For the People of the River, Not Investors: Toward a “Declaration of Principles” Guaranteeing Farmers’ Rights to the Waters of the Nile

For the People of the River, Not Investors: Toward a “Declaration of Principles” Guaranteeing Farmers’ Rights to the Waters of the Nile

This is originally published on Jadliyya on:

At the end of yet another round of negotiations between Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan in Washington late January on the crisis of the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, Egypt, and the United States announced that an agreement has been reached, and they expect to sign the final draft in late February. This round of negotiations follows the Egyptian president’s speech at the United Nations, when he announced that negotiations on the Ethiopian millennium dam had stalled. The United States then intervened by inviting the three countries for consultations in the presence of World Bank officials.

The dispute in the final stage of the negotiations focused on technical aspects regarding the water levels at which the dams will start to be filled and the amount of water which Cairo insists that Ethiopia allows to pass each year. The Egyptian negotiation team proposed that Ethiopia should guarantee the flow of 40 billion cubic meters of water from the Blue River annually, and that they should halt the filling process if the water level at Nasser Lake goes below 165 meters, because that would render parts of Egypt’s agricultural land unproductive. The Ethiopian side rejected these proposals until the release of a recent statement mentioning an agreement on the timetable and procedures of filling and operations during droughts and low-precipitation years. The statement did not give details about what agreement the two sides had reached.

In the last two years, both Egypt and Ethiopia have resorted to a discourse based on historical rights in some instances and on the right to development in others. However, threats of using force surfaced in many cases, in addition to the mobilization of media outlets to create a public opinion supportive of the authorities without going into details. The two countries consider details a matter for the ruling elite and technocrats. Recently, an Egypt circulated a memorandum, forbidding researchers to conduct studies related to the Renaissance Dam, and the Ethiopian side called for details to be kept secret. It seems the two sides disagree on all matters except that the details are not the concern of their citizens.

For Whom is the Water of the Nile?

Despite the tense conflict and negotiations between the two countries, the issue of water distribution within the countries is absent from the talks. Egypt and Ethiopia are often referred to as homogenous entities, as if the water and right to development, which the two countries are struggling over, will be equally distributed to their citizens. The discussions do not address how the countries will use the water: Who will use it? Who will be deprived of it? Will citizens, in whose name negotiations were being conducted, receive water in a fair and equal manner? Or will water turn into a commodity sold to the highest bidder?

Available information on land and water grabs in the three countries gives us an idea on who will profit the most from the water, based on updated data from the Land Matrix website, which tracks land sale contracts for international actors around the world.

In Sudan, for example, the database of the Land Matrix website has tracked grabs of around 762 thousand hectares in Sudan since 1972, with most deals concluded after 2000. Most of this land was allocated through 28 deals with transnational companies from countries such Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. It is used to produce export food crops, alfalfa, and biofuel. Huge forage farms are widespread in Sudan, like the farms of the Saudi Rajhi group, which produce around a hundred thousand tons of forage; the Saudi Nadec company, which manages a farm that is around sixty thousand acres; and the Emirati Amtaar company, which exported around two hundred thousand tons of forage to the Abu Dhabi emirate.

In Egypt, the Land Matrix website tracked around fourteen deals to grab lands which add up to 185 thousand hectares. The Emirati Dahra and Saudi Rajhi companies have grabbed vast areas of land in the Toshka project, in the south of Egypt.

The largest portion of grabs is in Ethiopia, where the Land Matrix website has documented grabs of some 1.4 million hectares of land in recent decades through around 120 deals. Foreign investors make up about two-thirds of the owners of these grabbed lands. The companies making these grabs are from India, Saudi Arabi, and the United States, in addition to others from Italy, Malaysia, China, Austria, Israel, Turkey, Canada, and Singapore.

The total sum of the land area provided for the international companies is around 2.3 million hectares, which they use to produce forage, flowers, and strawberries and to export huge quantities of water outside the three countries. Current policies in these countries is based on an agricultural development model that supports export farming and stands against agricultural farming. In many cases, research documented the evacuation of local residents and farmers from land allocated to foreign or local investors to produce export flowers or forage.


