Whenever I read the word “intervention”, my blood runs cold. Far too frequently for Americans it means military intervention. I was a bit relieved when I read Ezzedine C. Fishere’s op-ed in the Washington Post but to tell the truth only a little. He’s writing in concern about the rising tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia over Ethiopia’s construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Nile. A quick glance at a population density map of Egypt reveals the source of his concern. Nearly all of Egypt’s population lives on the banks of the Nile or in its delta. Egyptians are correct in viewing any diminution in the river’s flow as an existential threat. Here’s what he’s looking for:
There is little point in apportioning blame in the current diplomatic failure; it doesn’t move the parties closer to an agreement. There is equally little point in engaging in legal debates about rights and obligations related to trans-boundary waterways. Both countries have stretched their interpretation of international law without getting anywhere. Ultimately, Egypt and Ethiopia rely more on the laws of power than the power of laws.
The challenge, therefore, is to take the two countries by the hand toward an agreement that respects their most cherished goals. Ideally, international rivers are best managed by transnational bodies that reconcile the interests of states and treat the river as an integrated ecosystem. But it is unlikely the countries will agree to that system.
A muscular diplomatic approach is needed. Both countries have extensive relations with the United States and China. While they too mistrust each other, they still need to reduce the scope of their rivalry and find zones of convergence.
As I see it our interests in either Egypt or Ethiopia are extremely narrow. We have little leverage over either country and little we should be offering them. The best we should hope for is to engage in negative reciprocity with China which probably has even less interest in either country than we do. That’s probably not what Mr. Fishere is hoping for.
I expect to see a lot more stories along these lines over time. Conflicts over water are not limited to Ethiopia and Egypt. The conflict between Israel and Syria is largely over water as a quick glance at a hydrological map of the two countries should suggest to you. There are also Turkey, Syria, and Iraq; Afghanistan and Iran; China and Laos; Turkey and Armenia; even the U. S. and Mexico.
I would not be a bit surprised if the great conflicts over resources during the 21st century were to be about water rather than oil.