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clive

To whom belongs the Nile?

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"Addis Ababa has said it will start to fill the dam whether or not a deal is agreed. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the Egyptian president, previously said Egypt would take all necessary measures to protect its rights to the Nile water, while Abiy Ahmed, the Ethiopian prime minister, has said his country was ready to “mobilise millions” to defend the dam."

https://www.ft.com/content/d64d1609-75b5-46f1-93f0-bd5049501665

 

So does the water of the river belong to people in Ethiopia or the people who eat from the fruits of it in Egypt for centuries?

Would privatisation solve anything here?

 

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For context, Ethiopia is building a hydroelectric dam in Ethiopia on the Blue Nile, one of the main tributaries of the Nile river. Egypt wants to control the entire Nile (I have no idea how Sudan feels about this), and recently they decided to up the political ante via an appeal for UN intervention. From the Objectivist perspective, the question of who owns the Nile River is misguided in many ways. It is similar to questions about riparian rights under US law (and other legal systems). The problem is the complete lack of rational and rights-respecting theory of property rights.

Who own the John Hancock tower in Chicago? Originally it was John Hancock Life Insurance – they built it, they owned it, and some years later sold it. The Nile river, or the Blue Nile rive, or Lake Tana, are naturally occurring things, not man-made creations. If you were to apply US homesteading law, any number of people could discover the value of land along one of these bodies of water, and could own a chunk of land. As part of the legal framework of homesteading, you might gain certain rights to the water as a consequence of owning the land. This rational individual-based notion of property and rights is nowhere to be seen in this particular debate.

The pretense is at best that the governments of Egypt and Ethiopia are representatives of the individuals who have an interest in the water. But the individuals in Ethiopia are not building the dam, it’s a massive government project. The individuals in Egypt don’t receive the downstream benefit of water, the government does. And then the governments distribute the wealth of The Collective to individuals. The question that should be asked is, what is the proper theory of riparian rights in an Objectivist society? Privatization doesn’t really solve the problem in the way that privatizing rail or electric does. With rail and electric, there is well-understood property and a legal system of recognizing rights. That is completely lacking in the case of big rivers like the Nile.

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The OP's link is behind a paywall. Here is a link to a more recent, free article.

On 7/13/2020 at 9:42 AM, clive said:

So does the water of the river belong to people in Ethiopia or the people who eat from the fruits of it in Egypt for centuries?

Neither. Once it's taken from the river, then it belongs to whoever took it, which might be an individual, or a private or public group. Who controls the land through which the river flows is a different question. In this case Ethiopia controls the land where they built the dam. If they want peaceful relations with Egypt, they had better share some of that control, in recognition of the dam's threat to Egypt's people.

On 7/13/2020 at 9:42 AM, clive said:

Would privatisation solve anything here?

It would depend on the decision of the private owner(s). They might make the problem worse and compel the government to step in to prevent war, or to prevent Egypt from gaining too much control over Ethiopia.

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On 7/13/2020 at 4:53 PM, DavidOdden said:

The question that should be asked is, what is the proper theory of riparian rights in an Objectivist society?

Because water is a natural resource necessary for sustaining one's life, you should have the right to access sources of water. Thus, any group formed for the purpose of protecting that right should not be depriving you of it without some reasonable excuse. Typically private water companies are regulated to ensure that the public has access to free fountains in parks or direct access to the stream or lake itself, and the company can only take a limited amount of the flow. People who receive water piped directly to their houses are charged a fee for that service. Supposing all land was privately owned, there would be a governing body protecting your right to own land. As a consequence it could require you to have public easements to access the stream or lake on your property--or require you to have a public park and fountain on your property--in exchange for the right to control that vital, natural resource.

The government's power to regulate your use of the land and water would be limited by the purpose of forming groups, in this case the purpose of forming a city of like-minded people. If the purpose of forming the city is to protect the rights of its citizens, then the governing body must ensure that the public has access to natural resources vital for sustaining life.

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@MisterSwig, the access to potable water is finite, just as the amount of food available for direct foraging. Need is not the guiding principle to appeal to in identifying the basis of a right.

