Monday, July 19, 2010

Taking the troubled waters in Egypt

It was one single paragraph in one article of a much larger agreement that triggered a semi-crisis situation among the Nile basin states. Paragraph B, article 14 turned a promise of regional cooperation into tension and a threat to the national security of some states. It called for the right of all Nile basin states to erect projects on the Nile. Those who are familiar with international relations know that crises and wars can emerge from much less than a single paragraph.

This story finds its origins in colonial times. It was in 1902 and 1929 when Britain, the custodian of Egypt and Sudan, negotiated and signed agreements with Ethiopia to give both Arab countries historic rights to the waters of the Nile. In 1959, Cairo signed an agreement with Khartoum that guarantees Egypt 55 billion cubic meters while giving Sudan 18 billion annually. In fact, Sudan has never used the amount assigned to it, while Egypt has “borrowed” what it needed or stored it behind its dams, particularly the Aswan Dam after 1970.

The other Nile basin states have questioned the legality of these three agreements, arguing that what was signed in colonial times was invalidated in the period of independence. The Egyptians and Sudanese have responded that Ethiopia was an independent country at the time of the 1929 agreement. They argue that one of the foundations of the Organization of African Unity (now the African Union) is that agreements signed during colonial times remain sacrosanct, and that international law acknowledges not only historic rights to river waters but also does not permit any country at a river’s source to affect the flow of waters to other riparian countries.

Legal debates aside, Cairo has taken a different approach. The starting point is to differentiate between the Nile basin and the Nile River. Regarding the former, rainfall is approximately 1,660 billion cubic meters annually, 85 percent of which is on the Ethiopian high plateau. The remaining rainfall is recorded in the African great lakes and Nile basin states, including Congo, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, Central Africa, Kenya, Rwanda and Burundi. What reaches the Nile River is about 100 billion cubic meters, some of which flows into the Mediterranean.

What is needed, Cairo has argued, is the creation of projects that use the vast remaining quantity of water to support development in all the participating countries. The Nile Basin Initiative was born as a partnership among the Nile riparian states that “seeks to develop the river in a cooperative manner, share substantial socioeconomic benefits, and promote regional peace and security.” It was formally launched in February 1999 by the water ministers of 10 countries: Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. (Eritrea is not a Nile basin state but is participating because of its past relations with Ethiopia).

For the next decade, the countries strove to establish a framework of cooperation involving a wide range of possibilities for projects that allow the generation of electricity and the collection of large quantities of water wasted in the Nile marshes. A regional commission was planned to lead the process of cooperation in a variety of fields. However, differences remained over recognition of past agreements and “historic rights.”

With negotiations on these issues still ongoing, on May 14, 2010 four countries, Uganda, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Tanzania, opened an Agreement on the Nile River Basin Cooperative Framework for signature for a period of one year until May 13, 2011. The event took place at Lake Victoria Hotel, Entebbe, under the auspices of the government of Uganda. The four founding countries signed immediately and were joined shortly thereafter by Kenya.

In a way, the initiation of this agreement was the flashpoint that announced the birth of a “crisis.” As the agreement recognized neither historic rights nor past agreements, and paragraph B, article 14 gives the Nile basin states unrestricted rights to erect projects on the Nile as they see fit, it was natural that Egypt and Sudan viewed the agreement as possibly affecting negatively the flow of waters to their respective countries, hence threatening their vital national interests. Accordingly, they called for recognition of historic rights and for unanimity over any new project on the Nile. The signing states saw this position as “unjust” in view of the difference in the degree of development of their countries as compared with Egypt. The media played its part in turning negotiating positions into national crises.

Cool heads, however, prevailed. The leaders of the signing states clarified that they had no intention of harming the vital interests of other countries, particularly Egypt and Sudan. This made it possible for the latter to present their case and declare their readiness to assist in the development of the other basin states. Both sides announced their intention to continue negotiations. The crisis went into abatement.

But resolution of contradictions remains a target. Luckily, there is no imminent project that might put the process to a test. For the present, there is plenty of water for all. For the future, in the Egyptian view, there is enough as well – provided that all the Nile basin countries choose the right kind of projects that help all sides to develop.

Abdel Monem Said Aly is director of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. This commentary first appeared at, an online newsletter.