Fresh Water Talks

In parts of North Africa, fresh water is a scarce commodity. Although the region's main pipeline – the mighty Nile River – is perhaps most often associated with Egypt, it actually runs through a host of countries further upstream. In order to map out use rights in an equitable fashion, the ten-country Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) hopes to bring all parties to the negotiation table. But the challenges are great, says this article in Egypt's Al-Ahram Weekly. Some upriver countries want to divert water for hydo-electric and farming purposes, but Egypt's government holds that those countries already get plenty of water in the form or rainfall. Further complicating the matters are the legacies of colonial rule – in 1929 Egypt and England signed a treaty granting Cairo a virtual monopoly on water from the Nile. Others, however, claim that such arrangements are invalid, as the citizens of Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, and other upriver states had no say in their drafting. Regardless of the diplomatic debates, says the article's author, without effective confidence-building measures and improved political stability in the region, the NBI's efforts at intra-region cooperation won't get very far. – YaleGlobal

Fresh Water Talks

Nile Basin countries re-double efforts to work out a way of sharing and managing the region's water resources
Gamal Nkrumah
Friday, June 11, 2004

The hydro-politics of the Nile have long dogged countries of the region. As reflected in commentaries in the media of Nile Basin states, disputes over water utilisation are becoming more problematic. Until recently, most governments of the region felt that the sharing of Nile waters was an awkward subject to discuss, and that it was far too unsavoury for it to be debated publicly.

Not any more. The 10 Nile Basin countries -- Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda -- have now at least started to speak openly about the challenges they face as they try to equitably share out the river's resources, and to abrogate outdated colonial treaties that have, for decades, governed the use of the Nile waters.

Certainly from the Egyptian perspective, there is much to be said for adhering to the essence of the 1929 and 1959 treaties. But upstream countries are particularly dismissive of those two treaties. The 1959 Nile Water Agreement is the most comprehensive treaty hitherto signed between two or more riparian states on the use of the Nile's waters. Under the agreement between Egypt and Sudan, and likewise under the 1929 treaty between Egypt and Britain, Egypt assumed the right to veto any construction projects that would adversely affect its interests. Egypt also reserved the right to undertake Nile-related projects without the consent of upper riparian states. These nations are essentially aggrieved because the 1959 treaty gave Egypt -- and Sudan to a lesser degree -- exclusive rights over the river's use.

Nile Basin countries are trying hard to reach an agreement to establish a new legal framework governing the sharing of Nile waters. The political fallout could turn out nasty. Failure to come to a consensus will undoubtedly expose how hollow calls for regional integration ring.

The talks, held last week in the Ugandan capital Kampala, took place under the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) -- an intergovernmental body that organises discussions about Nile water sharing. They highlighted how important it is for Nile Basin countries to act together in order to ensure the rejuvenation and development of the vast region, which contains some of the continent's -- indeed the world's -- poorest nations. Even now, given its severe economic and political problems, the region is still trying to come to grips with the finer workings of the NBI. But countries in the region realise that without the NBI, tensions might spiral out of control. Under the initiative, concerned countries are trying to negotiate how best to replace the 1929 and 1959 treaties.

Egypt is closely monitoring agricultural and hydroelectric developments in Nile Basin countries. Specifically, the media in Egypt is watching these developments while betraying a rising sense of alarm. Extensive irrigation projects in Egypt will require enormous quantities of water that the upstream riparian nations anticipate will sequester their own ambitions for agriculture and hydro-electrical projects.

In the past, the prohibition of Nile Basin countries other than Egypt to undertake large- scale irrigation and hydroelectric schemes went almost unchallenged. Today, seen from the Egyptian perspective, the picture looks decidedly murkier.

Uganda is keenly interested in developing its hydroelectric potential and is currently studying several projects. Some Nile Basin countries, like Kenya and Tanzania, are trying to tap the water of Lake Victoria, the second largest freshwater lake in the world and one of the main sources of the Nile.

Tanzania has embarked on a $27.6 billion project that will eventually include a pipeline to extract potable water from Lake Victoria. "The water we get from Lake Victoria is such a small amount of water anyway and it does not affect water coming to Egypt," Tanzania's Minister of Water Resources Edward Lowasa told Al-Ahram Weekly.

