Nile River Politics: When Sisi Met Desalegn

BY: Nizar Manek
The guests had been seated at the tables of the great hall in Addis Ababa, and fanfares rang out as the Emperor Haile Selassie walked in with President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt at his right hand. Nasser was a “tall, stocky, imperious man, his head thrust forward and his wide jaws thrust into a smile,” next to him Selassie’s “diminutive silhouette,” his “thin expressive face, his glistening penetrating eyes” worn by the years. Behind the extraordinary pair, the remaining leaders also entered in their pairs, writes Ryszard Kapuściński in his chronicle of the fall of the Abyssinian monarchy and the intrigues at Selassie’s court. The audience rose; everyone was applauding. “Ovations sounded for unity and the Emperor. Then the feast began.”
Their corresponding persons, President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi of Egypt and Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn — a pair less extraordinary, their relations less gregarious —find themselves seated together on June 26 at the 23rd Ordinary Summit of the African Union in Equatorial Guinea. During his presidential campaign, El-Sisi spoke of his interest in travelling to Ethiopia “not once, but ten times” for the mutual benefit of the two countries. As El-Sisi addressed the crowd at his presidential inauguration ceremony at the Qubba Palace in Cairo, Ethiopia’s Foreign Minister Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus looked on among Arab royals, the First-Vice President of Sudan, Lieutenant General Bakri Hassan Saleh, and heads of state, from Chad’s Idriss Déby and Eritrea’s Isaias Afwerki to Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who has held power in Equatorial Guinea even longer than El-Sisi’s military predecessor, Hosni Mubarak. El-Sisi professed to the crowd he would protect pan-Africanism, and he wouldn’t allow Ethiopia’s self-financed Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) to “cause a crisis or a problem with sisterly Ethiopia.” Over centuries, the Nile has tied the two countries together. Ethiopia’s priority now is power generation, while Egypt, a desert country, prioritises irrigation against the Nile water source countries on the Central African and Ethiopian plateaus, which have greater rainwater.

The GERD is a major issue of peace or war. As he summits in Malabo with Adhanom over Egypt’s Nile water crisis, El-Sisi finds himself confronted with deep and changing historical forces. When Britain occupied Egypt in 1882, Britain immediately understood it had become “ruler of a hydrological society,” and that the irrigation question was central to maintaining stability along its Suez Canal, notes Terje Tved, professor at the universities of Bergen and Oslo and an authority on the Nile. Then everything changed after the First World War, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and the Egyptian revolution of 1919, and yet Britain’s strategic interests remained the same. This trickled into a series of colonial treaties, including the 1959 Nile Waters agreement, which contributed to Sudan becoming Egypt’s downstream hydro-political ally, and safeguarded Egypt and Sudan’s over 90 percent share of Nile waters. Ethiopia, the source of the Nile, was left only with ghosts of discord. Selassie himself was left affronted by Nasser’s marginalisation of Ethiopia in the 1959 agreement, and was to be overthrown in a 1974 coup d’état. At the same time, notes a March 21 2011 memorandum from the international businessman and dam engineer Dr Ibrahim Mostafa Kamel submitted to the first post-Mubarak government of Essam Sharaf, since 1969 Egypt has lost an estimated 100 million tons annually of silt, “creating a 4.1 billion silt dump which lies over the Egyptian-Sudanese border.”

Even if he is a diminutive Nasser, El-Sisi’s jaws will not likely be thrust into a smile, even a wry one. It is not even sure whether there will be a feast as in Kapuściński’s tale, or if so, whether it will be sumptuous. Only three days before El-Sisi’s presidential inauguration, the governments of Ethiopia and South Sudan arrested three Egyptians reportedly sent by Cairo to spy on dam projects in South Sudan and western Ethiopia, principal among them the 6,000-megawatt GERD. Egypt fears the GERD is a threat to its lifeline, the Blue Nile at Ethiopia’s Lake Tana upon which Egypt depends for over 85%of its Nile water flow. As the dispute fanned to a flame earlier this year, Egypt boycotted talks over the dam as they ground to an acrimonious standstill, and followed with a diplomatic card game to enlist the support of external stakeholders and African countries keen to capitalise on strategic alliances.

