Egypt must change attitude over Nile water

Nile in Egypt
Nile in Egypt

By Joseph Mayton, Bikyamasr

The new Egypt seems a lot like the old Egypt, especially in terms of its continued control of Nile River water. Earlier this month, the interim Egyptian government said it would oppose an Ethiopian plan to erect a damn along its territory’s Nile water, leaving many to question where diplomacy is headed in terms of the world’s longest river. Egypt claims it cannot give up their share of water, as it could lead to water shortages in the future.

The irony is that while government officials and commentators give a doomsday scenario explaining why the country must maintain its dominance of the Nile’s water, millions of Egyptians suffer from water shortages on a daily basis. Today. Not five years from now.

Just ask Adel Mohamed, a 44-year-old handyman who lives on the outskirts of Cairo. He told me that last summer, weeks went by when his family and no access to running water. “I worry about what is coming this summer,” he said.

The cause for the water cuts, he and his neighbors argue, is the new upscale developments being erected for Egypt’s wealthiest people. The area’s inhabitants said water was being redirected and new pipes had yet to be built for the area.

On one level, the Egyptian officials and commentators are right to fear water shortages. It is easy to see who they are fearful for: those with the economic power. This is why they do not want to re-negotiate a treaty that would see the country lose any of the water currently allocated to the country under a 1959 treaty with Sudan.

That treaty is the continuation of the British Water Nile Agreement of 1929 – brokered by the British when they were the colonial power. Egypt was guaranteed 48 billion cubic meters of water. Following the 1959 deal, which did little more than reaffirm Egypt and Sudan’s right to a majority of the Nile, this was increased to 55.5 billion cubic meters, while Sudan is allotted 14.5 billion cubic meters.

Egypt, as the regional leader, politically and economically, could truly become a leader if it were willing to go beyond the desire to keep a treaty first created by its colonial overlords. Cairo could create something with the NBI that would truly transcend borders. They have to be willing to look for compromises. If their willing, that is.

The NBI’s main funder, the World Bank, has said it will not go along with any projects in upstream nations unless Egypt agrees. With a veto power, Egypt has the ability to stall development along the Nile. There are other options, however, such as desalination efforts that could be made to reduce Egypt’s reliance on the Nile. According to the Egyptian Water Partnership, some 95 percent of the country’s drinking and irrigation water comes from the Nile. This has to change.

The Egyptian government could come to a deal with the other NBI nations that would see them reduce their Nile resources in favor of erecting desalination plants along the Red Sea and Mediterranean Sea. This would give Egypt the ability to increase water output – or keep it at around the same figure – without depriving upstream nations of their ability to develop and improve agricultural output.

Burundi’s Environment and Water Minister Degratias N’Duimana told me last year that his nation, and other upstream countries, “are struggling to improve our infrastructure and agriculture sectors because we can’t develop industries or irrigation lines from the Nile because Egypt won’t let us and there is no money for these projects.” The trump card falls to Cairo.

With desalination however, Egypt could provide a sustainable amount of water along the Red Sea coast that would end the transport of water from the Nile to the coast, hours away.

Khaled AbuZeid, director of the Egyptian Water Partnership, agreed. “There needs to be a look into desalination projects in Egypt, because that would give the country another source,” he began, “because it could really be a huge boost to Egypt’s water needs. It is expensive, but in the long run, it might make these discussions easier if Egypt is seen as looking for alternatives.”

The World Bank could help fund such projects. And at the same time it would show that Egypt is willing to come to terms as the region’s leader. By compromising and establishing alternative solutions, the partnerships that Egypt could help create along the Nile would go a long way when those deadly water shortages come. It could avoid potential war. By negotiating and developing a new treaty that would give upstream nations greater access to the world’s largest river, Egypt would signal a new era of partnership and understanding in a region fraught with anger and frustration. If they fail, the region could quickly turn toward violence and posturing.

There must be a new way along the Nile and Egypt must make an effort to resolve the crisis before it becomes unmanageable. Nations are angry and Cairo must make amends, or face the consequences of upstream nations going it alone. That could me more dangerous to Egypt’s “national security” than finding a solution now. If Egypt is to show the world, and the region, that a change in regime is a real change, revamping and compromising over Nile water would be an important first step.