Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa
Conseil pour le développement de la recherche en sciences sociales en Afrique
Conselho para o Desenvolvimento da Pesquisa em Ciências Sociais em África
مجلس تنمية البحوث الإجتماعية في أفريقيا

Globalising water projects

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Nile Basin countries should realise that water issues in Africa are not only regional or national concerns, but also global concerns, writes Helmi Shaarawy

I appreciate, in principle, the impact of disputes among the countries of the Nile Basin on the spirit of pan-Africanism and on progress in the development of regional cooperation in the Nile Basin, which is essential for the collective future and comprehensive development of one of the important regions in Africa. It is important to bear in mind that the Nile waters question can no longer be regarded as a purely bilateral or even regional issue, as it intersects with — and has become part of — a larger continental and global water agenda, which renders it less subject to the control of any of the Nile Basin countries than to the views of the planning circles in the World Bank, multinational corporations and other global capital sources. These circles, according to many sources (the most important of which is Rushdi Said), have been discussing mammoth dam and hydraulic projects on rivers since the Hague Conference of 2000, in the course of which they established the principle of water pricing and the role of private firms in water marketing projects. They had in mind 15 major international companies (based in the US, Britain, France and Italy) that they anticipated would invest some $800 billion in water projects.

Africa always occupied a prime position in these plans, which extended from the Senegal River to the Congo, Niger and Zambezi rivers. The costs of the Grand Inga Reservoir projects on the Congo, the fourth phase of which is scheduled for completion in 2025 (and which will have the potential to generate 40,000 Megawatts of electricity), are expected to exceed $80 billion. South Africa and Congo have recently signed a crucial treaty on the Grand Inga Hydropower Project that could become the largest hydroelectric project in the world following a meeting of potential investors in the Congo project in April 2008, under the supervision of the World Energy Council, held with the purpose of generating the necessary funding. The World Bank had committed $10 billion as starting capital for the Grand Inga projects, as well as another $8 billion for the nearby Zambezi projects.

Thus, it is clear that the borders of a local project such as Renaissance Dam (with an expected 6,000 Megawatt capacity at a cost of $5 billion) extend beyond Ethiopia. As considerable as the value of this project is in terms of Ethiopian national development, the diversity of contributors to the project, with respect to the creation of the reservoir, power generation and distribution, and infrastructure (including the railways connecting it to other parts of the area) speak of a major multilateral investment process. In my opinion, the Egyptian public should not read this as a conspiracy against Egypt but rather as a network of interests with respect to which it is important to augment the capacity to penetrate this network so as to transform it, together with Sudan and Ethiopia if possible, into a huge engine for collective development along the lines of the multinational Grand Inga Project. (I should add here, that facts and realities put paid to that commotion stirred by a number of Egyptian technicians advocating a project to link the Congo with the Nile via canals that pierce the mountains and the swamps between there and Sudan, all in order to sideline the Renaissance dam!)

Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia are not unaware of the importance of working together in the interests of national and regional development. Moreover, it is in their interests not only to generate joint information resources but also joint positions on the project, as global capital does not operate in accordance with local, regional or pan-Arab biases. Indeed, Arab capital, even with some of its political linkages to Egypt, comes into question in this regard.

We also know that the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), which for some mysterious reason is being jettisoned, had been earmarked for $122 million from the World Bank for activities involving research, confidence building, communications and promotion programmes preparatory for major 3-6 year project programmes (all this is according to a 50-page booklet on the plans and studies for the initiative).

At the same time, I can add that, according to the available information on major Ethiopian surveys conducted in the area of Renaissance Dam project since 2007, and as Rushdi Said himself, pointed out before he passed away in 2012, Ethiopia — unlike both Egypt and Sudan — never submitted a memorandum on the extent of its water needs, as required under international agreements. This is reminiscent of Addis Ababa’s continued delay in the submission of the studies for the dam to the tripartite technical committee. Moreover, one recalls that the World Bank was not absent while these acts of remiss took place. Since 2001, after the initiative was launched, the World Bank pledged to assist the water ministers of the Nile Basin countries to establish a cooperation consortium (CCON) so as to ensure that it would always be close to the group!

