14 October 2021

The Renaissance Dam and the Question of Water Rights on the Nile River

Yes, it has been awhile.

I was recently sent this video by a lawyer I met through some discussions about indigenous rights threats from Ethiopia's Renaissance Dam (aka GERD) on the Nile River. I have been asked several times over the last year by Egyptian journalists and professionals to weigh in on the dam project, given where it is today and that I was doing research on the project at the outset. I have declined, but not before I shared my critical view of the whole situation with those who have asked. The response in each case was crickets, so apparently it is not something anyone wants to platform. So here I am going to platform myself.

I do want to say that I am still interested to work with indigenous groups on the issue of their human/water/land rights threats from the project. Indigenous concerns in this case are tangible: based on human beings quality of life, right to life, and lifeways. Indigenous communities have maintained a way of life for themselves without needing to assimilate to whatever the dominant culture is in their given geography, as such Indigenous communities are like countries within countries - in some cases, not all, they actually are recognized as sovereign nations. Unfortunately, in the three Nile countries in question here, no such allowance exists. Nation-states or country concerns are centered on economics, often dressed up as human rights. The right to profit from water does not, in my opinion, come under the auspices of human rights. I am not going to work with indigenous groups if and when they are being used as leverage for national propaganda agendas. Egyptian, Ethiopian, Sudanese Governments, with a capital G, do not have a track record of integrity or justice when it comes to indigenous rights of the people in their own borders. I said this in a World Bank report that was subsequently scrubbed of such assertions - even though I backed them with peer reviewed scholarship that included critical examination of the situation of Nubians after the Aswan Dam, displaced people in the Rosaries dam footprint, and my own interview data that included Ethiopian officials stating over and over again: what is the sacrifice of 20,000 people for 90 million? Today, in all three of these countries, the Governments ignore indigenous voices and/or respond with violence. That any of these governments would suddenly care about the Gumuz or Berta is a deception. And look, this ugly behavior is not isolated to these three Nile countries - this is everywhere in the world, some, like European or North American Governments, do it more subtly but just as violently and insidiously. 

I see this video as problematic and confusing. Confident assertions of one's perspective at the cost of misrepresenting the actual situation at hand is irresponsible at best. Some could label this type of product propaganda, or gaslighting. Here I would like to weigh in on this video in 6 points and a suggestion: 

1. This narrative centers Egypt. When one people is centered in a narrative, this naturally erases or eclipses other people in a given situation. When you erase or eclipse other people, there are probably some human rights violations in the works. Another example of a country that does this consistently is the USA, my native country, in dealing with anyone they have to share resources with - Canada, Mexico, sovereign nations of indigenous people within their borders. USA needs, almost always to do with national economics, come first and or worse yet, are the only needs in question when you listen to the videos or narratives our government agencies put out. It is a thinly veiled supremacy agenda. When it comes to this video: Egypt is putting themselves at the center of a story that really centers in a place outside of their control - another sovereign land upstream: Ethiopia.

2. Passive aggression and gaslighting #1 Subtle imagery. When information is presented in this sort of format - using stock images referring to an unrelated topic, such as showing troop deployment when discussing Egyptian and Sudanese diplomacy with Ethiopia - this starts to warp the narrative. The viewer is confronted with disconnected information that they are then going to connect in their own minds. The result is thinking of the militarization of Egyptian response to Ethiopia as if this is acceptable or true. Showing the Ethiopians who live near to the dam project rather than the Ethiopian cities benefitting from the project, such as Addis Ababa is another example. This sort of weaving disparate ideas together through audio and visual products - film - is a very tried and true form of persuasion that often is not true or just one facet of reality.

