Water, Water, Everywhere

In the early 20th century, the Colorado River formed a verdant delta community with deer, bobcat, jaguar, quail, raccoon, waterfowl and other creatures. Today the land is parched. The Colorado has been pumped to dryness before it reaches the sea. On the way it has been intercepted by many dams; it has provided water to the desert city of Las Vegas; it has been diverted on hundreds of kilometres to large cities such as Los Angeles, San Diego and Phoenix; and it has irrigated vast areas of cropland in the USA and Mexico.

Most of the Nile Delta’s natural wetlands were replaced by agriculture already since Ancient Egypt’s Old Kingdom. But if the ten upstream countries of the Nile Basin were to develop the river’s water resources with the intensity of their American counterparts, Egypt’s Nile Valley would end up as just another desert wadi of the Sahara, receiving only an occasional trickle of polluted runoff. Getting little rainfall, Egypt owes its existence to Nile waters which originate beyond its south border.

But now, Ethiopia, in its effort to modernize, is building the largest dam in Africa on the Blue Nile. The Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is one of a series of dams which will produce electricity for its planned industrial takeoff and for export. Ethiopia’s hope spells Egypt’s nightmare since the Blue Nile provides a big proportion of the Nile water Egypt gets, the rest coming from the White Nile.

However, with the Renaissance Dam, the Ethiopian government is simply fulfilling the obligation to provide its citizens with an “adequate standard of living” as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

So what does the required standard of living correspond to? Is it the standard of living of an average American? This would require forty times the amount of water presently used by an average Ethiopian. Or is it the European standard of living, requiring half that amount? And what happens when Ethiopia’s population doubles as it is expected to do so by 2050? And what happens as the other countries of the Nile Basin, including Egypt, do the same?

Even the modest lifestyles of the vast majority of the people of the Nile Basin countries who (with the exception of the Egyptians) are subsistence farmers or pastoralists are detrimental to Nile ecosystems. Traditional adaptive resource management declined and disappeared in most local communities during the colonial period. The development decades that followed saw a rapid increase in population pushing people to claim ever more land. As they cut the vegetation that conserves water catchment areas, they destabilize the very ecosystems on which they depend, also affecting water supplies for regions downstream.

The greater volumes of water required for development have led the Nile countries to establish the Cooperative Framework Agreement for the River Nile Basin. Previously only Egypt benefitted from a treaty to guarantee its supply of Nile water.

The River Nile Basin comprises rivers and waterfalls, floodplains, lakes, wetlands, tropical forests and savannahs, which host the Serengeti and Masaai Mara National Parks with their world-famous Big Five animals and annual migrations of buffalo, wildebeest and zebra.

From a contemporary economic perspective, these are all “natural resources”. Valueless in themselves, they acquire worth when they are exploited for profit. A water lawyer illustrates this view when he observes that upper Nile countries with wildlife “gain a huge amount of revenues from (…) safari tours”. He then registers “the water consumed by the plants and animals of this region” in the debit column of the Nile water ledger.

The debate over Nile waters shows the limits of the conceptual framework that underpins the present economic system. It highlights the impossibility of guaranteeing human rights for individuals, communities and regions if we do not at the same time recognise and defend the right to exist of those “resources” we depend on: the Earth and nature.

A shift toward a jurisprudence that does recognize this right is taking place. It is spearheaded by an alliance of environmental lawyers, nature advocates and indigenous peoples.

Indigenous cultures have traditionally respected what we today call Earth rights. Upper Nile wildlife thrived side by side with humans since they originated there hundreds of thousands of years ago. When the first Europeans reached this region in the mid 19th century, they were awed by the abundant wildlife. In spite of their poverty according to current monetary criteria, the local people had chosen to coexist with wild plants and animals. All that changed with the arrival of the British colonizer.

Some countries like Bolivia and Ecuador already have clauses in their constitutions that attribute rights to nature, and over two dozen local governments in the United States have adopted rights of nature laws. In Africa, organizations such as Porini in Kenya and the Ethiopian lawyer and biologist, Melesse Damtie, are exploring nature rights in the customary laws of their countries to integrate them into national legislation.

Lawsuits have been won based on Earth jurisprudence. In the USA, the town of Nottingham prevented a company from withdrawing local water for bottling and export overseas, and the city of Pittsburgh stopped a fracking project.  Thanks to those laws that recognize the rights of ecosytems to flourish in the place and form where they occur naturally as wetlands, streams, rivers, and aquifers, they were able to bar corporations from privatising or polluting their water supply.

On an international level, the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth responds to the dangers faced by people worldwide because of the destruction of nature. If it was applied, Egypt could be confident that it would continue getting its natural share of Nile water as it has since people first settled there.

According to the Declaration, measures should be taken “to prevent human activities from causing (…) the destruction of ecosystems or the disruption of ecological cycles,” and “(e)very human being is responsible for respecting and living in harmony with Mother Earth”.  The term “Mother Earth” or Pachamama, still used by Andean people today, describes the relationship we should establish with Earth, instead of our current dismissive view of her as a mere “resource” to exploit and manage.

The most critical provision of the Declaration to act upon at this stage is the promotion of “economic systems that are in harmony with Mother Earth”. Globalization, which externalizes ecological and social costs, and economic growth, which presupposes infinitely expanding resources, are certainly not part of them.

However no country or region – except the biggest and the most powerful ones – can move alone to an alternative economic system. Hopefully, this transition will inspire global participation too.

Addendum: India and New Zealand introduced legal rights for some of their rivers in 2017.



Abdul Hamid,  Hesham Hamza,  A Study on the Concept of International River in International Water Law and Its Applications in Nile Basin Agreements, Nile Perspectives, Studies & Articles, 41-45, Volume 11, Issue 39, 2013.

Burdon, Peter ed., Exploring Wild Law, Wakefield Press, Mile End, South Australia, 2011.

Cullinan, Cormac, The Call of the Wild, IUCN Academy of Environmental Law, e-Journal, Issue 2011 (1). http://www.iucnael.org/en/documents/664-the-call-of-the-wild/file

‎Postel, Sandra, http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Where+have+all+the+rivers+gone%3F-a016937725

The Gaia Foundation, http://www.gaiafoundation.org/earth-centred-law

The Nile Basin Initiative, State of the Nile Basin Report, 2012, http://nileis.nilebasin.org/content/state-river-nile-basin-report

Waithaka, John, The Kenya Wildlife Service in the 21st Century: Protecting Globally Significant Areas and Resources, The George Wright Forum, vol. 29, no. 1, pp. 21–29, 2012. http://www.georgewright.org/291waithaka.pdf


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