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Only a month short of a year ago, in May 2010, a “wind of change” began blowing down the Nile Valley, sweeping away the status quo on which Egypt’s strategy for monopoly of the Nile waters had depended for decades, writes Seifulaziz Milas (samilas02@yahoo.com), a private consultant on peace and security matters in the Horn of Africa who has worked for UN agencies in the past.

New Reality, New Rules for Water Sharing

 

The change in the status quo of the Nile politics was linked to the convergence of three key factors.

Rapid urbanisation across the region and the expanding demand for affordable power had created a market for hydroelectricity. This had given rise to questions over the means to pay for building the necessary infrastructure by attracting investment.

This resulted in the need to build hydropower projects that could generate revenues to repay the investments, thereby making it no longer necessary to depend on loans from reluctant international financial institutions (IFIs).

Tired after decades of Egypt’s obstruction of efforts to negotiate an equitable allocation of Nile waters among the riparian states, the upstream countries signed a Nile Basin Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) to undertake the task.

The inauguration of the Tana Beles Project on the Abay (Blue Nile) tributary, in May 2010, coincided with the meeting in Entebbe, Uganda, of the Nile Basin’s ministers of Water. Egypt and Sudan declined to attend. It also coincided with the launching by upstream states of the (CFA) on the equitable sharing of Nile waters. The game was over.

The recent ceremonies around laying the cornerstone to start the construction of the Renaissance Dam on the Abay River near the Sudanese border should serve as a wakeup call for the downstream states, Egypt and Sudan. Their capacity to obstruct upstream countries from utilising the water has been severely curtailed. The CFA is now in place. It has become reality and will remain so.

Whether or not they sign the CFA, it will serve as the basis for allocation of the Nile waters. The new dam will be built in the Abay Gorge, and will be followed by others. This is the new reality.

Ethiopia’s soon to be built dam could be good news for North Sudan’s food security, as well as for that of Ethiopia and Egypt. With the imminent separation of Southern Sudan from the North in three months, North Sudan stands to lose, not only much of its oil reserves, but much of its irrigable land as well, as most of these are in the South.

It could also lose a significant part of the water share it needs to irrigate its remaining irrigable land. Southern Sudan is also likely to need its share of the Nile waters. In practice, this would come from whatever is allocated for Sudan, unless the South decides to sign the CFA.

However, in talks with the Egyptian Prime Minister on March 28, 2011, the president of Southern Sudan agreed it would take its share of Nile waters within the share of the entire Sudan, as specified in the 1959 Egypt-Sudanese Agreement, rather than by joining the CFA, according to the Sudan Tribune in a story reprinted in Fortune.

It is likely that this could lead to a significant reduction in the North’s water supply. It also does not help that this comes at a time of increasing concern over climate change and desertification across much of the Sudano-Sahelian region and Nile Basin.

Egypt claims that with its rapidly increasing population and the threat of climate change, it may face water shortages as early as 2017.

Under its 1959 agreement on the “Full utilisation of the Nile waters,” which purported to divide the full flow of the Nile River between the two downstream states, Egypt was to utilise 75pc of the 74 billion cubic metres of water, leaving 25pc for Sudan.

This gave little consideration to the possibility that the upstream countries from which most of the Nile water comes, might insist on their rights to use some of it for themselves.

There may have been an element of miscalculation, of underestimating the upstream states which, except for Ethiopia, were under colonial rule at the time.

Egypt sought to cover its interests at the expense of its partner, Sudan. 

“At the time the 1959 agreement was signed, both Egypt and Sudan recognised that this assumption of zero water use by the upstream riparian [countries] was not realistic in the long run, and they made provision for how the agreement would be revised as upstream riparian states started to claim rights to use the Nile waters,” according to John Waterbury and Dale Whittington, American academics who have written extensively on the Nile Basin. “Egypt and Sudan agreed to reduce their water allocations equally to accommodate increased use by upstream riparian nations.”

The time for these countries to make their claims has arrived. The upstream countries are demanding their rights to an equitable share of the Nile waters that flow through their territory. In the event of this requirement of a large share of the total flow for the use of the upper riparian states, it could have a severe impact upon Sudan and its agricultural development aspirations.

There could also be another miscalculation. While the two downstream countries have long attempted to link their 1959 bilateral agreement to “international law,” it remains a bilateral agreement that can only be legally relevant to the two signatories and the allocation between them of such Nile water as enters their territory. It can in no way oblige the upstream countries to allow Nile waters passing through their territory to reach the downstream countries.

Egypt tried a similar manoeuvre in its 1929 bilateral agreement with the United Kingdom (UK), giving it priority over the then British colonies in the upper Nile Basin. This colonial agreement was rejected by the former colonies as soon as they became independent.

In each case, the newly independent states offered others a period of grace during which any concerned country could renegotiate the terms of the agreement. Egypt declined the offer, possibly convinced that it was the stronger state in the region and that its capacity to intimidate would be enough.

Even if the Anglo-Egyptian agreement had been acceptable to the former British colonies, it could not have affected the rights of Ethiopia, the source of 86pc of the Nile waters, nor those of Burundi, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), none of which were ever British colonies.    

What all of the Nile Basin states must learn to face is that, while the Nile is a very long river flowing from its origins in Burundi and Rwanda and onwards through Uganda, Sudan, and Egypt, to the sea, it is not a very big one in terms of volume.

Most of its water comes from the Abay River that flows down from the Ethiopian highlands to meet the White Nile at the northern edge of the Sudanese capital, Khartoum. The flow of this not very big river must serve 10 countries and serve them equitably.

 
 Seifulaziz Milas (samilas02@yahoo.com), a private consultant on peace and security matters in the Horn of Africa
 
 
   
   
   
 
 
 

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