Whose hands on the Nile?

Daily News Egypt
9 Min Read

Since the signing of the new Nile water agreement in May 2010, the Nile basin controversy has resurfaced at the top of the national security agenda of all ten riparian countries, particularly Egypt and Ethiopia. In the current era of climate change, desertification and population pressure coupled with the lack of an all-inclusive water agreement, it is perhaps not a surprise that the media is currently obsessed with signs of water war and conflict.

The Nile Cooperative Framework Agreement negotiations have been through several grueling and meandering phases including the formation of a Panel of Experts, a Transitional Committee, a Negotiations Committee and joint negotiations. Agreement has been reached on the majority of the articles, but the thorniest one is Article 14 (b) which states that: "The Nile Basin States therefore 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 States (proposed by the Upper riparian countries) not to adversely affect water security and the current use and rights of any other Nile Basin States (proposed by lower riparian countries)".

The differences that remain are between those who support the status quo and those who don’t. Apparently, the lower riparian countries insist on clinging to the 1929 Anglo-Sudan and Egyptian agreement and the bilateral 1959 Egypt-Sudan "Agreement for the Full Utilization of the Nile Waters".

May 2010, however, heralded a new era as far as the hydro-political history of the Nile basin is concerned. Five riparian countries signed the CFA at Entebbe in Uganda. The CFA will transfer the current provisional Nile Basin Initiative into a permanent and legal Nile Basin Commission (NBC). One thing that should be clear from the beginning is that the Entebbe agreement does not deal with volumetric water allocation. It will simply establish the NBC, upon the signing of six states, which will work on the different basin-wide programs and projects to ensure the water security of all riparian states.

In past controversies, Egypt employed a strategy of blocking financial support, diplomatic leverage, outright threats and (alleged) proxy-war to deter any water construction over the Nile. For instance, Egypt, with the support of the Sudanese, managed to torpedo the implementation of several water resources projects in Ethiopia. Threatening the upper riparian countries, particularly Ethiopia, was the order of the day. Today, however, Cairo seems more diplomatic even after the Entebbe agreement. Although Egypt’s State Minister for Legal Affairs Mufid Shehab labeled the new agreement a "mistake" that needs to be rectified, analysts have noted that Egypt no longer holds the same power it did in the 1980s.

It seems that Egypt is instead trying to provide a "carrot", after seeing the upper riparian countries unite against the 1929 and 1959 agreements. Egypt’s economic- and investment-related ministers have been busy shuttling to upstream states. They even went so far as to establish an Ethio-Egyptian commerce partnership. In spite of these attempts, the five upper riparian countries went ahead and signed the new water pact, which put an end to the "historic rights" of Egypt to the waters of the Nile. In the eyes of the upper riparian states, the status quo is unacceptable in the face of climate change, which requires doing things differently. As it stands now, the status quo is irreversibly over.

The upper riparian countries, particularly Ethiopia, are neither deterred by the "stick" nor interested in the "carrot". Ethiopia’s prime minister, Meles Zenawi, is now, as one reputable newspaper labeled him, a "donors’ darling". He is becoming the "voice of Africa" in the G-8, G-20, Climate Change and other international development fora. Besides, Ethiopia’s role in the war on terror is appreciated in the US and the West, and Ethiopia is a linchpin in the Horn of Africa. All these factors are increasing the bargaining power of Ethiopia over Nile issues.

But there are also important external factors. Israel has always been a party to the Nile issue. It is virtually an eleventh riparian state. No description of any Nile water conflict, however brief, should fail to bring Israel into the picture. After the signing of the Camp David accord, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat proposed the idea of transferring Nile waters to Israel as a sign of "peace making". The proposal did not materialize although no one is sure that it is a closed chapter either. It seems that the ongoing Red Sea-Dead Sea conduit project has replaced the idea of bringing the Nile to Jerusalem. Nevertheless, Israel will always want to maintain a good relationship with Ethiopia so as to use the Nile River as a "bargaining chip" in its dealings with Egypt. Although it is difficult to substantiate, it has been reported that hundreds of Israeli water engineers have visited Ethiopia in the past decades. Indeed, Nile politics was always Middle Easternized.

From further afield, China comes to Africa with no preconditions but many promises, including dam building. It’s no wonder then to see that Nile basin countries are falling in love with China. It may not be true love, but it is pretty clear that it is a marriage of convenience. Whenever there is any bid, China is there. Building dams is becoming a lucrative business for big Chinese companies. Besides, dams are monumental representations of the strong relationship between China and the riparian countries. Indeed, China is currently re-writing the hydrological map of the Nile Basin. The Nile issue has not only been Middle Easternized, it is now being Chinaized.

At present it seems that the riparian countries are at square one. This author is of the opinion that there is a need for an Egyptian Obama with the audacity to acknowledge that the winds are changing. The status quo is not only unacceptable, it is counter-productive to everyone, especially in view of looming climate change. It is time to acknowledge that the monopoly of and veto power over the Nile River is no longer acceptable and will not lead to sustainable trans-boundary water governance. It is also time to re-visit Herodotus’ saying that "Egypt is a gift of the Nile". For one thing, Herodotus did not know exactly where the Nile originated. Secondly, he said this over 2,000 years ago and it should not be allowed to remain a mantra today.

On the other hand, upstream states should also acknowledge that the Nile is the sole source of life for Egypt and that they must not cause any appreciable harm to Egyptians. In addition, the upper riparian countries need to provide a "face-saving formula" for Egypt and Sudan in order to escape the current deadlock. The two countries need a mechanism that can convince their citizens that it is time to share the Nile waters with their upstream brothers and sisters. There is also a need to de-securitize the Nile by noting that water is a human rights and human security issue. The people of the Nile Basin must own the Nile. Their hands must be on it.

Wondwosen Michago Seide, an Oxonian, works for the Addis Ababa branch of the Institute for Security Studies, an African think tank. He is a former researcher for the Ethiopian Nile Basin Dialogue Forum. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with bitterlemons-international.org.


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