Egypt-Ethiopia Nile dispute is about water, not geography. By Maaza Mengiste

June 23, 2013

The world’s longest river has an identity that is as much a product of poetry as politics; both countries need to share it, not fight to own it

By Maaza Mengiste

Tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia have grown at an alarming rate since Addis Ababa announced its plans to construct the Grand Renaissance dam across part of the Nile. The project will divert the flow of the river and give Ethiopia greater access.

Egypt claims the dam could lower the river’s level in a country that is mainly desert, and reduce cultivated farmland. President Mohammad Mursi has called the river “God’s gift to Egypt”, and the country’s politicians claim the reduced water flow could prove catastrophic. An Ethiopian government spokesman, Getachew Reda, says none of Egypt’s worries are scientifically based, and that “some of them border on … fortune-telling”.

As the debate continues, I am reminded of an encounter between my mother and an Egyptian man one afternoon in New York. My mother was visiting from Addis Ababa and we decided to go to a pizzeria. Another customer, an Egyptian, recognised us as Ethiopians. After brief introductions, he made a passing comment about the age-old conflict between our countries over the Nile. My mother calmly stated there was no conflict: The Nile was ours.

What followed degenerated into verbal sparring that ricocheted between “historic right”, ancient civilisations and colonial-era treaties. Finally, my mother, frustrated, claimed full ownership of the river — and he did the same. It wouldn’t have ended if the pizza hadn’t arrived.

The Nile, at 6,700km, is the longest river in the world. It begins in Ethiopia and ends in Egypt. It moves counter to what one might expect, flowing upwards on the map. This, as much as anything, reflects the river’s mythological dimensions. It defies logic, its identity is as much a product of poetry as politics. Homer, in The Odyssey, called the body of water “Aegyptus, the heaven-fed river”. The name alone gave Egypt symbolic rights, and bestowed religious qualities upon the water. Despite the fact that 85 per cent of the Nile originates in Ethiopia, we still associate the river with Cleopatra and King Tut, with pyramids and the sphinx, with sophisticated belief systems and advanced scientific knowledge. The Nile is a metaphor for Egypt.

Perhaps what my mother and the Egyptian man were arguing for was an exclusive cultural identity that was synonymous with the Nile’s rich past. Perhaps he didn’t realise he was fighting for something he already had, or maybe he was trying to defend what he knew wasn’t entirely his.

Despite being the source for much of the Nile’s water, Ethiopia uses very little of it. By asserting Ethiopia’s ownership of the river in such a sweeping and unequivocal manner, maybe my mother was trying her best to redefine what the country had become to westerners: The barren land of begging children and dying cattle. This was not the life she had known — nor had it been mine.

Tourists like to speak of Ethiopia as a country of contrasts, as a place where time has stood still. They point to quaint hillside villages and farmers ploughing with oxen, they wave at children in ragged clothes, and photograph women bent beneath bundles of firewood. Somehow, this represents a kind of existence free of the hassles of modernity. But tucked behind those sentimentalised visions of an unfettered life are harsh realities.

Ethiopia is vulnerable to drought and climate change. It has unpredictable distribution of water. The country’s ‘timelessness’ has something to do with the lack of access to basic necessities. There is nothing romantic about this. The dam would generate electricity. It could produce surplus energy for export to neighbouring countries. And, controlling water flow in the Nile could bring improved irrigation and water distribution.

Last week, Mursi promised to “defend each drop of Nile water with our blood”. The language emerging from the two nations evokes epic poetry; the clash of gods in the guise of men.

On a recent trip to Ethiopia, I travelled to Bahir Dar, a picturesque city close to the Blue Nile. As I crossed a bridge, a companion pointed eagerly to a group of young boys playing in a trickling stream of water. “There,” he said, almost shouting. “That’s our Nile!”

I looked out of the window, surprised by the ordinariness of it all. There was nothing grand or mythic in this snapshot of daily life, but it contained everything that was most important about the debate. Regardless of our poetic allusions and historic references, when we talk about the Nile, we are talking about water: A fundamental right for all people, regardless of geography.

— Guardian News & Media Ltd


Maaza Mengiste is the author of Beneath the Lion’s Gaze.

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