Political changes roil balance of power & proliferation of competing demands over Nile

4 Sep

By Carolyine Lamere, Source: NewSecurityBeat

In 1979, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat famously said that “the only matter that could take Egypt to war again is water.” Sadat’s message was clear: the Nile is a matter of national security for Egypt.

Indeed, Egypt relies on the Nile for 95 percent of its water. But it is not the only state with an interest in the world’s longest river. There are 11 states in the Nile River basin, which stretches from Africa’s Great Lakes region – Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo – to the Ethiopian and Eritrean highlands through South Sudan, Sudan, and Egypt to the Mediterranean Sea.

Each of these 11 countries has a different plan for the river, from Ethiopia’s hydropower aspirations to Egypt’s cotton farming. And competition for Nile water is not limited to the countries of the basin, as states like India and Saudi Arabia have recently turned to large-scale land and agricultural investments in Ethiopia, South Sudan, and other East African countries to help feed their growing populations. Agriculture requires irrigation, and they will be vying for water rights too.

The situation is further complicated by recent political instability. Two long-time giants in the basin are no longer in power: Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak resigned after 30 years in power following protests in 2011, and Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi died in August 20, 2012 after 17 years in office.

The Arab Spring has made it unclear if Egypt is willing or able to enforce its long-held dominance of the region. Further downstream, the Great Lakes region is notoriously prone to conflict; Sudan and South Sudan are still clashing over a number of issues not settled by the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement or the South’s subsequent secession; Ethiopia and Eritrea remain on edge since the formal end of their war in 2000; and Kenya, Burundi, the DRC, and Rwanda have had recent questionable elections and remain volatile.

Despite their differences, the Nile River basin countries have one thing in common: rapid growth, both economically and demographically, which is increasing demand for water across the board and lends urgency to negotiations for a common sharing agreement.

New Challenges to Historic Dominance

At the root of the current dynamic are agreements signed by Egypt with former colonial power Great Britain in 1929, and Sudan in 1959, which gave Egypt the lion’s share of the Nile as well as the power to veto any upstream projects which might threaten its access to water. Egypt claims these treaties give them the legal right to halt construction on projects like the Grand Renaissance Dam, a massive project recently begun in Ethiopia that would provide electricity to Ethiopia and surrounding states but also reduce downstream flow significantly.

Millennium Dam under construction


However, as is the case elsewhere in Africa, the fact that many of the basin countries were governed by colonial powers during that period complicates things.

Many upstream countries did not gain their independence until the 1960s and were therefore excluded from initial allocation discussions. They claim the treaties are colonial relics and are no longer binding to newly independent countries. Ethiopia has been especially vocal in its opposition; although it was independent at the signing of the 1959 treaty and the Blue Nile, which originates in Ethiopia, provides 85 percent of the Nile’s water, they were not invited to negotiations.

The first modern attempt to come to a collective water sharing agreement was the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), established in 1999. Although representatives of the then-nine member countries of the NBI met on a regular basis over the course of the next decade, negotiations failed to progress. Upstream countries had hoped to forge a new agreement which would give them more rights to Nile water than the 1959 agreement, but it soon became clear that Egypt had no intentions of yielding water to other riparian states, regardless of political situations when the first agreements were signed.

Relationships between NBI states deteriorated further in 2010 when Ethiopia, Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania set off on their own and signed a new water distribution agreement to replace the 1959 treaty. The Nile Cooperative Framework Agreement, also known as the Entebbe Agreement, prevents countries from using the flow of the Nile in ways which would harm downstream states, a principle which aligns with other trans-boundary river treaties. But importantly, the new treaty removes Egypt’s absolute veto power over upstream projects.

Unsurprisingly, the Entebbe Agreement has proven controversial, and Egypt, Sudan, and South Sudan – the downstream countries which benefit most from the colonial-era treaties – remain opposed to the new agreement.

The situation has been further complicated by the Arab Spring and Egyptian revolution. Burundi at first pledged not to sign the agreement at the urging of Hosni Mubarak, then-president of Egypt. But Burundi reneged on its promise just weeks after Mubarak was deposed in February of last year, gambling that Egypt’s domestic problems would keep it from retaliating. Burundi was the sixth country to sign the agreement, and the latest so far. The DRC has remained neutral, and Eritrea, as a country in the watershed but not situated along the Nile or one of its tributaries, has only observer status in the NBI and is thus not eligible to sign.

The NBI continues to meet and carry out standard functions – for example during a meeting in July, South Sudan was admitted as a new state, Ethiopian engineer Teferra Beyene Asfaw was appointed executive director, and a new five year plan was approved – but little progress has been made towards a comprehensive agreement acceptable to all basin states.

Growing Demand, On the Continent and Abroad

The importance of the Nile’s waters – and Egypt’s potential loss of hydrological veto power – is heightened by increased demand in the region.

Many of the Nile basin countries are experiencing rapid population growth; every country except Egypt has a total fertility rate (TFR) above 4.5 children per women. Ethiopia’s TFR of 4.6 is at the low end, while the Democratic Republic of the Congo tops the list at 6.1. Egypt is not growing as quickly as other riparian states, with a total fertility rate of2.9, but scarcity is already a problem. In 2009, Egyptians had access to only 860 cubic meters per capita, well below the UN threshold for water scarcity of 1,000 cubic meters, and protests over chronic water shortages have been reported.

Overall, the population of Nile Basin Initiative countries is projected to more than double over the next 40 years, from 429 million in 2012 to 945 million people. In other words, over the course of the next four decades more people will be born into the region than currently live there now.

