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New Hope on the Nile

[Image from http://blog.gohoto.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/River-Nile-Egypt-Gohoto.jpg] [Image from http://blog.gohoto.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/River-Nile-Egypt-Gohoto.jpg]

A new, post-Mubarak Egypt has given both Egyptians and other Arabs alike, hope that Egypt can once again reclaim its role as the focal point from which Arab culture and politics emanate. The opening up of the Rafah border crossing into Gaza and the active promotion of a unity government in the Palestinian Territories are both indications that this is slowly happening. However, Egypt’s regional affiliation is not only with the Middle East, but extends towards its riparian partners along the Nile as well. And on that front, events in the immediate months after the fall of Mubarak indicated that an Egypt in transition, unable to take firm political positions, could be taken advantage of by upstream Nile riparian countries that have for years tried to gain the rights to greater use of the Nile’s water flows. On February 28th, 2011, Burundi became the sixth country to sign the Nile Basin Cooperative Framework Agreement (NBCFA; which was initially signed by four countries On May 14, 2010, and a fifth on May 19) giving the signees the majority needed to ratify it and overturn the existing Agreements of 1929 and 1959 that were agreed upon between Egypt and Sudan. The NBCFA, if ratified, would allow for the equitable sharing of the Nile waters, upending the 1959 Agreement that gives Egypt and Sudan the right to access 90% of the Nile’s water and to veto any project that may be undertaken by countries further upstream. Under Mubarak, Egypt strongly opposed the new Agreement, claiming that the articles within the Agreement that allow for the “equitable utilization of Nile Waters” (Article 4) and to “not significantly affect the water security of any Nile Basin State” (Article 14b) did not guarantee the water security of Egypt would not be negatively affected.

The Nile flows through a total of ten countries, Egypt, Sudan, the newly created South Sudan, Tanzania, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and Burundi. Historically, use of the Nile on any meaningful level was dominated by Egypt and, to a lesser extent, Sudan. Decades before the Nile Waters Agreement of 1929, several agreements were signed by Britain on behalf of Egypt and Sudan that barred the construction of any project by the upstream countries that might restrict water flows to both countries. British imperial interests at the time supported the domination by Egypt of Nile politics, due to its colonial links to the country and the vital strategic importance it placed on the Suez Canal. Egypt’s close ties to the British as well as its greater state of development provided the context for which the Nile Waters Agreement of 1929 was signed. Under this Agreement, Egypt was assured a minimum of 48 billion cubic meters per year (bn cu ms/yr), and Sudan 4 billion, leaving around 32bn cu ms unallocated. The Agreement also stipulated that, regarding Sudan, “no works were to be constructed on the Nile or its tributaries or the equatorial lakes, so far as they were under British jurisdiction, which would alter the flows entering Egypt without its’ prior approval.”[1] The remaining riparian states, still mostly under colonial rule at the time, required Egyptian and Sudanese consent before constructing any significant hydroelectric or dam projects.

When Sudan gained its independence from Britain in 1956, it unilaterally declared that it would no longer adhere to the 1929 Agreement, as it required a greater share of the Nile to accommodate the needs of its growing population and infrastructure. The new agreement that was forged between the two countries in 1959 significantly increased Sudan’s share of Nile water usage from 4bn cu ms in 1929 to 18.5bn cu ms. Egypt’s share under the Nile Waters Agreement of 1959 increased to 55.5bn cu ms, which left 10bn cu ms allocated to cover losses from evaporation and seepage. The 1959 Agreement allowed Sudan to finally begin construction of a reservoir at Roseires, to which Egypt had been objecting to. Egypt, in turn, could begin construction of the Aswan High Dam, free of objections from Sudan.