In today's world, one should either grow their own food or provide something in exchange for it.

You might note that the entity charged with upholding rights is not stepping in during the SARS-CoV-19 pandemic to keep the 'public' drinking fountains open and available.

 

Edited by dream_weaver

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Many natural resources are necessary for sustaining life, so of course you should have the right to access many natural resources. In this particular case, the issue is not whether the Ethiopia dam deprives Egyptians (and Sudanese) of their right to mother nature’s bounty, it is whether Ethiopia can take an action which impinges somewhat on the right of Egyptians, viewed collectively, to access water in a fashion that the Egyptian government sees fit. Egypt itself dams the Nile river for five primary purposes: drinking water, agricultural water, water to bathe with, flood control and hydroelectric. If the government of Egypt has the right to impound a river for hydroelectric purposes, the government of Ethiopia likewise has a right to impound a tributary of that river for hydroelectric purposes. Perhaps your position is that “necessity for sustaining life” is limited to drinking and agriculture.

The governments have been quasi-negotiating over the filling of the dam for a decade, however Egypt demands that construction cease before negotiations can proceed. There are competing claims as to whether construction of the dam will effect water reaching the Aswan dam positively or negatively. (It now appear that Sudan, the third party in the matter, supports the Ethiopia dam). The problem with analogies to private water company regulations is (1) that the regulations differ according to jurisdiction and (2) there is no government that runs the world (or, Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt). While water companies extract a small fraction of the water from a source which they do not entirely own, these dams impound (but do not extract) all of the water.

Whether or not people who receive water piped directly to their houses are charged a fee for that service is really up to the owner of those water rights. It is quite true that the governing body that dispenses your right to your property can and does impose legal requirements on you, w.r.t. your property. Different governments allows e.g. that you can camp on a person’s property, a suitable distance from the house; you have the right to walk a traditional path; you may or may not restrict walking access to the beach in front of your house. We have “wetlands regulations” which require you to “compensate the environment” if you drain a swamp. There is clearly no limit to what limits governments can impose on your property rights.

Within the context of actions in a single legal jurisdiction, the matter is resolved trivially: follow the law. There are competing theories of these “public goods” such as air, water, sunlight and wildlife. A general first-cut rule of riparian rights is that the public’s right to travel is paramount, so you cannot block a navigable river (on which count, the Aswan dam is an infringement of rights). But the state has the power to override such rights, in support of some other public good. It’s then a matter of politics to determine whose interest is superior: is my interest in a productive fish-filled river running through my property superior to your interest in impeding the river for water, electricity or irrigation? What purposes constitute “sustaining life?”. Remember, life is an active process, it is not just morgue-avoidance. A hydroelectric dam supports life, just as a drinking-water dam supports life.

While we may abstractly agree that all of the people living along the Nile and its tributaries have the right to enjoy the benefits of these rivers, we still don’t have a unified framework for allocating this finite resource. Some solution can be devised which equally protects the rights of all of these people, but it requires codification and enforcement by… the United Nations, as the existing One World Government, I suppose. But then, we are clearly outside the realm of “rational, rights-respecting governments”.

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An aside to this, unless a dam is built to the height of, or in excess of the altitude of the source of the water, the downstream ramifications would seem to be a temporary disruption. If built to that height, the potential upstream ramifications would have to weigh in.

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1 hour ago, DavidOdden said:

If the government of Egypt has the right to impound a river for hydroelectric purposes, the government of Ethiopia likewise has a right to impound a tributary of that river for hydroelectric purposes. Perhaps your position is that “necessity for sustaining life” is limited to drinking and agriculture.

I'm only talking about natural resources, not anything man-made. So rivers and plants and animals, yes. Hydropower, flood control systems and agricultural pipelines or aqueducts, no. The problem arises when your man-made thing interferes with my right to get water and feed myself. In complex cities, at least fresh drinking water is (and should be) made freely available for people, because rivers are usually dammed near the source which creates a travel burden for those living downstream where the water used to flow for them. As for feeding yourself, that right might also be diminished by a dam stopping the river water from reaching your area and preventing you from maintaining a farm. But part of city life is accepting the division of labor, so if you're unwilling to work for the money you need to buy food in an urban area, you should probably have to rely on charity or risk starving.

