Water of the Middle East and North Africa

The Nile takes center stage at 10th Hydro-hegemony conference

The Nile Hydro-Hegemony 10 conference
Photo 1: Participants of the Hydro-Hegemony 10 conference in The Hague. (Source: Abebe Yirga / Tim Nolden)


Author Juliane Schillinger, PhD Candidate, University of Twente, The Netherlands.

Peer reviewer GüL Özerol: is a researcher, editor and author with a PhD in Innovation and Governance for Sustainable Development. She has lived and worked in Turkey, Germany, and the Netherlands, and has been researching water issues in the Middle East and North Africa for more than 10 years.

The concept of hydro-hegemony, pioneered by the London Water Research Group, takes power and power dynamics as starting points in the analysis of transboundary water management. Since the first Hydro-Hegemony Conference in 2005, the concept has been applied around the globe, with popular cases including the Jordan River, the Nile River and the Euphrates and Tigris basin . Bearing witness to a growing academic fellowship, the 10th edition of the steadily growing hydro-hegemony conferences took place in The Hague on 4th and 5th October 2019. This jubilee edition focused on the role of power and representation in conflict and cooperation over water.

Next to the critical reflection on the concept of hydro-hegemony, key topics addressed during the two-day conference included different narratives and the framing of water diplomacy in the media and public discourses, and questions of representation and participation in negotiations over water. Other topics of discussion included the role of knowledge and the relationship between power and knowledge production in different contexts.

Travel grants offered by the conference organizers ensured the participation of young researchers and professionals in the conference. Among the many young speakers presenting the insights from their master or PhD studies, the different countries of the Nile basin were particularly well represented, namely Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan.

Framings of the Nile in the media and political rhetoric

With two dedicated sessions and a number of mentions throughout other presentations, the Nile Basin took the center stage during the conference, with a strong focus on the representations and framings of the Nile and the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in the media and political rhetoric.

In a first session, presenters analyzed the representation of the Nile in different media outlets in Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt. Ethiopian media organizations, analyzed by Yeshiwas Degu, are typically united on the topic of ‘the Nile and GERD’, presenting the dam as an engine for national development and pride. On the international level, the Ethiopian vision of both the river and the dam is seen as one of ‘pan-Africanization’ projects, in which the Nile is a space for cooperation and GERD is not just an Ethiopian project, but one for the whole of Africa. Egyptian media conversely exhibits a strong politization of the Nile, which is corroborated by the centrality of the Nile for the Egypt. Abeer Tabei and Lama Elhatow found that this centrality includes a political aspect, based on notions of water security and the dependency of Egypt on the waters of the Nile; a cultural aspect related to the strong ties between the Egyptian identity and the river; and an environmental aspect that encompasses the need to conserve water based on its political and cultural importance. While Ethiopian and Egyptian media are unified in their predominant narratives, Tamer Abd el Kreem observed Sudanese media perspectives to be more diverse. The notion of risk and uncertainty related to the GERD is very common in press coverage on the dam, yet there is a range of interpretations and expectations for the future.

In addition to the different narratives themselves, a comparative study by Wondwosen Michago Seide focused on the predominant emotions invoked in press coverage in Ethiopia and Egypt. It found that the media in both countries often used narratives related to anger.

Occasionally, articles also invoke empathy with the other country and its needs related to the Nile, however, such needs should not be allowed to be met at the expense of the media’s own country. Ethiopian media outlets were found to often base their narratives on notions of national pride and nostalgia, while the Egyptian media tends to present the issue of Nile hydro-politics from a perspective of fear and anxiety.

The Nile basin
Photo 2: Presentation on national identities and grievances in the Nile basin by Yasmine Hafez. (Source : Abebe Yirga / Tim Nolden)

Emotions and grievances in the three countries were also at the core of the second session on the Nile River, which addressed the role of emotions and their impact on hydro-politics in the basin. As dams often invoke particularly strong emotions related to the control over water, many parallels between the GERD and the Aswan High Dam were highlighted throughout the session.