In a flurry of diplomatic activity, Cairo has played host to a long list of Nile Basin water ministers. Lowasa, in Egypt for a five-day visit that included a trip to Lake Nasser and the Aswan High Dam, said he understands Egypt's pressing need for Nile waters. Cairo's position is that the upper riparian states are not as dependent on the waters of the Nile for agricultural purposes. They all receive plentiful rainfall and are not reliant on irrigation for crop production. A 1959 treaty signed between Egypt and Sudan guarantees that Egypt has access to 55 billion cubic metres of Nile water a year.

Diplomatic niceties, however, dictate that Nile Basin countries keep up a semblance of friendliness and political closeness. When Ugandan Minister of Water Resources Maria Mutagamba visited Egypt in April, she stressed that her country had reached a "full understanding" with Egypt. This week, her Tanzanian counterpart concurred, saying that there was no fundamental problem over sharing Nile waters with Egypt.

But most Nile Basin countries strongly object to the 1929 treaty that stipulates that no country can undertake any project that would reduce the volume of water reaching Egypt, publicly renouncing it as invalid. The treaty also sidelined upstream countries, all of whom -- with the notable exception of Ethiopia -- were colonies of European powers at the time. "The treaties have been entered into without the consent of the people of the region. The British had no mandate to sign treaties with Egypt on our behalf," the Tanzanian minister said.

Further highlighting Cairo's tension over possible change, Egypt's Minister of Water and Irrigation Mahmoud Abu Zeid has repeatedly warned that any unilateral change in the 1929 Nile Basin Treaty would be a breach of international law. Such ideas certainly seem old hat in upstream countries like Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, but they realise that change must be agreed upon collectively, and with Egypt's express consent.

Egyptian ministers and diplomats are keen to assuage the fears of upper riparian nations. They understand that the consensus among Nile Basin nations is that the 75-year-old Nile Basin Treaty must now be replaced.

How big can the Nile Basin Initiative grow? Although the regional body possesses undeniable momentum at the moment, its sustained smooth expansion is by no means certain. Doubtless some upper riparian states fear Egypt in desperation will attempt to secure control of the Nile's waters by way of military might. These fears are not unfounded. At times the tone and letter of official statements has quite strongly inferred that any act by others that might threaten Egypt's well being with regard to the supply of Nile waters would be regarded by the Egyptian state as an act of war.

On Tuesday President Hosni Mubarak dispatched Minister Abu Zeid to Ethiopia and Uganda for urgent consultations on water security issues. Abu Zeid delivered a special message to the leaders of the two Nile Basin nations, Prime Minister Meles Zennawi of Ethiopia and President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda respectively.

"What is needed is a confidence- building mechanism among Nile Basin states," Ethiopia's ambassador to Egypt, Girma Amare, told the Weekly. No less that 85 per cent of Egypt's water originates in Ethiopia, which controls the headwaters of the Blue Nile. Ethiopia and Egypt are currently exploring the possibility of embarking on joint ventures, some of which may also include the participation of other neighbouring states. Rapid growth rates if achieved in the region would provide healthy new markets for Egyptian companies. "Cooperation is not just about the free flow of water between our countries, it must also include the flow of capital, traded goods and investment," Amare added.

Despite being set the task of building "the legal and institutional framework for cooperation among the 10 Nile Basin countries," according to Amare, last week's NBI meeting in Kampala received scant coverage in the international media, perhaps because participants at the meeting were not political heavyweights. Hence problems remain. According to NBI Executive Director Maraji Msuya, the most important new development is that the states of the Nile Basin are meeting regularly, discussing openly and exchanging viewpoints and ironing out differences. Yet thus far, NBI nations are placing greater emphasis on perceived national interests than any possible benefits from regional cooperation. The gap between the NBI's aims and means leaves the body ineffective and unconvincing. Meanwhile, leaders of the region must be aware that the success of the NBI requires their input, coupled with the commitment of public moneys too.

The success of the NBI would also require another vital ingredient; something which investors need to be capable of taking for granted -- political stability. It is in this context that ending civil wars, border disputes and institutionalising good governance demands political resolve. Notably, one subject that was not discussed was Israel's alleged economic and strategic encroachments in the Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes regions.

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. Reprinted from Al-Ahram Weekly, 10 - 16 June 2004 (Issue No. 694).