The abundance of information and its simultaneous concealment, in this manner, furnished the arguments and the sources of controversy between the parties concerned in the Nile waters question and crisis. Yet, there is no national agency in any of the Nile Basin countries capable of resolving the matter; nor is there a regional organisation sufficiently strong to assert itself.

However, I anticipate that a new approach will be brought to reading the situation with an eye to “consensus-reaching” either at the regional level, first, or at the level of the sources of global capital, as conflict over such major projects only obstructs progress in the advancement of interests and welfare nationally and regionally. If the financiers in the Congo River basin — as was the case with the Zambezi before this — made it possible for South Africa to lead the investment project outside of its territory and if the DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo) approved of this so as to become a centre for global investment, I doubt that the Ethiopians would be governed by narrow outlooks when it comes to similar projects with current or future regional or international projects that not only serve developmental interests but also, and perhaps above all, the interests of the international capitalist process.

In light of the foregoing, the globalisation of water projects that encircles the Nile waters crisis leaves little room for “golden solutions”, but it does compel us to exert some effort in a re-examination of the agreements governing the region in accordance with a unified African perspective, to which I am committed.

What most struck me when reading the basic agreements between the Nile Basin states is that they need to be approached more with a political lens than with a legalistic or technical one. This led me to believe that Egyptian and Ethiopian negotiators desire agreement not conflict, and most of the existing agreements for regulating the use of the Nile waters suggest that agreement is possible. The dialogue over the framework agreement for the countries of the Nile Basin is different from the negotiations directly involving the Renaissance Dam. Therefore, it is important to negotiate first over the framework agreement, because it is here we will find the spirit of “consideration for the other” present all along. Indeed, we find this principle already present in the 1959 Nile Waters Agreement, which contains an Egyptian and Sudanese “agreement to discuss together the demands of other countries and to agree on a unified opinion with respect to them”. That provision puts paid to the contention that Khartoum and Cairo had ignored the other parties.

The recent Entebbe Framework Agreement also underscores this principle in its wording regarding “the fair and reasonable use of water resources”, the need to observe the circumstances pertaining to these water resources, including their limited nature, and the commitment not to cause grave harm to other countries.

All such texts and provisions seem to compel towards “dialogue” over principles, rather than mere “negotiations” over details. Once the two countries perceive this they will, of necessity, be propelled towards “agreement” instead of finding themselves forced to bow to the rules and interests of global capitalism and having to negotiate over other vital strategic interests. Such are the anxieties in this respect that one sometimes feels compelled to alert public opinion in both countries of the risk of national interests being subordinated to the interests of global capitalism, by which time conflict and media clamour in Addis Ababa and in Cairo will carry little weight.

Those who are whispering or shouting into the ears of the Nile Basin parties should realise that the circles of global capitalism and all other strategic circles around us must study the interrelated points surrounding the following:

— The statements of Egyptian scientists regarding the subterranean waters in the Western Desert. Most recently, scientist Essam Haggi drew a comparison with water on Mars. Prior to this we have Farouk Al-Baz’s remarks, the most recent of which concerned the rival subterranean river in northern Libya.

— The reports that have been circulating for some time on French water purification projects along the southern Mediterranean coast, starting from Morocco, and Israeli competition in this project, which embraces the whole of the Middle East.

— Previous policies of the World Bank itself, which had advised Turkey and Syria to resolve their crisis over another international waterway through the construction of small dams rather than through conflict.

— The need for more precise discussion of meteorological predictions, as any is sufficient to carry significant argumentative weight, whether in the case of the anticipatable floods surrounding the dams or the prospect of draught afflicting this party or that, not to mention the horrors that await from global warming and the melting of the polar icecaps.

The writer is former director of the Arab and African Research Centre, Cairo. This article is dedicated to Rushdi Said, an Egyptian scientist, professor of geology and expert in irrigation, on the first anniversary of his death.

This article first appeared in Al-Ahram Weekly, Issue No.1184, 13 February, 2014

March 3 2014