Harnessing Ethiopia’s rivers for development

By Robele Ababya / December 1, 2010
“Thirsty child of the Nile” is a popular proverbial irony in water-rich Ethiopia where hunger and thirst are rampant amid plenty. The Amharic version widely used is “Ye Abayin lij wuha temat”; it is meant to ridicule the paradox of abject poverty amid plenty; it extends to laxity in solving a problem in the face of untapped ideas, resources, knowledge or skills.

The first serious widespread slogan to harness Ethiopian rivers was enshrined in the revolutionary poem/song presented in 1974 to the Ethiopian people by the then famous Ethiopian Air Force. Two lines of the poem are reproduced below:

ወንዞች ይገደቡ ይዋሉ ለልማት (wenzoch yegedeebu yewalu lelemat)
በከንቱ ፈሰዋል ለብዙ ሺ አመታት (bekentu fesewl le bizu shi ametat)

It simply means that rivers have been flowing in waste for thousands of years; it is long overdue that they are harnessed for development by building dams for power generation and irrigation.

It is irrefutable that the patriotic song, with no Marxist ideological undertone, rallied the Ethiopian people for peaceful bloodless change aimed at development and prosperity for all - irrespective of ethnic origin or creed. Unfortunately the song was taken of the air after a few months under extreme pressure of communist ideologues labeling it ‘nationalistic’. The coward and ignorant Mengistu succumbed to the pressure of the leftist extremists.

It would be appropriate at this juncture to state that our forebears brought the indispensability of our rivers to the development of Ethiopia. School boys staged dramas on parents’ days attributed to our rivers. Those rivers that started and ended in Ethiopia like the famous river Awash were given the accolade of patriots; others like the Nile River in particular were branded traitors for they carried not only waters but also massive fertile soil across national boundaries. This sentiment is engraved in the minds of the past and present generations in spite of puppet regimes like TPLF serving foreign interests overtly and covertly in order to stay in power.

So the thorny issue of the Nile waters and indeed of all the waters of Ethiopia shall remain at the center of our relations with interested parties, including Egypt. This is more so in view of rising poverty in Ethiopia coupled with shortage of water for human consumption on our planet.

Nile accord 1993 & languages used in the accord

The centerpiece of the accord is the River Nile although the title reads “Framework for General Co-operation between the Arab Republic of Egypt and Ethiopia”. The preamble of the Framework reads: “Recognizing the importance of traditional ties existing between the two countries that have been consolidated during their long history of close relations and linked by the River Nile with its basin as a center of mutual interest”.

The above is obviously a cheap propaganda given the centuries-old acrimonious relations and mutual suspicions between the two countries always provoked by Egypt, which had launched multiple military aggressions against Ethiopia; each time, the aggressor suffered a humiliating defeat by heroic Ethiopians fighters under the able leadership of genius patriots like Ras Alula Aba Nega.

Nile Accord 1993 was made in the Arabic and English languages both texts being equally authentic. It is an insult to Ethiopia in that it is Amharic that has been the official language of independent Ethiopia for centuries. Tyrant Meles openly showed his hatred for the Amahars and our official language as well as contempt for the Ethiopian people.

Nile Accord 1993 is a two-page small document comprising eight short articles, five (5) of which pertain to the Nile basin. The Nile is actually also mentioned in the preamble as stated in the first paragraph of the under the above caption. Salient comments on key articles of the accord are briefly provided below. For the benefit of readers, wherever the word “shall” appears in a clause, it means in legal parlance that the provision therein is mandatory to comply with by the party concerned.

Article 4 stipulates that “The two parties agree that the issue of the Nile Waters shall be worked out in detail through discussions by experts from both sides, on the basis of the rules and principles of international law”. It is mandatory, a command to meet the conditions of Article 4. Article 5 is another command; it reads: “Each party shall refrain from engaging in any activity related to the Nile waters that may cause appreciable harm to the interests of the other party.” Article 6 commits Ethiopia to cooperate in projects that would increase the volume of flow of the river Nile.

This is preposterous in that Egypt is actually warning Ethiopia that she has to commit to undertakings to ensure the increase of the volume of Nile Waters crossing her boundary. Article 7 in effect underlines that regional peace and stability will be threatened unless the two parties to the accord create a mechanism for periodic consultations “on matters of mutual concern, including the Nile waters”. Article 8 stipulates it is mandatory that “The two parties shall endeavor towards a framework for effective cooperation among countries of the Nile basin for the promotion of common interest in the development of the basin. It is strange that Ethiopia which contributes more than 86% of the Nile waters should join the major beneficiary Egypt for “effective cooperation among countries of the Nile Basin.

