The River Nile: Bridge or barrier? Who should answer this perennial question?

22 Oct

By Dosa El-Bey, Al-Ahram

The 25 January Revolution in Egypt put the issue of the water of the River Nile back at the top of the foreign-policy agenda. Diplomatic efforts at creating common interests and boosting economic cooperation seem to be the best way of managing conflicts arising from differences over the distribution of the river’s water, and the various countries involved have shown a willingness to build bridges in an effort to capitalise on mutual interests and bring about a win-win situation for all.

While popular diplomacy has proven successful in the post-revolution management of Nile water issues, popular-official diplomacy can also help improve relations between Egypt and the other Nile Basin states, building further bridges between them. As if to demonstrate this idea, last week saw the conclusion of a 10-day tour to South Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda and Ethiopia, in order to involve civil society organisations in boosting cooperation with the Nile Basin states, according to Magdi Amer, assistant foreign minister for Nile Basin states affairs, who headed the delegation.

“This is the first Egyptian official-popular delegation to head to the Nile Basin states,” said Amr Khaled, a popular Islamic preacher and founder of Life Makers, a charity organisation, on his official website. Khaled was part of the delegation that visited the four Nile Basin states.

The warm welcome the delegation received was an indication, Khaled said, that both officials and peoples are willing to listen and be listened to. The delegation had visited the countries, he explained, as representatives of Egyptian civil society in order to address their counterparts and find out how they could work together. “The relationship between Egypt and these states cannot be summarised as a water issue alone. We inquired about how we could help build schools and hospitals, etc., in order to assist them. After all, we cannot resolve the water issue in the absence of other issues,” he added.

The tour, organised by the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, included representatives from charity organisations like Life Makers, Resala, the Food Bank, the Arab Doctors Union, the Children’s Cancer Hospital and Masr Al-Kheir. Delegates met the ministers of education, health, youth, and information and representatives of civil society in each state.

Tarek Kotb, from the Foreign Ministry’s Nile Basin States Department, said that the delegation had included 20 figures representing the government as well as 15 NGOs. A single approach could not resolve all possible conflicts, he said, but “political means, together with the efforts of NGOs and popular diplomacy, go hand-in-hand in order to improve relations and create a better ambiance among the Nile Basin states,” Kotb told Al-Ahram Weekly.

The official-popular approach was accompanied by top-level official efforts to boost relations with the upstream states, President Mohamed Morsi concluding a visit to Uganda last week during which he took part in celebrating the country’s independence day. The issue of the Nile’s water was discussed with the other leaders of Nile Basin states who attended the celebration.

In July, Morsi visited Ethiopia to participate in the African Union summit, which was the first visit by an Egyptian president to Ethiopia since the assassination attempt on ousted former president Hosni Mubarak in 1995 by Islamist gunmen during a visit to Addis Ababa.

Prime Minister Hisham Kandil will also visit South Sudan soon, having already visited various upstream countries in June when he was minister of irrigation. These visits aim to improve bilateral relations between Egypt and these states and to discuss issues relating to the sharing of the Nile’s water.

NATIONAL SECURITY ISSUES: Meanwhile, Egypt and Sudan have said they will not sign the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) signed by most of the other Nile Basin states unless they are guaranteed their existing share of the river’s water.

Egypt’s other reservations about the agreement include the need to give the country advance notice before construction is carried out in the Nile Basin and to adjust the future voting system set up under the agreement so that any vote will always be contingent on the approval of Egypt and Sudan.

Egypt has always had a natural and historical right to the Nile. Given that the country is dependent on the Nile for drinking water and agriculture, the river is considered to be a national-security issue. Egypt is also already struggling with water shortages, and a 2007 report by the Water Research Centre said that it would face serious shortages by 2025.

Unlike the other Nile Basin countries, which have several other sources of water, the Nile provides Egypt with 95 per cent of the country’s water needs, Nader Noureddin, a professor of land and water resources at the Faculty of Agriculture, Cairo University, told the Weekly.

