Conflict is looming on the Nile’s southern horizon. Following 13 years of fruitless negotiations with Egypt and Sudan over a new Nile Agreement, four of the river’s upstream countries decided to go it alone on May 14.
Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda signed a new treaty that calls for equitable water sharing, while Kenya, Congo and Burundi are to follow suit. Ethiopia, source to some 80 percent of all Nile water, wishes to develop its hydroelectric capacities, while countries such as Kenya and Tanzania aim to increase their agricultural output through irrigation.
“This agreement benefits all of us and harms none of us,” said Ethiopia’s Minister of Water Resources Asfaw Dingamo. “I strongly believe all Nile Basin countries will sign the agreement.”
Minister Dingamo should have known better, as the treaty sent a flood wave of concern further downstream.
Egypt has warned numerous times that any developments anywhere along the Nile will be regarded as a threat to its national interest and a potential cause for war. In fact, right until the moment of signing, high-level Egyptian and Sudanese diplomats attempted to alter the course taken by their southern neighbors.
The new treaty and the failure to reach a last-moment compromise were fiercely debated in Cairo, where Zakaria Azmi, a member of the Egyptian Presidential staff, warned members of Parliament against “talking nervously about the issue.”
Egypt gets understandably nervy where the Nile is concerned as 97 percent of its water resources stem from the world’s longest river, which supplies nearly all of its drinking water, feeds an extensive agricultural sector and generates a substantial part of the country’s electricity.
Meanwhile, 95 percent of Egypt’s ever-increasing population lives in the delta, which is subject to erosion and degradation.
Khartoum is Cairo’s closest ally in this regard. Sudan possesses more water resources than just the Nile, but nearly all of these are located in the politically volatile south of the country. Egypt and Sudan refuse to sign the new treaty, demanding acknowledgement of all existing agreements and a timely notification of future projects — which should be approved unanimously, not by majority vote.
Egypt essentially rejects proposals to water down previous agreements, which are highly in its favor and hinder any upstream developments. A handful of bilateral treaties signed since the late 19th century culminated in the 1929 Nile Agreement, which entitles Egypt to monitor and veto all upstream developments, while it can undertake any project without the consent of upstream countries.
The 1929 treaty formed the basis for the 1959 Nile Agreement. At that time, Egypt was planning to build the Aswan High Dam and needed a reliable flow of water, while a by-then independent Sudan demanded an amendment to the 1929 treaty, which it deemed unfair. The 1959 Nile Agreement stipulates that Egypt is entitled to 55.5 billion cubic meters (BCM) and Sudan 18.5 BCM annually. It also entitled Egypt to build the High Dam and allowed Sudan to construct several smaller dams, as well as irrigation and hydroelectric projects.
The upstream countries led by Ethiopia refuse to have their future dictated by the 1959 Nile Agreement, which not only disregards their interests, but was also based on previous treaties that were all ordained by the then-colonial master of the world, Great Britain.
Downstream and largely devoid of rain, Egypt’s citizens have every right to be concerned, yet should not blindly blame their upstream neighbors for their (potential) future woes. They would do better to look to a political establishment that, for the past 13 years, refused to move even an inch toward recognizing the upstream demands.
Meanwhile, that establishment poured billions of dollars (and gallons of water) into trying to make the desert bloom at Toshka near the Sudanese border — a project that by the day grows into an ever larger white elephant. In addition, the fertile Nile delta is shrinking as urbanization and real estate development march onward, thanks to the inability of the Egyptian authorities to formulate and implement a proper zoning and urban planning system.
At the same time, it is not Egypt, but China and other Arab nations that have become the leading investors in the upper-Nile’s East Africa.
Should the Egyptians one day face water shortages, a large portion of the blame must surely fall on their ostrich-like politicians for a shocking lack of foresight.
PETER SPEETJENS is a Beirut-based journalist