Sandlines: Waters of the Nile

Edward B. Rackley

Thanks to our financial turmoil, radio talk shows can now probe deeper than the usual ‘house of cards’ metaphor when reporting the quakes of late capitalism to economic illiterates like me. Experts of every stripe are sharing their views on a topic long-shrouded in patriotic orthodoxy. How often in public discourse do Americans openly question the omniscience of the Invisible Hand, a modern myth of cosmologic proportions?

So it’s a glorious time in one respect, given the rarity with which governingAbu_simbel_72dpi_rgb assumptions are shattered, their hollowness exposed. But if it sounds revolutionary, such hopes are misplaced. There’s nothing Marxist in this crisis, no collective appropriation of Wall Street’s wealth engines underway. What we have seen is the utter confidence game of our unregulated financial system laid bare, a coup of sorts against manufactured consent.

But I know not whereof I speak. I just listen to the talk shows and wonder what it all means. I compare such ripples, cataclysmic for us, to dramatic events in countries I know much better, developing countries typically described as ‘conflict’ or ‘post conflict’. Both here and there, interpretation is everything, the objectivity of the data moot. Where the crowd goes, so goes the country–or market–a dangerous prospect when the crowd goes wild.

Without trust or confidence in a given financial system, no one steps up to place their bets. Look at the lack of foreign investors in the Congo, where lack of regulation is legion, for proof of the clear connection between regulation and confidence in sustaining volatile or fragile markets. There is an invisible hand at work in the Congo; I’ve described it many times in these pages. It’s called ‘gun barrel greed’, and it runs things impeccably well. For a microscopic few.

The Egyptian miracle

Africa’s natural resources extend across many borders but are not equally abundant for all. Take the Nile River and its extensive tributaries in Congo, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, Kenya and Tanzania–all sub-Saharan countries. This neighborhood, also known as the Great Lakes region, comprises the Nile River Basin, the multiple sources of a river on whose lives all Egyptians and many Sudanese depend. Water is literally life for the ancient desert societies of Egypt and northern Sudan, and their skill at conserving water and maximizing its agricultural uses far exceeds that found in upstream Nile countries where water is abundant. Nile_river_and_delta_from_orbit

Clearly there is something primordial and miraculous–but alas not causal–in the relationship between scarcity and ingenuity. Take the case of Egypt, whose irrigation capacity precedes its invention of written language, both of which are over 2000 years old. This historical fact becomes amazing in the context of the Nile Basin, whose countries are the poorest in the world. Technologically, they are so far behind Egypt that they still depend entirely on rainfall to grow food. In Burundi, for instance, rivers and lakes abound but basic irrigation and animal traction constitute the unthought for farmers there. As a result, during the three-month dry season rural farmers in Burundi go hungry and die. Egypt learned to solve that problem long before the West existed.

The government of Burundi, like its neighbors with recurrent famine, could move to study and adapt Egypt’s example to mitigate dire poverty and end needless hunger related deaths every year. Unfortunately, authorities in many Great Lakes countries find it more relevant to accuse Egypt of ‘stealing the Nile’, while letting their own people languish in pre-modern darkness and lethal living conditions.

So scarcity is no catalyst for invention, as people continue to die of famine and unclean water in Burundi, Tanzania, Ethiopia despite these countries’ natural abundance and fertility. Were the state of scarcity itself a causal trigger for change, people and their leaders would have figured out solutions to poverty long ago. And given that practical solutions already exist in the world’s poorest neighborhood, like the miracle of Egyptian irrigation in a barren desert, one wonders why Egypt’s destitute neighbors continue to look the other way.

Where no man fears to trust

Created in 1999, the Nile Basin Initiative seeks to introduce the notion of ‘common good’ to nine countries for whom the Nile is political hot-potato, conflict trigger, and means of survival rolled into one. Many NBI countries have been at war in the last decade, and the Nile as casus belli is not unthinkable with climate changes already affecting the region. Obviously a lack of trust permeates the region and prevents cooperation on mutually beneficial initiatives, like Nile water management. If successful, then, the NBI would use the Nile to promote development in the poorer countries in a way that facilitates a common approach to solutions and averts conflict.   Nile_river_map

Nearing its tenth anniversary, the folks at NBI headquarters in Entebbe were rightfully wondering about their impact in the region, and whether regional thoughtleaders appreciated NBI efforts. A qualitative study of perceptions among civil society, government, academics and media from NBI’s nine member countries was commissioned; results are coming out now.

Perhaps not surprisingly, our panel found that suspicion is high among countries north and south of the Sahara. There is a tacit sense that Egypt ‘controls the Nile’, in the sense that if all countries upstream had hydroelectric capacity and even rudimentary irrigation, by the time it reached Egyptian soil the Nile would be but a trickle. So Egypt’s foreign policy is Nile-centric, aiming to preserve current Nile levels even if this means chronic under-development and recurrent famines upstream. Perfectly natural, respondents from sub-Saharan countries say, we just wish they wouldn’t oppose our efforts to build dams. Cooperation seems a long way off.

The more cynical view is that Egyptian survival requires massive dysfunction and disorganization upstream, as poor governance in sub-Saharan Africa staves off Nile diversion for agriculture and electricity indefinitely. Always looking for evidence to counter the Afro-pessimists, I was heartened to learn that civil society in sub-Saharan countries is exasperated at their leaders’ inability to provide economic development. Predictably, the leaders themselves think they are making great strides.

But with so many heads of impoverished states answering that ‘sovereignty’ is the primary obstacle to improved collaboration around the Nile, obsessions over power continue to trump basic development initiatives–simple improvements that could increase life expectancy, improve living conditions and endear citizens to their leaders. Why these leaders can’t see this (think of Mugabe, Kabila and their many mini-me’s) is the real riddle of the Sphinx.