The water resources of any country are measured according to the total amount of water resources it has, including rain and subterranean water, he explained. Ethiopia, for instance, possesses 123.5 billion cubic metres of water per year, according to a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report. Tanzania has 91 billion, Uganda 44 billion, Sudan 66 billion and Kenya 33 billion. Egypt, on the other hand, has 60.5 billion cubic metres a year — 55.5 billion from the Nile and five from subterranean sources.

“These figures show that Ethiopia has more than double the water Egypt has, and Tanzania has double what Egypt has. They also show that Egypt has the least amount of water, given its size and population,” Noureddin told the Weekly.

However, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya have decided to ignore such figures, and they have asked for a larger share of Nile water regardless of other sources. The countries accordingly signed the CFA, also known as the Entebbe Agreement, in May 2010, which aims to re-allocate water distribution and increase the upstream countries’ share of the Nile’s water.

The agreement also aims to allow upstream countries to construct dams and related projects that may violate the 1929 and 1959 Nile Basin agreements. The Entebbe Agreement was expected to take effect in May 2011, one year after it was signed, though other upstream Nile countries, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi, did not initially sign it. Burundi eventually signed in March 2011.

South Sudan, which seceded from North Sudan last year, has said that it will not join the agreement until all Nile Basin states agree on it.

Analysts differ on whether the death of Ethiopia’s former prime minister Meles Zenawi in August will affect the water issue. Some argue that it could provide a catalyst toward resolving the issue, while others believe that it will not lead to any major change in Ethiopian policy.

Zenawi, prime minister from 1995, was known as an architect of Ethiopian development, and he repeatedly asked for a new agreement regarding the sharing of the Nile’s water.

Initially, there were 10 states making up the Nile Basin states, becoming 11 after the division of Sudan. The seven upstream countries are Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Egypt, Sudan and South Sudan are considered to be downstream states. Eritrea is an observer state under the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI).

EGYPT’S HISTORIC RIGHTS: In response to these developments, Egypt and Sudan have insisted on abiding by the 1929 and the 1959 treaties, though these are regarded by the upstream states as “colonial relics” that should no longer be treated as law.

The 1929 treaty was signed by the then British occupying authorities in Egypt and stated that no work could be undertaken on the Nile and its tributaries without Egypt’s acceptance. It also gave Egypt the right to block any developments upstream in the River Nile, including dams, irrigation works and pumping stations. The treaty allocated Egypt 48 billion cubic metres a year and Sudan four billion cubic metres a year of Nile water as their “acquired rights”.

Sudan and Egypt later renegotiated the 1929 treaty in 1959 under a new treaty that allowed for the construction of the Aswan High Dam as a major new element in the control of the Nile’s water to the benefit of the two countries. The 1959 treaty also increased the two countries’ share of Nile water to 55.5 and 18 billion cubic metres, respectively.

The 1929 treaty was the culmination of previous agreements made in 1889, 1891, 1902 and 1906 between the British and Italian governments and later also the Ethiopian government. All these agreements acknowledged Egypt’s natural and historic right to its fair share of the Nile’s water.

However, increasing energy needs among upstream states have prompted them to look for new sources of energy, among them dams to produce hydroelectric energy. The existing treaties are an obstacle to these countries’ plans, and thus there have various attempts to renegotiate them and come up with a new collective agreement.

The first recent attempt towards that end was made with the establishment of the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) in 1999. Although representatives of the member countries of the NBI met on a regular basis over the course of the following decade, negotiations failed to progress into an agreement that could appeal to all members.

Relationships between the NBI states deteriorated after the CFA was signed.

POTENTIAL HAZARDS OF THE RENAISSANCE DAM: Potential conflict over the water issue between the upstream and downstream countries, among them Egypt, built up in March last year when Ethiopia decided to build its “Renaissance Dam” on the Blue Nile without the endorsement of Egypt or Sudan.