3.  Passive aggression and stating "facts" that cannot be proven #2 Subtle language. The dismissive language - of what was translated - about Ethiopians, insulting and threatening, is not lost. This is passive aggressive behavior and a sign of unhealthy communication. The confident presentation of numbers and legal precedent is likewise problematic. This is not discourse, this is an attempt to force a narrative. This narrative is based more on emotion and sense of entitlement than it is facts. Ex. where is this loss of arable land? why are the dams between the Renaissance dam and the majority of Egyptian agricultural activity not addressed? how did you calculate your number related to water? why is this water assumed to belong to anyone? why would Egypt decide what Ethiopia does in its sovereign territory?

4. Talking about water as something that there can be a perpetual easement or international law guaranteed...Sorry colonizers; the days of the colonial spirit are dying, so let's stop using that language. This legal language constantly thrown around as if it means something reflects a set of rules made by and benefitting colonial powers and those the colonial powers favored. And that power has waned. Law and justice are not the same thing - and rights are a whole different bag of ideas and realities. Whose rights? At whose expense?

5. Once again asserting that Ethiopia built the dam because Egypt was in turmoil. I tire of this assertion.  Before I get into why let me point out that Ethiopia itself has been in turmoil for years now, including some huge number of political prisoners that are living (if they are living) under questionable conditions. I shudder to think what will be revealed outside the borders once current Ethiopian leadership changes hands. I digress, but only to point out - Ethiopia is busy and always has been busy - too busy to be building plans around an out of the blue revolution in Egypt. The plans to build this dam, the largest project of its kind on the African continent, did not happen out of the blue in a time of advantage centering Egypt. Ethiopia started this because of Ethiopia. The dam plans were formed first by colonial engineers, then by anti-communist efforts of the USA during all that Cold War tax dollar spending on foreign interests. The dam has changed names a number of times because it has been decades in the making. In 1970s the Emperor was planning to break ground. Ethiopia is a country of equal complexity and population numbers as Egypt and as such, has its own business to attend to - and it has built relationships. Relationships with the Italian construction company Salini - no matter the opinion of that outfit - they build things. Relationship ties with diaspora who have made a good life for themselves and want to invest back home. Relationships with neighboring countries. Contracts were established with about 5 surrounding countries to sell the electricity by the time I got there in 2012. Those kinds of negotiations and planning do not happen in one year in any culture or geography, especially not one as vast and complicated as where we are talking.

6. Fear. This narrative is a fear-based narrative. Violence is a response to fear. Fear is generated by the unknown and counter to the apparent confidence of the Egyptian experts highlighted in this video, it is the unknown that has everyone braced. This kind of forced control threats does not offer sustainable healthy societal outcomes - people just want to live their lives. Discourse and dialogue, which are done better in Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan than most of the world, are the salve to fear. Talk it out - and yes, I know there have been talks ongoing since 2013 of so...so what...your societies are millennia in the making: keep talking. Figure out some ways to cooperate with shared water. Stop referring to models that just do not apply in contemporary reality - models such as colonial authored water distribution or outmoded models of war. 

Suggestion: Ask for help. This last point is directed toward my Egyptian, Ethiopian, Sudanese colleagues or the government officials in positions of making decisions on all of this: you do not need to go this alone. This does not mean that I believe these country governments are not capable of appropriate decisions for their geographies. I suggest this collaborative and diverse knowledge-base approach in any complex water system - which they all are. The Nile is one of the largest and most complex water systems in the world. You do not have to have all of the answers. If you bring in more experts do not pay the outrageous fees - anyone who charges huge sums of money to help assess water management is not really there to help, they are just to make a buck and possibly a name for themselves.  Avoid bringing in folks from counties where racism is taught from the very start of their education, they are going to have a hard time listening to anyone who does not look like them. Make sure that they are actually credentialed in peer reviewed spaces or community reviewed spaces. So many knowledge or "expertise" vacuums exist in the big banks or international organizations or governments. The ideas put forward are creative, but often unproven and apply only to a fantasy world. The Nile is not an experimental lab for scholars or experts to play with. Some of those folks have untested ideas and enjoy a career of theorizing. There are plenty of human resources that have practical on the ground knowledge of water management - tap into them - especially the ones who know your countries and have spent more than a vacation or workshop there.