Tying in with the notion of GERD as a national development project that is very prevalent in the Ethiopian media, the presentation by Yasmine Hafez linked the dam project to an opportunity for Ethiopia to overcome a number of national grievances. Historical grievances towards Egypt are particularly rooted in a strong perception of injustice as Egypt received economic and diplomatic assistance from their British rulers during colonial times, leading to beneficial agreements on the Nile and other central issues. The economic development and increase in regional power that GERD offers to the Ethiopians are thus seen as a way to ‘catch up’ with Egypt and establish Ethiopia as a stronger riparian in the basin.

Emotions such as these are omnipresent in water politics in general, and in the Nile basin in particular. In his presentation on the power of emotions in hydro-politics, Wondwosen Michago Seide introduced the term of ‘hydro-fear’, which acknowledges the central role that fear plays in the basin. It includes both the fear of the downstream countries who see themselves at the mercy of those who control the dam and the fear that drives upstream countries to build a dam in the first place, in order to protect themselves against water scarcity and political escalation by increasing domestic water storage capacities. Such fears can lead fuel conflict when they are instrumentalized by political leaders to justify the securitization of water resources. The close connection between the Nile and national identities in the basin makes the region particularly vulnerable to such an escalation.

The politization and the strong emotions connected to the Nile are two challenges to address in order to move towards conflict resolution in the basin. While there has been some reconciliatory rhetoric among the riparians over the past years, little actual progress has been made. Discrepancies in the expectations towards cooperation, including priority issues and mechanisms, have further complicated effective agreements between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt. In her closing presentation, Emilie Broek explored possible ways to move from the status quo towards conflict resolution that benefits all riparian countries. One such way could be the creation of ‘mutually enticing opportunities’ that are too good to miss for all riparians. Such an opportunity, according to Broek, could be the creation of a ‘resource basin’ in which riparians share different resources across the basin, thereby opening the negotiation space to include issues beyond water. However, she added, the dominance of national interests and a securitization discourse among riparians indicates that they are currently not ready to engage in such an arrangement.

Seeking cross-border solidarity in the Helmand basin

Another gridlocked water conflict that was addressed in a dedicated conference session concerns the Helmand River basin. The Helmand River is shared between Afghanistan and Iran, with the majority of the basin located in Afghanistan where local populations depend on the river for agriculture. The river also feeds into wetlands in both Iran and Afghanistan. A treaty was signed between Afghanistan and Iran in 1973. However, the conflict continued, particularly related to different dam projects in the basin. Nowadays there seems to be a lack of clarity and agreement over the most pressing problems in the basin, which was echoed in discussions during the session. Without an agreement on which issues to address in a new treaty, a resolution of the conflict is seen as unlikely.

Moving away from formal water diplomacy, Seyedeh Zahra Ghoreishi presented the concept of hydro-solidarity as a way forward. Hydro-solidarity builds on the idea of a shared identity across the basin. This does not need to include the entirety of each riparian country, but only the populations living in the river basin. Ghoreishi concluded that there are indeed a number of common cultural values on both sides of the border across the Helmand Basin that could present an entry point to establish common normative values and build a peaceful co-existence based on these values.

Lessons learned for other transboundary basins

The issues and challenges addressed during the 10th Hydro-Hegemony conference are not unique to the Nile basin, the Helmand basin or other transboundary basins discussed in the different sessions. From the experiences and examples presented in The Hague this October, we can learn new ways of approaching water conflicts around the globe.

The role of emotions and identities in shaping representations of rivers or specific development projects like the GERD were discussed in several sessions and highlighted as an oft-ignored issue in water diplomacy. Addressing past and current grievances, related not just to water, but also to other riparian countries in general, constitutes an important step towards conflict resolution. New opportunities for conflict resolution can additionally be identified by exploring common values and shared identities as well as by expanding the negotiation space to include issues beyond water.

The position of the environment was a central discussion point in many conference sessions, with one session prominently discussing the question whether rivers could have rights of their own. These discussions served as a timely reminder that treaties should be drafted with the river ecosystem in mind, and they should include provisions for environmental flow requirements and water quality.