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Natural Resources, A Curse or a Blessings? The Egyptian-Ethiopian Nile River Dispute

By Emad Botros

During a recent visit to Egypt, I found that the debate over the building of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) was intense. Ethiopia’s hydroelectric power plant on the historic Nile River threatens the water availability for populations downstream in Sudan and Egypt. As I listened to the Pope of the Coptic Church, Tawadros II, delivering his Easter Eve message, his comments on the Egyptian-Ethiopian Nile River dispute caught my attention when he called on Ethiopia to be more cooperative and to work with Egypt as its partner in the River Nile. He also warned against fruitless wars and conflicts, inviting people to pray for leaders of both countries and for all good diplomatic and political efforts to succeed. I then began to wonder how and why natural recourses become a curse, particularly in Africa, rather than the blessing we read about in the biblical narrative of creation (Genesis 1-2). And what is the role of the church in such conflict over natural resources? As we explore these questions, we will address how human greed and grievance, the lack of appropriate management of God’s natural gifts, and the misuse of the notion of nationalism and borders at the expense of other nationalities contribute to such conflict. Then I will explore how followers of Christ, as faithful stewards of God’s natural gifts, work towards the peace of society.

The conflict at hand began when Ethiopia started building the GERD on the Blue Nile near the border of Sudan, which provides the Nile River with 80% of its water, with the goal of generating power to provide electricity to more than half of its population. From the Ethiopian perspective, the launch of the GERD project is a case of Ethiopian sovereignty, stating that Egypt’s proposal towards the filling of the dam is against Ethiopia’s sovereignty. Ethiopia’s claim of sovereignty is a challenging one. Does Ethiopia have the right to claim “ownership” of the Nile just because it originates in its land? Can any country claim ownership of the natural resources within its borders?

Indeed, neither Ethiopia nor any other country should claim ownership of its natural resources. Human beings are God’s stewards of natural resources, not the owners. Natural resources are God’s free gift to humanity to be shared fairly to meet their needs. It is a blessing from the Creator to his creation, and it is meant to be good (Genesis 1). When God created men and women, he commanded them to manage the planet by exercising faithful stewardship and taking a caring approach towards nature. The mismanagement of natural resources then reflects a failure from humanity’s side towards such stewardship. Yes, each country has its own borders and the right to protect them, but this should not be done at the expense of the suffering of others.

Egypt, on the other hand, fears that the dam will reduce its share of the Nile. Though Egypt asserts Ethiopia’s legitimate need for development, this should not come at the expense of the Egyptians, says the Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs.

The lack of an Ethiopian-Egyptian agreement regarding the operation of the dam is very costly to both sides as it may lead to direct conflict between the countries. But even if this option is unlikely at this stage, water scarcity will have a devastating impact on Egypt, and also Sudan, in the long run.

Though some pictures in the media already show farmers walking over cracked soil due to water shortage, it is interesting to observe how the author of Isaiah long provides a vivid biblical picture of the social and economic impact of the “drying of the Nile”: every creature – the plants, the fishermen, those who work with combed flax, all the workers for wages- will be affected by this disaster (Isaiah 19: 5–10). In other words, there will be a devastating effect on the agriculture and the livestock when the Nile, a source of life, dries up! This is NOT to say that the water shortage in Egypt is the “fulfillment” of this prophecy, as some Egyptians suggest.

The challenge before Egypt regarding the water scarcity, however, goes beyond the building of the GERD to include matters of population growth and climate changes. While Egyptians are calling on Ethiopia to have a fair share of its water resources, Egypt also has to play its role in this ongoing challenge by addressing the issues of population growth and climate changes, as well as the appropriate management of its natural resources.

Though natural resources have been the cause of violence and conflict over the years, they also can be a key element of peacebuilding. Sylvester Bongani Maphosa, in her analysis of natural resources and conflict in Africa, writes that “where natural resources have been the main driver of social violence, they need to be treated as crucial dimensions of conflict prevention that could unlock the economic potential of building peace in fragile societies.”

As the Church continues to work towards the peace of society, a first step can be as simple as teaching followers of Christ to be faithful stewards of managing natural resources, such as water. By doing so, followers of Christ are supporting the Egyptian government’s efforts as it works towards good management of its water. This reminds us once again of Genesis 1:27 where God created men and women to be good stewards of creation. Church members in agricultural areas, for example in Upper Egypt, can thus work with civil society organizations to train and raise awareness not only for their church members but for society as a whole. The mission of the church in rural areas is then to help the country to manage its natural resources as a good steward of God’s creation.

As I am involved in helping local churches and communities in the Middle East and North Africa with developing business projects, I have realized my own failures by encouraging church members in rural areas to start industrial projects rather than focusing on their agricultural work, as if an industrial business is more valuable than an agricultural one. Mission organizations attempting to help local churches in rural areas might also need to rethink their approaches to Business as Mission projects by focusing more on agricultural projects and training farmers in rural areas to be faithful stewards as they undertake their day-to-day valuable work in the land.

As I have mentioned, population growth does indeed present the largest and most complex of threats to human security, particularly in a country like Egypt. Consequently, demand on water will increase, and Egyptians will need more access to natural resources to meet its demand. This may also create conflict among local communities within a country since they may end up fighting over water! As the Church continues teaching and working towards the importance of healthy families as a key to healthy societies, the church is encouraged to consider topics such as population growth as part of its marriage and family curriculums, and to take such teaching beyond its walls as it speaks prophetically into these issues in joined efforts with local organizations of civil society.

In conclusion, if we examine carefully the conflict over natural resources we cannot help but notice the fact that it is mainly motivated by humans greed and grievance, the lack of appropriate management of God’s natural gifts, and the misuse of the notion of nationalism and borders at the expense of other nationalities. The challenge before us as followers of Christ is not only to address these issues but also to be faithful stewards towards his creation in general, and natural resources in particular.

Emad Botros is Assistant Professor of Old Testament at ABTS and has been involved in helping churches develop BAM projects in rural areas of the MENA region.

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