The real threat to Egypt is the reaction of Sudan, given its part in the 1959 agreement; not the GERD itself. If there are signs of a rapprochement between Egypt and sisterly Ethiopia, it is by Egypt’s necessity; it coincides with a growing rift between El-Sisi’s Egypt and Omer Hassan Ahmed El-Bashir’s Islamist regime in Sudan, a former ally of Mohammed Morsi’s government of Muslim Brothers. Egypt courts South Sudan in spite of Sudan, and besides Egypt’s anti-Islamist alliance with Saudi Arabia, there are signs of a rapprochement with Libya’s anti-Islamist leader General Khalifa Belqasim Haftar. While the Sudanese vice-president Bakri Hassan Saleh attended El-Sisi’s presidential inauguration, he has also reaffirmed Sudan’s commitment to the GERD; Ethiopia is also an important strategic alliance for Sudan. One reason is its interests in the six-month long conflict in South Sudan.

The Nile Basin Initiative, which met in Khartoum last Thursday, has called on Egypt to re-involve itself in the activities in the initiative, which both Sudan and Egypt left four years ago in protest over the signing of the Nile Basin Cooperative Framework Agreement by four Nile Basin countries (Rwanda, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Tanzania). Burundi and Kenya later signed onto the NBI, which removes Egypt’s veto power over upstream irrigation and hydro-power projects. It is bound to reduce Egypt and Sudan’s historically protected Nile water share. After El-Sisi overthrew Morsi, Sudan returned to the NBI. Its new chairman also happens to be Sudan’s Minister of Water Resources and Electricity, Muattaz Musa Abdallah Salim. “I should like to place an appeal to our sister nation Egypt,” Salim said at the meeting of Nile Basin water ministers, according to AFP. “Your resumption of your activities in the NBI will further consolidate our gains and integrity in the region.”

For M. Jalal Hashim, a professor at Comboni University College and a close observer of Nile politics, the flutters of Khartoum’s heart have more to do with Khartoum’s calculations for political survival than technical issues connected with transboundary water management. “If Khartoum stood against the GERD, this may lead Ethiopia to host the military opposition of the regime, and the remaining of the regime in Sudan is a matter of inertia, not strength,” he says. “There is enough opposition to put it out.” During his brief reign, Morsi, who is now languishing behind bars in El-Sisi’s Egypt, showed his readiness to give the disputed area of land at the Egypt-Sudan border called the Halayeb triangle to Sudan, a matter Hashim thinks played a role in his overthrow.

When the Ethiopian delegation brought up the topic of the GERD for the first time, in Kampala according to Hashim, the Sudanese delegation was late by hours due to disruptions in airway programmes. When they joined the meeting, he says, they discovered that the Egyptian delegation had already blessed the project. They were “furious” and made clear their reservations to the GERD being built in an area vulnerable to volcanic eruptions and notified their minister, who, by his turn, notified his Egyptian counterpart in protest. “If such a tremor and earthquake takes place and destroys the GERD that would be disastrous to both Sudan and Egypt,” according to Hashim. “The water will be almost 26-metres high in Khartoum for days. The threat of dam collapse can wipe out Sudan, while Egypt would not be affected directly.”

The Sudanese experts repeatedly warned their government while negotiating with the Ethiopians, “hoping that wisdom would prevail, but in vain,” says Hashim. According to him, Khartoum’s position at the time prompted the Egyptian delegation to withdraw their agreement to the GERD, while Khartoum’s position has now aligned with the rising power of Ethiopia, which Egypt continues to contest. Even while Ethiopia’s award of a no-bid contract to an Italian company to construct the US$4.8bn. dam contributed, alongside Egypt’s earlier protests, to it being left without concessional finance, the World Bank is heavily invested in Ethiopia and region. At the end of last month, the bank approved US$178.5mn. credit and a US$254.5mn. grant to help Ethiopia develop its geothermal energy resources to boost electricity supply. Several electricity export contracts have already been signed, and Yemen’s Minister of Electricity Saleh Sumai and Adhanom have now agreed to begin studying electrical interconnection between the two countries across the Red Sea through Djibouti.

Ethiopia seeks to capitalise on its new economic development, part of which involves the Nile; Egypt faces the winds of an economic and national cohesion crisis. Sounds for unity are growing; but because Egypt is fast running out of alternatives, and faces major change on the Nile. As the late rebel-turned statesman Meles Zenawi said in an interview on Egyptian television, the relationship between the two countries is “like a very old marriage, which has no possibility of divorce. It has its ups and downs, but it is very solid. It is of long standing.” “Sometimes we quarrel, sometimes we agree,” Zenawi told the Egyptian interviewer, radio waves fizzing in the background. “That has been the case for thousands of years.”