As in 1929, the 1959 Agreement also made no mention of the remaining riparian countries. This time, however, their exclusion provoked criticism from Ethiopia, which claimed it had legitimate rights to exploit the waters originating in its highlands. The territories of East Africa, which were pushing the British for their independence at the time, also protested the fact that they were excluded as well. Having little political, economic, or military capital; these objections could do little to actually change the facts on the ground, and the 1959 Agreement remained in place, maintaining Egyptian and Sudanese control over the utilization of the Nile waters.

However, between 1959 and 2010, the countries further upstream that were having their rights to access the Nile neglected slowly began to gain leverage. As they began to experience population booms and economic development, their desire to utilize the Nile’s water on a larger scale for irrigation, hydropower, and other reasons went beyond justified entitlement and became necessity. Over this time period, Egypt was going to great lengths to ensure this did not happen. The Egyptians often employed direct pressure on the upstream countries, even implying the use of force as an option in the 1970s and 1980s. They have also been accused of lobbying international funding organizations behind the scenes to block investment for upstream Nile projects. All of this culminated in four countries: Tanzania, Rwanda, Ethiopia, and Uganda; banding together to put in place an agreement that would recognize their right to utilize the Nile to further their own prosperity.

Following Burundi’s signing of the NBCFA that created the majority needed to ratify the Agreement, another discouraging event for Egypt took place on April 2, 2011, when Ethiopian Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, announced the official launch of the construction of the Millennium Hydroelectric Project, potentially the biggest hydropower plant in Africa that would produce 5,250MW of electricity and hold 63bn cu ms of water upon its completion. The announcement caused alarm in Egypt, as a massive dam of this scale could create severe reductions in the invaluable water flows that reach Egypt. It seemed, therefore, that upstream Nile countries were taking decisions that were capitalizing on Egypt’s state of turmoil.

However, hope for an amicable solution to the crisis has been bolstered of late as a rapprochement of sorts has been taking place between Egyptian officials and various upstream governments in recent weeks. Most significantly, an Egyptian delegation to Ethiopia, comprising 48 people from across the political spectrum (including three presidential candidates) and civil society, succeeded on   May 6th in convincing Prime Minister Zenawi to delay the ratification of the NBCFA until after an Egyptian government is formed. The two also pledged to work closely together to reach a solution based on cooperation, one that would see greater rights given to upstream Nile countries while not adversely effecting Egyptian and Sudanese access to their needed share of water. This came following a similar visit by Mustafa Al Jundi, the Minister of African Affairs for Egypt’s transitional government, to Uganda in early March to meet with the country’s President, Yuweri Museveni, where assurances were given by the Ugandans that no major steps will be taken by upstream countries on the Nile until an elected Egyptian government can clarify a national position on the issue. For his part, Al Jundi assured President Museveni that the new Egypt would strive to build a new relationship based on cooperation with its riparian partners.

Such a break from the past is welcome for all sides. It is now known, through statements made by former Water Resources and Irrigation Minister, Dr. Mohamed NasrEl-din Allam, who served under Mubarak’s regime, that Mubarak handled the issue of the Nile extremely irresponsibly by devoting very little attention or concern to the controversy with the upstream riparian countries, possibly under the belief that any attempt to alter the status quo against Egypt’s favor could be reversed through intimidation or coercion. This probably explains the mixture of surprise and rage that characterized the Mubarak regime’s initial reaction to the drafting of the NBCFA in 2010. Any new and representative government in Egypt will surely want to break from Mubarak’s general stance of apathy towards the demands of the upstream states, a position that ultimately culminated in the NBCFA taking little heed of Egypt’s water security concerns.

However, one must also remain cautious in their optimism, as a democratic Egypt may find it difficult to ask for too many concessions from its people, many of whom consider unlimited access to the Nile a birthright. Egypt has long argued that its reliance on the Nile is unparalleled, as it is the only source upon which the population depends for drinking water and irrigation. Other Nile countries, they argue, have access to substantial rainfall and alternative sources of freshwater. Yet any path of cooperation towards more equitable water rights for all the riparian states could require huge sacrifices be made by the Egyptians, especially when one considers the dramatic increase in population expected to take place in the region (see Table 1).