Is this a conflict on behalf of the peoples of these countries or on behalf of international companies plundering land and water and exporting water?


The term “land grabs” means taking possession of land from local people and families and giving it to influential international actors. Land grabs are considered unethical because they cause local crises, aggravation of poverty, and food shortages for local residents, in addition to forced displacement and the expulsion of local residents from their land, which is their source of food and the basis of their social and cultural activities. In his analysis of contracts between the Ethiopian government and Gulf investors, Benjamin Shepard showed in his 2014 study that grab deals do not take the rights of local residents into consideration. They are conducted in the absence of transparency and do not offer guarantees for workers’ rights. Governments provide huge tax concessions and exemptions in the early years of projects. This form of land grab is characterized as one form of the new colonialism.

The real question is whether the essence of the conflict relates to water or the proceeds of selling water to investors. Thus, is it a conflict on behalf of the peoples of these countries or on behalf of international companies plundering land and water and exporting water?

Enslaved Farmers

The combined population of the three countries is above 220 million people; Sudan’s population is estimated to be around 40 million, the population of Ethiopia has reached 82 million, and the population of Egypt is getting close to100 million. Eighty-four percent of Ethiopians live in rural areas, and most of them work in agriculture. This percentage drops down to sixty-six percent in Sudan and fifty-seven percent in Egypt. If we take into consideration that eighty-percent of the Nile’s water is used for agriculture, and that agricultural farming is the most common form in the three countries, then we can conclude that the farmers are the primary stakeholders in the Nile’s water, and are therefore fundamentally relevant to the ongoing conflict, negotiations, and discussions, from which they have been excluded.

The discussions do not address the farmers’ right to access water. Evidence confirms that they are not only excluded from discussions on the dam and water distribution, but also from the development concept adopted by the three countries. Up to now, these countries have supported export agricultural investments and ignored the rights of local farmers. In many cases, local farmers have had to change their production patterns, being forced to relocate, or seeing reductions in the amounts of water allocated to their crops in order to enable land and water investors.

The Road Ahead for the Nile’s Farmers: Networking and Joint Work

It is in the interest of farmers in the three countries to stop land and water grabs and disrupt water exports. This cross-border struggle goes hand in hand with the interest of farmers in all these countries, in face of the image portrayed by the authorities in the three countries, especially Egypt and Ethiopia, which depicts their interests as conflicting. Exerting pressure to stop the depletion of the Nile’s water, through looting land and exporting water in the form of forage, oranges, strawberries, and flowers abroad, will provide farmers in the three countries with the water needed to produce food.

This is also linked to the adoption of a joint project for ecological farming and sustainable use of resources (the Nile and the land) in order to achieve food sovereignty for all the people of the Nile.

Only through the alliance of the Nile’s farmers in face of the depletion of their water and land resources can a discourse be formed to substitute the prevailing discourse that marginalizes and alienates citizens and appoints state representatives as negotiators on behalf of investors rather than farmers and local residents in both countries. There was great controversy in both Egypt and Ethiopia about the viability of land grabs by international companies and foreign countries. This was manifested in the criticism of the Toshka project in Egypt and numerous land grabs in Ethiopia.

In early December of 2019, the Farmers’ Way (La Via Campesina) global movement in the Arab World and North Africa held a joint meeting in Sudan with the Alliance of Farmers in al-Jazeerah and al-Manaqel (AFJM). The movement said that the AFJM represents a farmers’ struggle force that has contributed to the rights of farmers in Sudan. After the Sudanese uprising, local forces in North Sudan protested against the expansion of one of the biggest agricultural land grab companies inside their land. Therefore, I imagine that farming powers in Sudan can play a pivotal role in this regard, given the influence, the movement possesses considering the popular uprising and the ongoing change in the regime and ruling system in Sudan.

The beginning could be the launch of an initiative to stop the depletion of land and water, and export agriculture, for three years in the three countries through a popular petition written in the languages of the people of the Nile. Farmers’ organizations can join and sign this petition. Based on this, signatures can be collected to stop the use of the Nile’s water in export agriculture, planting forage for export, or handing the resources over to land looters from regional countries and funds.

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