When built, the dam will be the largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa and the tenth largest in the world. The dam’s reservoir at 63 billion cubic metres will be one of Africa’s largest. However, given that the dam is planned to be built on the Blue Nile, which provides Egypt with 85 per cent of its water, there are fears that it will restrict the amount of water reaching Egypt.

The Nile is fed by the White Nile, flowing from Lake Victoria, and the Blue Nile, flowing from Ethiopia.

Yet, experts differ on the effect of the dam. Some argue that it could provide Egypt with water throughout the year, not only in flood time, and generate electricity that could be used by Egypt and Sudan. Others say that it could allow Ethiopia to control the amount of water reaching Egypt and that as a result the country would no longer receive its appropriate share of water.

Mustafa Al-Guindi, an MP and coordinator of the popular diplomacy delegation that visited Ethiopia and Uganda last year, has described the situation by saying that while Egypt is concerned about the effects of the dam, Addis Ababa has repeatedly emphasised that the dam will not have any effect on the amount of water reaching Egypt. As a result, no action should be taken until the findings of the tripartite technical committee looking into the matter are released.

“My main concern now is to know from the unbiased committee that will disclose its findings to the peoples of the Nile Basin countries whether the dam will harm Egypt or not,” Al-Guindi told the Weekly. “If the report states that it will, Egypt will argue that the CFA is illegal as it would deprive Egypt of one of its basic human rights, water.”

Al-Guindi praised the work of the committee as the outcome of efforts made by the popular diplomacy delegation. For his part, Noureddin believes that building any dams on the Blue Nile will present a challenge to Egypt’s water supply and to the country’s national security.

“Egypt understood that Ethiopia needed to build the Tekeze Dam on the River Atbara three years ago and other dams before that. Now Ethiopia has a total of 12 dams, a number that is not found anywhere else in the world. Nevertheless, it now wants to build four more dams on the Blue Nile and its tributaries,” Noureddin commented.

The Renaissance Dam, if built, would make the existing Aswan High Dam and Lake Nasser, which stores water behind it, redundant. “The Nile’s water reaching Sudan and Egypt would be coming through a small canal that receives surplus water left over after Ethiopia has generated the power it wants if this dam is built,” he added.

THE BAD OLD DAYS: Egypt’s relations with the African states in general and the Nile Basin states in particular saw a deterioration in recent years that was widely blamed on the pre-revolutionary regime, which neglected the country’s African neighbours and left relationships to deteriorate until the upstream states decided to sign the Entebbe Agreement.

Egypt even threatened to resort to war if its rights over the Nile’s water were encroached upon. Egyptian former foreign minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit warned that Cairo’s water rights were a “red line” and threatened legal action if a partial deal was reached. While Egypt and Ethiopia signed a cooperation agreement in 1993, relations deteriorated after 1995 following the assassination attempt on ousted former president Mubarak. Mubarak never visited Addis Ababa again after that, and the incident had a negative impact on Egypt’s relations with Ethiopia as well as with other African states.

Although this deterioration in relations has been blamed on the previous regime, Noureddin points to other reasons that have contributed to the worsening relations. The fact that the upstream states have considered building dams on the Nile as their right without giving Egypt prior notice and without respecting the treaties that ban the building of such dams on the Nile without the prior consent of Egypt are among the reasons for the deteriorating relations, he said.

The upstream countries have insisted on abiding by a principle of equal rights to the Nile’s water rather than the principle of equal rights to water resources that both Egypt and Sudan support. Some countries have linked their development to the buildings of dams like that planned in Ethiopia, which is even being called the “Renaissance Dam”.

“This is a great mistake,” Noureddin said. “Canada which has only two per cent fresh water, is a developed country. Other desert states that do not possess water at all have also achieved development.” The presence of countries like China, Korea and Israel in the Nile Basin states and their rapidly growing investment there are also dangerous signs that could lead to further differences among the states in the future.

