Nile Waters: Hydropolitics and regional scenarios

by Irene Panozzo Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Kenya have recently signed the new 'Agreement of the Nile River Basin Cooperative Framework'. The status quo, regulated by colonial-era agreements assigning to Cairo and Khartoum nearly total control over the Nile waters, is put into question. A completely new phase is set in motion and is likely to influence the geopolitical scenario of the region as new pressures and old tensions are coming out of.


May 14, 2010 will be remembered in the diplomatic annals of East Africa's countries, Egypt and Sudan as the day that set in motion a completely new course as far as the River Nile waters management is concerned. On that day, four riparian states, namely Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Rwanda, kept their word and signed the new Agreement of the Nile River Basin Cooperative Framework in Entebbe, Uganda. Kenya followed suit few days later, on May 19, and Burundi is supposed to come next, the last East Africa Community member to sign the new agreement.

The treaty is meant to formalize the transformation of the Nile Basin Initiative, a partnership among the riparian states initiated in the early 1990's, into a permanent Nile River Basin Commission. More importantly, the new agreement seeks also a more equitable utilisation of the Nile waters among all Nile basin countries. This would mean putting into question the status quo: colonial-era agreements - the first signed in 1929 between Egypt and Britain and the second concluded in 1959 between Egypt and Sudan - which give Cairo and Khartoum the nearly total control of the Nile waters. Following 1959 agreement, Egypt and Sudan are entitled to 55,5 and 18,5 billion cubic metres a year, respectively, the lion's share of the Nile's total flow, averagely put at 84 billion cubic metres. Moreover, Egypt retains a veto power on any upstream project which could affect its annual share of the waters. Cairo vehemently reasserted this right few days ago, after Ethiopia had announced on May 14 the inauguration of the Tana Beles dam, a hydroelectric project build on Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile.

Egypt and Sudan had tried to prevent the other Nile basin countries to sign the new deal, clearly stating their opposition to article 14 (b) of the agreement, which says 'Nile Basin States agree, in a spirit of cooperation, to work together to ensure that all states achieve and sustain water security and not to significantly affect the water security of any other Nile Basin State'. The two downstream countries proposal was to re-write the last part of the article, so to read 'Not to adversely affect the water security and current uses and rights of any other Nile Basin States'. But negotiations on this point failed to reach an agreement and during the last meeting of the Nile Council of Ministers, earlier this month in Sharm al-Sheikh, Egypt, Cairo and Khartoum formally rejected the new deal, 'unless all nine basin states reach solutions to the disputed issues', as Sudan's official Ahmed al-Mufti stated few days before the signature period of a year was formally open on May 14. Despite the two downstream countries' opposition and despite EU's invitation to the seven upstream countries to avoid a move that could 'make political problems that exist worse', the other Nile basin states went on with the scheduled signing ceremony. Tensions are thus rising. Egypt is considering how to respond to Ethiopia's dam, while Kenyan newspapers underline the pressure the new deal is posing to already frosty trade relations between Cairo and Nairobi.

A tough confrontation between Egypt and Sudan on one side and Ethiopia and the East African countries on the other is highly foreseeable. And there are fears it could overstep the political sphere to reach the military one. For Egypt, 95 percent dependent on the Nile for its water needs, maintaining the 1959 quota is a question of national security and it has always influenced its politics towards East Africa and the Sudan, especially as far as the South is concerned. Cairo has always opposed the secession option, discussed severally for decades before it was recognised in the CPA. An independent South Sudan would mean another country in the Nile Basin and at the negotiating table, a country whose borders will include the greatest part of the White Nile and its main tributaries courses, that would be naturally allied to the East African countries and could want to start hydrological and hydroelectric projects on its own. It's no surprise, then, that with less than eight months to go before South Sudan referendum on independence, Egypt goes on supporting the unity of Sudan, though promising it will respect southern Sudanese's choice.

Sources: BBC, Reuters, East African, Business Daily, Citizen, Daily Monitor, Al-Masri al-Youm, Al-Ahram Weekly, Sudan Tribune

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Photo: al-Mogran, Khartoum