Navigating the regional difficulties of the Nile

The Nile
The Nile

By Nadia Anne Zahran |  Tuesday, May 18, 2010 –  Mideast Foreign Policy

In 1999, ten Nile riparian countries created the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), which sought to substitute a half century-old Nile water usage agreement and bilateral contract between Egypt and colonial Britain with a new multilateral agreement that reflected current demographic and development realities. The outdated agreement, which secures well over 87 percent of the Nile’s flow to both Egypt and Sudan, is fueling anger from water strapped upper-stream countries. The old agreement also excluded Ethiopia–because it was under colonial rule at the time–even though it lies at the base of the basin and could, if prompted, implement a variety of development projects including desalination and hydroelectric plants that could essentially dry up all of Sudan and Egypt’s coveted Nile River.

This last weekend, select NBI countries met to sign into force the Nile Cooperation Agreement that reallocates the water resources of the Nile among all the riparian countries.  The landmark agreement was marred by the lack of participation by Egypt and Sudan which objected to any reworking of an agreement that was destined to provide them with less access to the Nile waters than had been previously allocated. Following the signing Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit warned over the weekend that Cairo’s water rights were a “red line” and threatened legal action if a partial deal is reached.The new Common Framework Agreement (CFA) would assert full equitable rights for each country.

For Egypt and Sudan, as well as the other eight riparian countries, the question of how much water they can use to irrigate their agricultural land and sustain their growing populations have become existential matters that dwarf the other political conflicts plaguing the region.

According to a recent statement made by the Egyptian Minister of Irrigation,Mohammad Nasr Allam, to Egypt’s Parliament: “Egypt’s share of the Nile’s water is a historic right that Egypt has defended throughout its history. If the Nile basin countries unilaterally signed the agreement it would be considered the announcement of the Nile Basin Initiative’s death.”

The rest of the riparian countries have not stood idel while Egypt and Sudan have refused to renegotiate. Ethiopia announced the inauguration of a new dam this past weekend which will allocate water for land cultivation and electricity. Egypt has consistently blocked any previous attempts of another country to build a dam, threatening war if the Nile River was ever blocked. Now that it has happened, Egypt has been forced into taking a more diplomatic stance as President Mubarak has called for continued talks.

There is a lot at stake for all the players in the region and perhaps for Arab-African relations as a whole, already strained by years of neglect and outright conflict in Sudan. As climate change continues to affect an already parched region, reliance on the Nile, which flows through ten percent of Africa and is shared by ten countries, is only increasing.

Access to water is vital to the sustainability of these nations, and both Egypt and Sudan have gone as far as to say that they will go to war if the right to use to this resource is blocked. Both countries lie on the downstream access to the Nile River. The problem centers around scarcity and population demands. The river supplies drinking water to virtually the entire Egyptian population of 80 million, a number that may reach 97 million by 2025 according to World Bank statistics. Unfortunately, it is the same source of water for nine other nations (comprising 160 million people) with many undergoing extreme “water stress”. In more recent history, upper Nile Basin countries have wanted to pursue development projects utilizing the Nile for dams and desalinization plants which Egypt and Sudan consistently object to, citing their historical claims to the resource.

This isn’t the first time such disagreements have echoed in the region. In 2004, Tanzania attempted to build a 105-mile pipeline from Victoria Lake (which feeds into the Nile River), that would have provided both drinking and irrigation water for a select group of villages in northwest Tanzania. According to one source Egypt objected and threatened to bomb the location if construction continued, as this water eventually flows northerly into the Aswan Dam–a dam that was constructed without consulting Ethiopia (or the World Bank and the United States after they rebuffed investment into the project.) Ethiopia has tried as well to control access to the Nile by an attempt to build a dam on Lake Tana, which flows into the Blue Nile. In 1970, Anwar Sadat, then President of Egypt, threatened to go to war with Ethiopia had this happened. Thus far, there have been no bombings but also no construction on either sites. This past weekend’s signing as well as the long-awaited inauguration of Ethiopia’s Tana Beles dam might change this.

It would be hard for both Egypt and Sudan to fundamentally change their development models based on a reduced share of water. Sudan has already been involved in a bloody crackdown in Darfur that has left its president indicted for war crimes and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court in a political conflict that was at least partly instigated by climate change. It also poses significant questions for US development aid to Egypt.

The United States Agency for International Aid (USAID) has heavily invested over $3 billion since 1975 for irrigation projects of its own in the Delta and the Sinai desert. One such project was initiated by the late President Anwar Sadat who attempted to build a “peace canal” allotting one percent of Egypt’s cut of the Nile to flow onward to Israel in the exchange for Palestinian sovereignty over East Jerusalem. When that sovereignty failed to materialize, Egypt halted construction as shown by this mapjust short of the Israel border.

Other such projects include the massive $145 million Nile Delta Region irrigation project (co-funded by the World Bank) and Sinai irrigation plans (funded by the Egyptian government)-0projects that essentially are irrigating a desert –at a rate that experts find  unsustainable.

On the surface these projects have proven to be vastly profitable for investors as many of the crops are exported for European markets, but the ramifications appear to have long-term effects that are going unnoticed by many within the Egyptian government. Not only are 100 percent of all Egyptian crops irrigated by the Nile, there is a real and growing concern over the implications of food security as crop yields decrease and the population continues to rise.

The remainder of the Nile Basin countries are getting tired of waiting around for Egypt and Sudan to sign the CFA, and with Tanzania hit drastically by draught in recent years, it too hopes to change its long-standing acceptance of the status quo, with the help of donors, to alleviate its water needs. At the World Economic Forum on Africa, held in Dar es Salaam May 4-7, President Jakaya stressed the need for assistance by asking “high-profile delegates to sit with [them] for deliberations that will focus on the development of the agriculture sector.” It appears the international community is prepared to offer help where help is needed despite previous indicators which showed global donors and banks side-stepping water development projects for fear of getting involved in an increasingly heated regional firestorm.

Yet with such a multitude of outstanding issues remaining, it would behoove the international community, particularly the United States, to take a more active role in bringing together the countries of this vital regional link between Africa and the Middle East. Indeed, the US must reevaluate the requirements for regional peace and security surrounding the Nile. For if these issues are not addressed, the region risks not only more internal political battles fought on and through civilian populations, but potentially wars between states that could polarize populations. It can start by working to mediate the disputes between Egypt and Sudan and the remainder of the riparian countries dependent on the Nile. An ounce of prevention will be worth decades of cure.

Nadia Anne Zahran is an intern with the New America Foundation’s Middle East Task Force.