In the above picture President Mubarak displays aloofness and contempt unbecoming of a host, while tyrant Meles is apparently perusing the ‘English’ text of the accord. What a shame!

The entire accord is clearly in the interest of Egypt. It is null and void for it is not ratified by the Ethiopian people. And this affront by the boss of the brutal TPLF regime is an open invitation for coordinated, urgent and decisive response by all opposition forces in unison.

Déjà vu rhetoric

Each time there are serious domestic political upheavals, the regimes in power used the issue of the river Nile to deflect attention of the public. This was the case during the Imperial regime; leaflets/ flyers inundated Addis Ababa in a futile attempt by government officials to convince the public that the solution to permanently stem the kind of famine of 1974 and usher in prosperity was to build dams on the Nile for power generation and irrigation farming. The Derg regime went so far as to express its intention to exact price for every barrel of water reaching Egypt. The cunning Meles reassured the sovereignty of the Egypt over the waters of the Nile in the accord signed in 1993 to get political support of Egypt for his fledgling Transitional government. The cunning tyrant is now playing cheap politics to fool Ethiopians once again staging demonstration by few his supporters in Washington purportedly seeking the support of the Obama Administration to reign in Egypt so that it will not interfere with Ethiopia’s plan to build dams on the Nile. Most ridiculously, the tyrant is accusing Egypt of beating the drum about the impending war with Ethiopia starting with destabilizing the latter by supporting dissidents. The pronouncement by Meles may have come as a surprise to Mubarak. But this is only for public consumption, because, as the saying goes, the duo keeps its tents apart but its hearts together. The President of Egypt will never let down Meles who has surrendered veto power to Egypt over all issues relating to the development of projects using the waters of the Nile - 86% of which emanate from Ethiopia.

It is absence of democracy, stupid!

Ethiopians understand and respect the natural dependence of Egyptians on the Nile waters as a sole source of their survival; they understand the moral, political and legal consequences of denying neighborly countries of their fair shares of waters under international law. However, Ethiopians can no longer afford to go thirsty and starving while their own fair share of waters cross national boundaries. What is needed is amicable solution to this age-old problem through civilized dialogue. But the problem is that the masses of Ethiopia and Egypt are ruled by despotic regimes that repress their respective peoples.

The status quo in the sharing of Nile waters cannot continue. The young generations in both countries, Egypt and Ethiopia in particular, should rise up in earnest to foster democracy in their respective countries while cooperating to seek solution in a friendly frame of mind to the present grossly and unacceptably skewed share of the Nile waters in favor of Egypt.


The so-called “Framework for General Co-operation between the Arab Republic of Egypt and Ethiopia” is nothing but the first ever formal endorsement of the power of veto bestowed on Egypt by the arch colonial power of the time. Period!

Meles surrendered Ethiopia’s rights of veto power, in any issue involving riparian states, on the strength of her contribution of 86% of the Nile waters. There is no need for Ethiopia to run an errand for Egypt to promote cooperation among states of the Nile basin. Ethiopia’s decision on how best under international law to protect her interests over the Blue Nile within her territory will in no way affect states contributing 16% of the waters of the White Nile.

The signing of the Nile Accord 1993 coupled with ceding of large tracts of fertile to the Sudan, which is also a beneficiary of the Nile waters, is another recipe for popular uprising in self defense. Add to this the stolen elections in the last two decades particularly elections 2005 and 2010 that culminated not only in daylight robbery of votes but also in premeditated execution of democrats; incarceration of tens of thousands of peaceful demonstrators by security forces under the direct command of Meles Zenawi.

Opposition forces that Meles publicly branded as enemies have every right to defend and protect the rightful wealth of the country in unison holding their political difference in abeyance. Those that may have fallen to the age-old intrigue of Egypt will not get anything back in return. For Egypt too it is better to deal with a democratic, prosperous and law-abiding Ethiopia.

Finally, I wish to remind readers that despot Meles once said that democracy is not an option for Ethiopia but a necessity for her survival. Those who took him at his word should now know that thousands of political prisoners are still in filthy jails suffering unprecedented mental and physical torture. All pillars of democracy have been shattered. Election 2010 has been stolen. Immoral funds from some Western donors continue to flow generously to the coffers of the brutal ruling regime.

Therefore, it is long overdue to commence massive coordinated and effective civil disobedience.

Release all political prisoners in Ethiopia!
Never forget victims of genocide & martyrs of 2005 massacred by the ruling regime!

The writer can be reached at robele_ababya@yahoo.com