Table 1: Projected Population Increase for Selected Countries

 

2010

2020

2050

Egypt

84,474,000

98,638,000

129,533,000

Ethiopia

84,976,000

107,964,000

173,811,000

Uganda

33,796,000

46,319,000

91,271,000

Kenya

40,863,000

52,034,000

85,410,000

Rwanda

10,277,000

13,233,000

22,082,000

Total Population

254,386,000

318,188,000

502,107,000

Source: Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations Secretariat, World Population Prospects: The 2008 Revision

 

And on the Ethiopian side, serious questions need to be asked about the true cost and intentions behind the construction of the Millennium Hydroelectric Project. For one, the construction of the Millennium Project was awarded to the Italian company, Salini Construction, the same company currently constructing the notorious Gibe III Dam along the Omo River in Ethiopia. According to international NGOs, the Gibe III will have disastrous environmental and social costs by displacing some 300,000 rural inhabitants along the river and doing environmental damage to Lake Tarkana into which the river flows. The fact that both the Gibe III and the Millennium Project were both awarded to Salini Construction in no-contest bids and with no initial environmental assessments raises serious questions about the integrity of both projects. The construction of both projects will see Ethiopia’s hydroelectric capacity rise well above its domestic requirements, suggesting there is an economic incentive to export power to neighboring countries, rather than a seemingly benevolent motive of bettering the society.

The implications for all countries along the Nile, especially Egypt, are significant. With greater strain on river flows set to be exacerbated both by climate change and population growth, the only way forward lies in multilateral cooperation to promote efficiency of use rather than massive projects with no oversight. Innovation and creativity are to be the way forward if the goal is to be achieved of allowing all the populations of the Nile to benefit from its use. And, for now, it seems as though the will to work in this direction is there. One would hope that a new Egypt will seek to regain the regional credibility that was tragically eroded under 30 years of Mubarak, and finally dispense with the arrogant notion that the Nile belongs first and foremost to the Egyptians alone. The decision by Ethiopian Prime Minister Zenawi not to ratify the NBCFA is a strong measure of confidence-building, but it merely postpones the inevitable need to find a common solution. Any agreement that puts Egyptian public opinion on the defensive by asking for too much may not bode well for reaching a consensus between all the Nile riparian states. The upstream countries should take the emergence of a post-Mubarak Egypt as an opportunity to reach a solution that placates Egyptian and Sudanese fears about their water security. On the other hand, Egypt would do well to recognize that the only peaceful way forward is through compromise and a recognition that upstream countries have as much of a right to access the Nile to secure their own well-being, lest it finds itself in an alienated and isolated position once again.


[1] Collins, Robert O. The Waters of the Nile. Oxford University Press (Oxford: 1990), p 156 

3 comments for "New Hope on the Nile"

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Thank you for an informative article, and for raising the environmental cost issue which has not so far been part of the debate (as far as I remember).

Amina Elbendary wrote on May 11, 2011 at 04:16 PM
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Very informative and well researched . Should be translated into Arabic and published in leading Arab newspapers

Victor Kashkoush wrote on May 13, 2011 at 10:41 AM
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Very interesting article and fair assessment.

In addition to the population growth the economic development phenomenon in SSA( su-sahan) is another driving for more energy in the upper stream countries.

If we see the strategies former Egyptian regime using such as blocking international funding, funding regional unrest and other un-African ways are obsolete. Now this countries can mobilize their-own resources. I personally ready to contribute at least 3000 USD for Millennium Dam. and there are 100 of thousands like me. Consunsus: Down stream countries need to craft alternative livelihood startegy to meet the future population pressure need than sitting do nothing to relay only on nile. Moreover the need to cooperate and create brotherhood with all Nile countries and set strategy for mutual, equitable and peaceful existence.

The Nile Crocodile wrote on May 14, 2011 at 11:31 PM

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