrophe, real or imagined

One example of this trend was an Op-Ed article in the New York Times, June 1st this year, by Lester Brown. The NYT came up with a splendidly lurid headline: ―When the Nile Runs Dry. This followed the author‘s penchant for the dramatic displayed in a truly apocalyptic fashion as he outlines the looming catastrophe he claims is hovering over Egypt. The efforts of some Nile riparian countries to use part of the Nile waters for hydroelectric power or to feed their hungry are going to drain the river dry, and kill off all Egyptians. His article is apparently intended to be a call to the international community to unite to stop any such malicious and evil aims, and force these countries to drop any claims on the use of the Nile waters.

Mr. Brown‘s love of drama begins with his first sentence. A new ‗Scramble for Africa‘ is underway. The evidence is what he calls ‗land grabs‘ in some African countries. He is attempting to draw a parallel with the European decision to ‗civilize‘ Africa in the 19th century and the subsequent colonization of almost the entire continent. Ironically, what he decries today as the ‗new scramble for Africa‘ is actually the effort of African countries to extricate themselves from poverty by utilizing millions of hectares of hitherto uncultivated land. Mr. Brown thinks the fact that investors from the Middle East and Asia are leasing thousands of hectares of land in a number of African countries, notably Ethiopia, should be seen as a process of post-modern colonization. It should be resisted as strongly as possible by the West. Indeed, Mr. Brown makes it clear that it is only the West that can come to rescue Africa from the ‗new scramble [now] underway. The paternalistic undertone is all too clear. His condescending arrogance betrays the kind of contempt with which he and others still regard Africa. Africans cannot be trusted to take care of their own interests. These deals with wealthy countries and investors are tantamount to renewed colonization even though Africans now have their own say on who they are doing business with and the conditions of this activity.

All this is misleading enough but for Mr. Brown it is no more than a prelude to his main thesis which is concern over the impact of deals in Ethiopia for the future of democracy in Egypt. Mr. Brown wants to warn us that the major danger of land agreements in Ethiopia is ―the threat they pose to democracy, or rather to the ―youngest democracy in Africa, that is, somewhat surprisingly, Egypt. Certainly, western think-tanks and ideologues are quick to dub as ‗democratic‘ any nation willing to follow their prescriptions, but they usually demand some kind of electoral process however minimal. Whatever the potential for the future, to call Egypt under Marshal Tantawi ‗the youngest democracy in Africa‘ is simply not credible. This doesn‘t prevent Mr. Brown from claiming Ethiopia‘s campaign to increase food supplies for its people will endanger Egypt‘s ‗democracy‘ and must therefore be stopped. This is not the place to argue about the commitment of Egypt‘s military council to democracy but to argue that this might falter because of hydro-electric dams on the Nile takes intellectual duplicity to new heights.

Mr. Brown is apparently opposed to deals for land use by foreigners in Ethiopia because he believes they are also deals for water acquisition. Any deal in Ethiopia, or Sudan, that might take away even a cubic meter of water from Egypt‘s natural monopoly, as it were, has often been condemned in the past by many in Egyptian officialdom. Today, however, it is incomprehensible that a western scholar professing a passion for democracy should hark back to the past just as many Egyptians have begun to understand the realities of the use of water in the Nile Basin. Mr. Brown is worried that with more and more countries carrying out these land deals, Egypt will have to negotiate with more parties than ever before. In the past, successive Egyptian governments consistently refused to negotiate with other riparian countries on the possibility of equitable utilization of water. Now positive overtures are being displayed and there are indications of acceptance of the need for dialogue and understanding. This is a positive gesture Mr. Brown should consider building on, not dismissing.