Noureddin gave Ethiopia as an example, saying that though it had the right to open its doors to foreign investment in the field of agriculture, this could not be at the expense of Egypt’s share of the Nile’s water. Likewise, Ethiopia’s decision to irrigate the land using river rather than rain water should be revised such that it uses non-Nile water or subterranean water sources.

Moreover an agreement had been signed earlier this year by an Israeli agency for international development to increase cooperation in the fields of food security, water management, and industrial development in African states, Noureddin said. This project was being carried out in cooperation with the UN Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO). But Egypt, which has 7,000 years of experience in agriculture, is not undertaking any similar projects.

TURNING OVER A NEW LEAF: Post-revolutionary Egypt has shown a genuine desire to reestablish good relations and boost cooperation with the Nile Basin states, as was signaled by the visit of former prime minister Essam Sharaf to Uganda and Ethiopia in a bid to boost bilateral relations and trade with particular emphasis on the appropriation of the Nile’s water.

“We were in Uganda yesterday, and today we had discussions in Ethiopia. The environment is completely different from what it was during the previous period,” Sharaf told journalists during his visit. A few months later, Zenawi met Sharaf in Cairo. During the meeting, both men highlighted the positive impact their talks had had, describing the Nile as a “bridge” rather than a “barrier” to warmer ties.

During the visit, Zenawi announced the formation of the tripartite technical committee that would review the impact of the Renaissance Dam on water distribution.

Moreover, Egypt saw a surge of diplomacy on the popular level after the revolution. A popular diplomacy delegation received a warm welcome in Uganda and Ethiopia in April and May last year, and it included political figures like Al-Guindi, Al-Sayed Al-Badawi, leader of the Wafd Party, Ghad Party leader Ayman Nour, and presidential hopeful Hisham Al-Bastawisi. Other members of the delegation included journalists like Sekina Fouad, popular figures like Mohamed Abul-Ghar and representatives from youth groups that took part in launching of the 25 January Revolution.

The delegation managed to convince the two countries to delay the ratification of the CFA until Egypt had elected a new parliament and president, and it prompted Ethiopia to allow the formation of the independent tripartite technical committee to investigate the effects of the Renaissance Dam.

“Popular diplomacy succeeded where official diplomacy failed. Ethiopia, which had repeatedly rejected the idea of the committee, accepted its formation after the visit of the delegation,” Al-Guindi said, pointing to the fact that the mixed character of the delegation’s members had helped the negotiations.

“All currents, including the Muslim Brotherhood before it assumed power, were represented in the delegation. That is how a proper popular delegation should be and that is why it succeeded,” he added.

The warm welcome the Ethiopians gave to the delegation was shown during the delegation’s visit to the cathedral in Addis Ababa, when members chanted with Ethiopian worshippers after mass: “Egypt and Ethiopia: one hand.”

Nevertheless, Noureddin for one still believes that popular diplomacy alone may not resolve the water problem. Instead, it can act to pave the way for better relations in future and enhanced cooperation. Official diplomacy is more likely to resolve the root of the problem, he said. Without a resolution to the water problem, there cannot be good relations.

The formation of the tripartite technical committee was one outcome of the popular diplomatic efforts. The 10-member committee is composed of two experts from Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia and four international experts. It held its first meeting in Addis Ababa late last year, and a sixth meeting was held in the Ethiopian capital last week. It is expected to produce its report by the end of this year.

However, according to sources at the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, Ethiopia has not given the committee all the details it needs to come up with the report, which is why some, among them experts like Maghawri Shehata, president of the Arab Association for Healthy Water, have cast doubts on the outcome of the committee.

According to Shehata, Ethiopia postponed ratification of the agreement last year, and it has not changed its position since. Moreover, it began working on the foundations of the dam even before Burundi signed the agreement. While the committee has the authority to examine the impacts of building the dam, there has been no mention of what might happen should those impacts be found to be negative on the downstream states.

