Responding to my article, Ethiopia’s Internal Cohesion Key to Advancing Interest in the Nile, some readers questioned why the Nile issue should concern the Oromo people. There seems to be a strong assumption that the conflict over the Nile is essentially an affair between the northerners (the Abyssinian proper) and the Egyptians. As such, it is suggested that the Oromo have no reason to take sides, or if they do, it should be as the “enemy of our enemy”. In this piece, I am going to argue that not only do the Oromo have a crucial stake in these affairs, but they should in fact be at the forefront of the struggle for fair and equitable use of the Nile.
On Nile Basin, Oromia an Upper riparian
Lake Tana is the most popularly known source of the Blue Nile. In Ethiopia, the Nile River is referred to as Abay. As the result, it is erroneously assumed that the Nile River comes from the Abyssinian highlands only. In reality, most of the water and the sediments carried by the Nile originate from Oromia. Blue Nile’s biggest tributaries – Gojjab, Jamaa, Dhidheessa, Abbayya, Muger, Guder, and Dabus – originate from Oromo land and wash away its soil. Due to the ever-increasing drought, Lake Victoria is in rapid decline. This makes Baro the most reliable tributary to the White Nile – and Baro’s main tributaries; Birbir and Gebba originate in Oromia. The Oromian Rivers are biggest contributors to the Nile water. Clearly, the Nile affects and shall concern the Oromo as much if not more as it does the Abyssinians.
Oromia and the Future of Nile Politics
In shaping the future of Nile politics, tributaries originating from Oromian (as well Gambella, Benishangul, and SNNP) plateaus will play a more critical role than those from the Abyssinian highlands. The tributaries originating from the highlands mostly flow through deep gorges, making them less cost effective for irrigation purposes. At best, their use is limited to generating hydroelectric power. In contrast, rivers originating from Oromian plateaus are ideal for irrigation use as well as generating energy.
Setting up hydroelectric power plants upstream uses considerably less water than developing irrigation projects. Not only does irrigation consume most of the water and sediments diverted to farms, it also often leaves remaining drainage contaminated with chemicals for farming. On the contrary, most of the water used for hydropower circulates back to the basin, and as little external chemicals are added, it causes less pollution. Therefore, downstream countries such as Egypt would be more negatively affected by upstream countries’ development of irrigation projects than hydropower dams. For instance, Ethiopia has constructed several large dams in the last few years, yet Egypt is most agitated by the prospect of irrigation projects in Ethiopia. Egypt’s primary objective is then basically to block developments on Oromian Rivers rather than rivers coming from the highlands. This puts Oromia and Egypt on a colliding path.
Some might argue that since Oromos are being repressed and exploited by the Ethiopian regime, the logical move is to side with the regime’s enemies in order to weaken it. Thus, in the fight for the Nile, why stand in the way of a potential ally for our struggle over a river that we do not even control?
The old Realpolitik tactic of befriending enemy of an enemy should not be adopted when the benefit gained from such tactic is lower than the cost. For any upper riparian interest group, taking side with Egypt against another upper riparian state means, prolonging Egypt’s monopoly over the Nile. The sooner Egypt is pressured into fair and equitable use of the Nile the better. The longer such agreement is delayed as a result of upstream countries’ inability to assert their rights, the less likely for a truly fair agreement to be reach.
Conflict, instability and lack of unity among upstream riparian countries gives Egypt more and more time to develop further projects in order to assert acquired rights through prior usage. Eventually Egypt might be able develop enough projects to permanently foreclose future use of Nile by upstream constituencies, including the Oromo. At this likely event, even independent Oromia would be unable to use the rivers that flow through its land. As discussed above, due to the irrigable nature of Oromian Rivers, Egypt will do everything to make sure Oromia does not touch the water. How will they do so? In addition to pitting us against our neighbors, they will replicate the strategy they have been using against Ethiopia – they will use our diversity against us.
It is widely predicted that water will become the next rare commodity that will play a key role in human relations. The Oromo struggle is not simply about getting rid of the current regime, but also about paving a way for a just, secure and prosperous future for the generations to come. As one of the least developed parts of the world, our nation’s only wealth is its natural resources. Hence, while fighting for political rights, it’s also very important to regain, protect and preserve the natural resources inherited from our ancestors so that we have something useful to pass on to the next generation. In addition to fighting against the ongoing land robbery, we must also be vigilant about geopolitical affairs that will affect our water resources. The wise Oromo says, lafti bishaan malee, marqi carree malee hin tolu.
As far as protecting our water interest is concerned, nature forces the Oromo to take side with its upstream neighbors, some of whom are our past and present adversaries. The future, I would argue, is more important than the present or the past. It will be a mistake to overlook our long term interests focusing only on the injustices of past and challenges of the present. That is why I believe the Oromo not only support the campaign for fair and equitable use of Nile water; in fact, we ought to be the leading voice.