These positive indications have followed Mubarak‘s departure, suggesting they are the result of the broader political space that has emerged. This might surely have signaled to any percipient observer that democracy would create a more conducive environment for Egypt to secure a win-win agreement with other riparian countries, as indeed, Egypt‘s Prime Minister appears to believe. Mr. Brown, however, rather than acknowledge that democracy would make such a solution possible appears to believe that an already democratic Egypt is being threatened by people who have consistently called for constructive negotiations over the future use of the Nile, and who have been in discussions on this for a decade.

In fact, Mr. Brown‘s argument looks back to the saber-rattling of past regimes in Egypt.

He tells us that more than sixty per cent of Egyptian families consider subsidized bread ‗an entitlement‘. This status must be maintained at all costs in case any change in the status quo might stand in the way of a yet-to-be-seen democratic order. He is not too keen to extend this generosity, or even a fraction of it, to the peoples of Ethiopia. He vehemently opposes their efforts to feed themselves as an obstacle to Egypt‘s advance towards greater democracy. Ethiopians‘ struggle to ensure their own survival, which Mr. Brown considers to be an Egyptian‘s birthright, is seen as a war against the people of Egypt. Extraordinarily, he cannot even consider for a moment the possibility that all the Nile Basin countries might work together in the quest for a sustainable solution to the use of the river. He appears convinced in the reality of his over-riding reason to maintain Egypt‘s monopoly over the Nile waters rather than see a negotiated solution that would satisfy all the riparian states and result in a win-win situation.

To this end, he even goes so far as to recommend what the world should do to stave off this ‗catastrophe‘ in the making. One of his transnational solutions is for all the riparian countries to work on controlling population growth. This indeed is an excellent idea though Mr. Brown for some reason emphasizes this should essentially be carried out in Ethiopia and Sudan rather than Egypt. His second solution is for all countries to adopt more water-efficient irrigation technologies and plant less water-intensive crops. Yes, indeed, but it has to be said that more than any other country this is something Egypt should have adopted a long time ago. Mr. Brown might have noticed that Egypt is one of the driest places on earth, but you can find large swathes of rice plantations there, and rice is surely the last thing you should consider planting in a desert environment however abundant water might appear to be at any one time. Egypt would save billions of cubic meters of water lost to evaporation every year by simply shifting away from open canal irrigation. Equal amounts of water could be saved by introducing a much improved water management system on the huge dams already built. Now there is the outlandish Toshka project and fancy ideas of building golf courses all over the country. These look like almost certain ways to dry up the river completely

It is Mr. Brown‘s third recommendation, however, which is his main suggestion. Despite obfuscation and semantic acrobatics, the essential element of this is that Ethiopia should not be allowed to use the Nile, that the world should stop Ethiopia from trying to feed its people so that Egyptian democracy can thrive. Mr. Brown appears to believe that Egyptian democracy, even before it has appeared, is so important that Ethiopians should be condemned to perpetual poverty and starvation to make it happen.

Ethiopians are only too well aware of the pain that comes with poverty to think for a moment that they might benefit by putting other people at risk. The government of Ethiopia has never entertained the idea of developing Ethiopia at other‘s expense. Indeed, the spirit of cooperation that largely permeates relations among the Nile Basin countries today has been something Ethiopia has worked hard to achieve. The welcome to Egyptian delegations in the last couple of months and the emphasis on the need for dialogue was no mere publicity exercise. Egyptians need never worry that the dams Ethiopia is building, and will build, will endanger the livelihood of Egyptians. Quite the reverse: they will make control of the Nile and the use of the river‘s power available to all. As Ethiopia has underlined repeatedly cooperation is now the necessity for the Nile Basin. It is this that will prove that Lester Brown‘s predictions of disaster are unsupported, paternalistic, even racist, and certainly unnecessarily alarmist. Mr. Brown should be aware, as Egypt‘s leaders are, that the days when poverty in Ethiopia was the best instrument to protect an Egyptian monopoly over the Nile waters, have gone. Ethiopia will not sit idly by while its people die of starvation, but this, despite Mr. Brown‘s hysteria, will have no impact on Egypt‘s food supplies.