Growing populations require more water, but so does growing affluence. While there is huge potential for development in the basin, lack of access to water and energy limit growth for upstream countries. For example, the World Bank reports that Ethiopia has experienced remarkable economic development over the past decade, with annual GDP growth rates reaching 11 percent, but last year, high food and fuel prices contributed to a decreased growth rate of around seven percent, leading to public protests over inflationary prices. Similarly, neighboring Uganda has recently experienced overall GDP growth rates of around seven percent, but rapid population growth means that this has translated to only around a four percent growth in GDP per capita.

Energy production is an essential component of continued development, and another point of contention between upstream and downstream states. Egypt has natural gas resources and Sudan and South Sudan have oil (although disputes over the ownership of key fields and transportation out of the country make it difficult to access at the moment), but upstream countries have far fewer energy options.

Uganda’s Bujiagali Power Project (Courtesy of Bujagali Energy Limited)


Uganda has sought to remedy this by building a hydropower station that only temporarily diverts the river and allows all water to continue downstream. The Bujagali Hydropower Project, located on the White Nile near Lake Victoria, generates 250 megawatts of power. After full energy production began in June, William Groth of Bujagali Energy Limited noted the improvement over previous diesel-powered generators: “The energy we produce here with water is three times cheaper than what came from those generators, and it is cleaner, too,” he told AllAfrica.

Ethiopia, on the other hand, is building more aggressively. It began construction of the Grand Renaissance Dam, formerly known as the Grand Millennium Dam, on the Blue Nile in 2011. The massive project will produce 5,250 megawatts of energy – 21 times the production of Bujagali. It will also have a greater impact on the Nile. While the magnitude of the reduction of flow will depend on how quickly Ethiopia fills the dam, Egyptian officials are certain there will be severe consequences for their country. (Although Nile flow will be constant once the dam is filled, downstream countries will receive less water while the reservoir is filling.) A United Arab Emirates-based paper cites a former Egyptian water minister as saying that “the problems could range from bad to devastating.”

Upstream, past Aswan High Dam, whose completion was a crucial moment in it’s own industrialization, Egypt also faces self-imposed water management issues. The government is encouraging increased cotton production, even though the crop demands a great deal of water for successful cultivation. While some areas have become adept at implementing new irrigation techniques to make the most of their allocation, others are less judicious in their use. As a result, much of Egypt’s water is lost to evaporation and runoff. A key point of evaporation is Lake Nasser, formed after the completion of the Aswan High Dam in 1971. Various estimates put water loss from the reservoir at 16 percent of Egypt’s annual allocation, 10 to 16 cubic kilometers per year, or enough water to irrigate an additional two million kilometers of farmland.

Agricultural demand is not limited to the countries in the Nile River basin. According to a report from the Worldwatch Institute, 16.8 million hectares in East Africa have been sold or leased to foreign companies since 2000 – and most was sold recently, after the 2008 food crisis. Some of the largest buyers in the region are corporations from Saudi Arabia, India, the United States, and the United Arab Emirates. Opponents to these large-scale acquisitions point to the toll they will take on the region’s water resources. Water-intensive crops like rice mean that locals – many of whom face food security issues of their own (famine is perennially a challenge in Ethiopia and Sudan) – lose not only the yields from those fields, but also the water used to grow them.

Although there are mounting concerns about the ethics and fairness of these deals, fears of another food crisis, stoked by record drought in the United States this summer and lower yields elsewhere around the world, make it unlikely that arable land will become any less valuable on the global market. Soon, the Nile may help support much more than just the region’s population.

Prospects for a Future Agreement

Despite political upheaval and the proliferation of competing interests along the basin, water is a powerful force for cooperation – there has, after all, never been a violent conflict over water on the Nile, and water as a sole source of conflict is exceedingly rare in general, according to research by Aaron Wolf.

And there has been recent progress. Mohamed Morsi, newly-elected president of Egypt, traveled to Addis Ababa on July 16 for an African Union Commission meeting where he discussed a future African common market. While Morsi only briefly mentioned the Nile, his very presence in Ethiopia was a positive sign for reconciliation between the key basin countries. The trip reverses former President Hosni Mubarak’s policy of refraining from traveling to meeting with African states which he enacted following an assassination attempt in 1995.

Morsi also appointed Water Minister Hisham Qandil to be the new prime minister. While there has been some concern over Qandil’s relative youth and lack of political experience, he has worked on Nile issues extensively both with the NBI and the African Development Bank. This appointment may further signal Morsi’s dedication to finding a mutually acceptable agreement to share Nile waters.

Meles Zenawi gave an interview following the signing of the Entebbe Agreement in 2010 , “some people in Egypt have old-fashioned ideas based on the assumption that the Nile water belongs to Egypt.” But, “the circumstances have changed and changed forever.”

Zenawi likely did not foresee the events of the Arab Spring or the overwhelming vote for South Sudanese independence within the next year, but his words ring even truer today. Indeed, Zenawi’s death in August may be a catalyst for change in the region. During the long, speculative period of his illness, an anonymous Egyptian water official said that a regime change in Ethiopia might make it easier to come to an agreement over water-sharing. “While this can in no way be official policy at this point, I believe that there would be more maneuvering with a new leadership in Ethiopia because there would be the ability to communicate and not be seen as antagonistic,” he told Egyptian newspaper Bikya Masr.

The region has been irrevocably altered by political and demographic change as well as accelerating development. These changes present new challenges, but perhaps they will also breathe new life into negotiations.

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