Nizar Manek is an independent journalist reporting on Africa.

Copyright © 2014 Le Monde diplomatique—distributed by Agence Global

Half of the world’s poor classed as ‘destitute’ – Oxford study

Ethiopia ranks the second poorest country in the world just ahead of Niger. The study is based on analysis of acute poverty in 108 developing countries around the world. Despite making progress at reducing the percentage of destitute people, Ethiopia is still home to more than 76 million poor people, the fifth largest number in the world after India, China, Bangladesh and Pakistan. India has the world’s largest number of poor people at more than 647 million. 87.3% of Ethiopians are classified as MPI poor, while 58.1% are considered destitute. A person is identified as multidimensionally poor (or ‘MPI poor’) if they are deprived in at least one third of the weighted MPI indicators. The destitute are deprived in at least one-third of the same weighted indicators, The Global MPI uses 10 indicators to measure poverty in three dimensions: education, health and living standards. In rural Ethiopia 96.3% are poor while in the urban area the percentage of poverty is 46.4%. Comparing the poverty rate by regions, Somali region has the highest poverty rate at 93% followed by Oromiya (91.2%) and Afar (90.9%). Amhara region has 90.1% poverty rate while Tigray has 85.4%. Addis Ababa has the smallest percentage of poverty at 20% followed by Dire Dawa at 54.9% and Harar (57.9%).

An Oxford University study to identify the multidimensionally poor in the developing world has found that in 49 countries, half of the poor are so deprived they should be classed as ‘destitute’.

The researchers’ global multidimensional poverty index or MPI measures ‘overlapping deprivations’ in health, education and living standards, with the ‘destitute’ being those who experience extreme deprivation such as having lost two children or more, having someone severely malnourished in the household, or having no assets at all.

The study says overall the situation has improved for the world’s poor due to poverty reduction programmes and economic growth; however, there is still a formidable core of extremely poor people. The largest numbers of destitute people, 420 million, were found in South Asia. In India alone, drawing on the most recent official figures available, the Oxford researchers calculate around 343 million destitute people. In sub Saharan Africa, there are around 200 million destitute people, with the highest proportion found in Niger where over two-thirds (68.8%) of the population were classed as destitute.

The study by the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI) also identified countries where there were improvements for poor people. Of 34 countries for which there are data, those that made the most progress in reducing destitution were Ethiopia, followed by Niger, Ghana, Bolivia, Rwanda, Tanzania, Nepal, Haiti, Bangladesh and Zambia (all low income or least developed countries except Ghana and Bolivia). In Ethiopia, the research shows that the share of destitute people shrank by 30 percentage points between 2000 and 2011.

OPHI’s Director Dr Sabina Alkire, from the Oxford Department of International Development, said: ‘There is a growing international consensus that we have to put an end to the worst forms of poverty and this should be the target for the new development agenda. While the successes of poorer countries show progress is being made, these findings show that for now, destitution – with all the grinding hardship it entails – remains a grim reality for hundreds of millions of people. Renewed efforts are needed post-2015 to ensure those in deepest poverty are not left behind.’

The global multidimensional poverty index (MPI) is unique in capturing the simultaneous disadvantages experienced by poor people, such as malnutrition, education and sanitation, providing a high-resolution lens on their lives. If people are deprived in one-third or more of ten (weighted) indicators, they are identified as MPI-poor.

In 2014, the global MPI covered a total of 108 countries which are home to 78% of the world’s population. Some 30% of them – 1.6 billion people – are identified as multidimensionally poor. Of these 1.6 billion, 85% live in rural areas, which is a markedly higher percentage than income poverty estimates of 70-75%. Most live in South Asia (52%), followed by Sub-Saharan Africa (29%), and most – 71% – live in middle income countries.

A destitute person in the new study is MPI-poor, and is also deprived in a third or more of the same weighted indicators, according to more extreme criteria: for example, where no one in the household has completed at least one year of schooling; or two or more children in the household have died.

Two-thirds of destitute people have someone at home with severe malnutrition. Some 40% of the destitute have a round trip of 45 minutes to find safe water by foot if they have access to it at all. Over 80% have a dirt floor, and more than 90% have no proper sanitation and have to relieve themselves outside, with all the vulnerability, fear and shame this entails, particularly for women.

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