1 hour ago, DavidOdden said:

The problem with analogies to private water company regulations is (1) that the regulations differ according to jurisdiction and (2) there is no government that runs the world (or, Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt). While water companies extract a small fraction of the water from a source which they do not entirely own, these dams impound (but do not extract) all of the water.

True. Each case is different and we must acknowledge all relevant factors. Since this is a problem between nations sharing a river, they must form some peaceful treaty or agreement based on facts, reason and the rights of everyone involved. Or they can settle it the old-fashioned way by going to war.

1 hour ago, DavidOdden said:

A general first-cut rule of riparian rights is that the public’s right to travel is paramount, so you cannot block a navigable river (on which count, the Aswan dam is an infringement of rights). But the state has the power to override such rights, in support of some other public good. It’s then a matter of politics to determine whose interest is superior: is my interest in a productive fish-filled river running through my property superior to your interest in impeding the river for water, electricity or irrigation?

I still think the right to life is paramount. So if the survival of a particular group requires that they dam a river, they have the right to do it. If it impedes an established travel route, they might want to offer some bypass to other groups who need to get through. This stuff can be worked out by reasonable people.

1 hour ago, DavidOdden said:

What purposes constitute “sustaining life?”. Remember, life is an active process, it is not just morgue-avoidance. A hydroelectric dam supports life, just as a drinking-water dam supports life.

Yes, life is an active process, and hydroelectric dams support human life. But they are man-made, so there is the question of who built the dam and what other rights are involved besides the right to sustain one's life with water.

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4 hours ago, dream_weaver said:

the access to potable water is finite, just as the amount of food available for direct foraging. Need is not the guiding principle to appeal to in identifying the basis of a right.

I think it's possible to define certain natural resources that comprise the bare necessities of human life, namely food and water. So any group/city devoted to protecting the lives of its members should guarantee access to these resources in exchange for remaining a member/citizen in good standing. It is because these natural resources are finite that our right to them must be protected. Otherwise some gang could dam a river and force everyone downstream to bend the knee or abandon their farms.

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The problem arises when your claim to naturally occuring things necessary to sustaining life, like rocks, water, and wild plants and animals, interferes with my right to naturally occuring or man-made things necessary to sustaining life. In its natural, primitive state, people living along the unmodified Nile could trot down to the river to get a drink, but this doesn’t sustain the 30 million people living in the 6.6 K square miles making up Cairo. Part of life is recognizing that very many people – like, all people – have a reasonable interest in those natually-occurring resources. Thus, the Egyptians have a right to impede the flow of the Nile for their purposes, the Sudanese do to, likewise the Ethiopians, South Sudanese and Ugandans. Also Kenya and Tanzania, because both nation border on Lake Victoria, which feeds the White Nile.

I agree that when there are such shared natural resources, agreements based on facts, reason and the rights of everyone involved are necessary. We should presume that the parties involved differ in their opinions about their “rights”, and what the facts are, so this is not a matter that will in fact be solved by reason. Still, if we cannot figure out some rational principle that adjudicates there matter, we really can’t expect them to do a better job.

It seems to me, based on your statement about the right to life being paramount and impeding established travel route being less important, that you have some kind of immediacy-based theory of the right to life. Travel, agriculture, drinking water, industry are all necessary for man’s survival qua man. Drinking water is immediately necessary, on the order of 3 days, compared to 3 weeks for food. That would suggest that if a man has a right to drink that water, and another man has the right to use that water to grow crops, the farmer must sacrifice his right in favor of the man with a superior right to immediate drinking water. But only according to the objective needs of slaking his thirst. If that is not what you mean, then what is the point of implying that navigation is a lesser right than drinking?

