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Explainer: What’s happening with the Nile River?

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March 2, 2020

Recently, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to Ethiopia as part of an international effort to encourage the country to reach a peaceful solution with Egypt. What is the conflict over? The Nile River. 

For background, the Nile River flows North from Lake Victoria (shared between Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania) and Lake Tana in Ethiopia. These lakes feed into rivers known as the White Nile and Blue Nile, respectively, which merge in Khartoum, Sudan, to form the longest river in the world—the Nile River. The Blue River is responsible for most of the Nile’s water and rich sediment, thus, residents of Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt have had centuries-long arguments about how to properly allocate its resources. 

To help encourage cooperation between governments over the river, 10 countries in the Nile Basin formed the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) in 1999. In 2011, during massive political turmoil in Egypt, Ethiopia began construction on the Grand Egyptian Resistance Dam (GERD) without the approval of the NBI. This was seen by many of the other countries in the NBI as Ethiopia attempting to dominate the region and exert unilateral control over the Nile. 

In order to avoid violent conflict between Egypt and Ethiopia, the two governments entered into negotiations over how fast GERD was to be built and its reservoir filled. 

Now, in 2020, GERD is almost completely built. 

Negotiations are ongoing between Ethiopia and Egypt with the United States serving as mediator. These negotiations are why Pompeo is traveling to Ethiopia. Egypt is hoping for a slow fill of the reservoir so as not to disrupt the Nile supply downstream, and Ethiopia is hoping for a quicker fill for greater energy production. The United States is reported to have positioned itself somewhere in the middle.

Whatever one thinks about the specific foreign policy these countries should pursue, Christians should critically care about the allocation of Nile River resources for three reasons: political instability, creation care, and humanitarian concerns. 

Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt (to say nothing of the other NBI countries) have complex international and political history. It would be naive to think that the current negotiation over GERD has nothing to do with the rich national narratives of each country and past conflicts between them. 

Not only that, but the stakes are incredibly high. All of these countries face dire economic challenges. Access to the Nile River is an absolute necessity for food security, economic development, sanitation, and energy among other basic resources. Simply put, the Nile River is the only thing between Ethiopia, Sudan, Egypt, and a catastrophic humanitarian crisis. 

The governments of these countries know this, and are acting from a posture of self-preservation. This desperation can lead to political unrest, turmoil, and general instability in the region. Disruptions such as this have left room for corruption to gain a foothold in offices of power in the past. We should be wary of leaders using the Nile River to aggress in the region at the expense of their citizens or ones of neighboring countries. 

A Christian response 

In a fallen world, there are limited resources. The gospel compels us to prudentially and responsibly allocate these resources based on the authority granted by God to governments in Romans 13. Christians also must be motivated by God’s mandate in Genesis 2 to steward the natural resources we’ve been given. God has entrusted to us abundant provision, and we are to use it responsibly, not allow it to stir up division. 

Here are three ways Christians can be engaging and praying about this salient issue:

Centuries of people have lived on the banks of this river—planted roots (literally and metaphorically), raised families, and formed regional identities and communities. Lest American Christians think this doesn’t affect them, consider in Exodus when Moses is placed on the Nile to escape a murderous dictator, or in Ezekiel when God uses the Nile to lead his people to repentance. The Nile is an important landmark in the American Christian’s faith. How much more special is it to Egyptian, Sudanese, or Ethiopian Christians?

Sources:

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/02/09/world/africa/nile-river-dam.html?te=1&nl=morning-briefing&emc=edit_NN_p_20200210&section=longRead&campaign_id=9&instance_id=15871&segment_id=21131&user_id=17ae888c4735477564fe38903e916ea9&regi_id=100230113ion=longRead

https://www.brookings.edu/blog/africa-in-focus/2020/02/18/why-ethiopia-egypt-and-sudan-should-ditch-a-rushed-washington-brokered-nile-treaty/

https://madamasr.com/en/2020/02/17/feature/politics/sources-us-proposed-gerd-deal-sets-ethiopia-water-release-at-37-bcm-major-disputes-remain/

Brooke Kramer

Brooke Kramer serves as the Team Coordinator for the Washington, D.C., office. She assists with scheduling, event planning, office coordination, and project management. Brooke graduated from John Brown University with a B.S. in Political Science and Intercultural Studies. Read More by this Author