FUTURE PROSPECTS: The Nile, the longest river in the world, is 4,000 miles long. Some 160 million people in 11 countries depend on the river and its tributaries for their livelihoods. Within the next 25 years, the population of the Nile Basin states is expected to double, and demand for water for agricultural and industrial purposes will grow as well.

The need of the Nile Basin states to cooperate and even integrate should be growing as well, and there is an increasing need for a change in the approach of the Nile Basin states to water issues. Egypt has argued that it needs the Nile’s water for its survival and for agriculture, while the upstream states argue that they need to use the Nile water for their own rapidly increasing development needs, famine prevention, and poverty reduction.

All the states concerned should work on the principle of “don’t harm anybody, and don’t allow anybody to harm you,” according to Al-Guindi. It would not be acceptable for Egypt to live under a “water poverty line”, he said. However, it would also be unacceptable for Ethiopia to suffer from a shortage of electricity.

“If the Nile Basin states, especially Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia and Uganda, become genuine partners in joint projects, they could provide food and electricity for all the Basin states,” Al-Guindi said. Egypt has the manpower and Sudan has the fertile land to do so. Cooperation could produce food for everyone as a result.

Building bridges of understanding among the peoples of the different states is also essential. Khaled said that people in the African states he visited sometimes regarded Egyptians as “selfish”, since they could come across as wanting to deprive other states of their right to develop their countries.

In the meantime, the picture that the media has drawn of the African states, especially Ethiopia, is one of their trying to deprive Egypt of its share of water and expose it to a water crisis. In this atmosphere, hostile feelings can thrive.

“We need to sit down with them and to understand them. The Renaissance Dam to the Ethiopians is like the High Dam to us. We can sit down with them and reach a compromise that would not harm Egypt and would not deprive Addis Ababa of its hope of development either,” Khaled said.

In the hope of building such bridges, Life Makers decided to organise workshops for 50 people from each of the four states Khaled visited in Alexandria in order to boost understanding within these states. The organisation is also planning to build an international school in each country.

Other areas of cooperation suggested by experts include Egyptian assistance to upstream states in irrigation techniques, increasing agricultural imports from these states, the purchase of electricity from the hydroelectric power stations that the Ethiopian and Ugandan governments wish to build, and cooperation in both the public and private sectors in order to build a network of interests that will outweigh any conflicts regarding the Nile’s water.

Other prospects for better relations in the future include the use of “soft power” through sending different official-popular delegations like the one that visited four African states last week. “When the people in these states see that Egyptian NGOs are willing to visit them to find out how they can help these countries, they will be more willing to understand and compromise,” Kotb said.

In the same context, the Egyptian government launched an “Egyptian initiative for the development of the Nile Basin countries” in January this year. The initiative includes the establishment of regional training centres in the Nile Basin states. It aims to establish integrated development projects and programmes in the states in strategic fields in order to reinforce Egypt’s relations with these countries in a way that helps them to achieve their development goals.

Egypt is also participating in efforts to modernise the postal sector in Africa through providing technical assistance to these countries and the training of human resources. In this effort, it is able to draw on Egypt’s experience in such fields, as well as on its proven ability to develop systems in the field.

Other more technical suggestions that water experts have come up with to help save water include reviving plans for the construction of the Gongli Canal in South Sudan. This canal, first proposed in 1903, has now been revived in the form of a 500-metre canal linking the White Nile and the Congo River. When built, it will channel swamp water back into the Nile, amounting to an annual increase of Nile water availability of roughly 40 billion cubic metres.

There are various ways for African countries to achieve prosperity through establishing a network of solid relationships and creating common channels and aims. However, more efforts are needed, and these can best be done on the official as well as on the popular levels.

TE – Transforming Ethiopia

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