Based on the nature of water usage, hydroelectric is arguably a “superior” usage by right, because it does not contradict another man’s right to use the water for drinking. Drinking up the water or using it to grow food takes it out of the river and makes it not available for hydroelectric (or anything else). From this, we should conclude that Ethiopia has a superior right to use the water that flows through it, because that water can then be used by Egypt to drink, farm, manufacture, and transport. Now, also bear in mind that drinking water is a minor use of the river by Egypt. What is the proper hierarchy of usage rights for water – drinking, irrigation, flood control, transportation, manufacturing, hydroelectric? Which necessities of life are most dispensible, which then determine what right others living along a river may do? Just because Egyptians drink some of the river, does that mean they may rightfully veto Ethiopian use of the water?

The question of who built the dam is a red herring: they (the Aswan dam and theGrand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam) are both the product of government confiscation, just like Grand Coulee and Hoover dams in the US are.

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11 hours ago, DavidOdden said:

The problem arises when your claim to naturally occuring things necessary to sustaining life, like rocks, water, and wild plants and animals, interferes with my right to naturally occuring or man-made things necessary to sustaining life. In its natural, primitive state, people living along the unmodified Nile could trot down to the river to get a drink, but this doesn’t sustain the 30 million people living in the 6.6 K square miles making up Cairo.

Yes, that's why we form governing bodies to settle these disputes civilly. Ultimately we must find a balance between the needs of an individual and the needs of a growing nation of individuals. I think the solution is to preserve free access to certain natural, vital resources, for those who want to live more individually than collectively, relying more on their own labor, than a division of labor. In established cities this might just mean free water and managed wilderness areas outside of town for the few who still prefer to hunt and gather. In the country, it might mean reducing regulations so independent-types can make more productive use of their land.

 

12 hours ago, DavidOdden said:

Still, if we cannot figure out some rational principle that adjudicates there matter, we really can’t expect them to do a better job.

We have the principle of self-interest. These nations need to figure out what's in their self-interest. If they can't do that, they will have to go by some other standard. At a basic level of existence, you either share needed resources or you fight over them. That's life. It might be in Ethiopia's interest to share or fight. I don't know enough to say one way or the other. I'm not an Ethiopian.

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12 hours ago, DavidOdden said:

Travel, agriculture, drinking water, industry are all necessary for man’s survival qua man.

Water, yes. The others have caveats.

Travel isn't necessary unless needed resources become scarce in your area. Also, unlimited travel is never necessary, just like unlimited anything is never necessary. So if your travel route is not absolutely necessary, and a bypass or reasonable alternative works, maybe a war can be avoided. But that depends on the specific context.

Agriculture is necessary for man's survival qua settler. Hunter-gatherers don't need agriculture. Same with industry, if you mean anything beyond making primitive meals and tools out of raw materials.

So my theory of the right to life is not based on immediacy. It's based on man qua man, not man qua a certain kind of man, namely a modern, city-dwelling man. A nation should respect the rights of even the peaceful primitive who cares more about living off the land than living off the division of labor. If we can't respect the rights of such men--and I'm not talking about tribal nations here--then I submit that we can't respect the individual rights of any man. "Rights" would no longer be grounded in the individual life, but in the collective life of cities and nations. You wouldn't be treated politically as an individual, but as a unit of a social group.

13 hours ago, DavidOdden said:

what is the point of implying that navigation is a lesser right than drinking?

The point, I guess, is that you can't navigate anywhere if you're dead from dehydration. In that sense, water is primary and travel is secondary. But if you need to travel to get the water (or food), then travel becomes necessary to survival. So the context does matter. I'm not denying that in some contexts other things become necessary to life besides food and water. But I'm looking for the base requirements which might be preserved without spoiling the needs of a city, state or nation.

 

14 hours ago, DavidOdden said:

What is the proper hierarchy of usage rights for water – drinking, irrigation, flood control, transportation, manufacturing, hydroelectric?

There is no hierarchy, because there is no ideal user of water. Values are objective. To one group drinking the river water might be most important. To another irrigating crops might be most important. Again, each nation must decide what is in their self-interest, reaching some agreement or going to war.

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