River Nile stalemate: Why Egypt is bullying its neighbours

Omukama of Bunyoro Solomon Gafabusa Iguru (left) at the bottom of Murchison Falls on River Nile. The river runs through 10 countries. FILE PHOTO

What you need to know:

Sharing the Nile. The British in 1929 gave Egypt a bigger share of the Nile water, almost three-quarters of the total water volumes, due to its strategic importance to the Queen’s empire. But close to 90 years later, new water resource allocations among 10 countries are yet to be drawn, writes Frederic Musisi.

Ministers in charge of water affairs from the 10 countries sharing the River Nile met in Entebbe last week for the 24th Nile Council to discuss financing of the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) and review protocols of the water sharing initiative.
But as expected, Egypt’s minister of water resources and irrigation Mohamed Abdel Aty once again slammed the 2010 Nile Sharing Protocol which the country refused to sign, describing it as “unfair”, and called for its continuous “review” or else the status quo will remain.
Mr Aty re-echoed his country’ stand that, “We are not against countries building dams, but we want to give advice on how these dams are constructed to keep the water’s natural flow.”
To paint the pricelessness of the fresh Nile waters, he added, his fellow countrymen have reached the extent of recycling drainage water to preserve the water.
“If there is no River Nile, there is no Egypt,” Mr Aty noted.

Jewel of the Nile
The Nile is the world’s longest river; spanning a length of 4,132 miles [6,650kms] from its source to its mouth at the Mediterranean Sea in Egypt. The river has two main tributaries; White Nile that originates in Rwanda and Blue Nile from Ethiopia. Both streams meet at Sudan.
It is also said that the Nile drains about 10 per cent of the entire continent, and as thus making it a theme for political interactions.

Homes built along River Nile in Egypt.

To many people, especially in Uganda, the River Nile just might be a usual water body whose greater purpose is running the country’s hydropower stations – Owen Falls/Nalubaale, Kiira, Bujagali and the imminent Karuma and Isimba – and probably providing livelihoods to surrounding communities. To Egypt and other countries sharing its waters up north, the river is a jewel for survival.
The river runs through 10 countries — Rwanda, Burundi, DR Congo, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Sudan and Egypt—better known as the Riparian countries. Sudan, being the third largest country on the continent by geographical occupation, has the largest Nile basin of 1.9 million Sqkm.
In February 1999, an all-inclusive basin-wide institution, the NBI was established by all the countries [with Eritrea as an observer] to provide a forum for consultation and coordination among the basin states for the sustainable management and usage of the Nile.

Consequently, in May 2010, five upstream Nile countries signed the Entebbe Convention, which calls for the re-division of the Nile water quotas/shares, and cancelling the similar earlier agreements of 1929 and 1959, respectively with Britain, then as a colonial master.
Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, and Kenya signed the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) to work towards attaining a greater share of the Nile shares, but Egypt and Sudan declined against backdrop of earlier agreements which grant them monopoly over the river.
Egypt signed an agreement with Britain in 1929 and Sudan signed with Britain in 1959 granting them larger quotas of the river flow.

Officials at the signing of the CFA, it was reported at the time, indicated they were “tired of first getting permission from Egypt before using River Nile water for any development project like irrigation” which powers were granted in the colonial agreements.
The CFA allows riparian countries to construct dams and undertake related projects, contrary to the restrictions of the colonial agreements.
Sudan, however, later made a U-turn in 2013 and requested for admission into the framework. Egypt disproved and remains opposed to the CFA, which it says negatively affects its current share of the water. The CFA replaced the old agreements that had also granted both Sudan and Egypt veto powers over use of the waters.

The volume of the Nile’s annual flow is 84 billion cubic metres. The earlier agreements, however, granted Egypt a share of 55.5 billion cubic metres and to Sudan 18.5 billion cubic metres with the supposition that the other countries can get water through other sources like rain or even fresh water lakes. Egypt’s main contention currently is they want more water quotas.
Mr Aty, at the ministers’ conference last Thursday, said they are still open to a more flexible understanding. Against a backdrop of recent discussions, it had been hoped that Egypt would this time join the CFA. But it never happened.

Worry not of the present but the future
Egyptian ambassador to Uganda Ahmed Aziz Mostafa told Sunday Monitor in a separate interview that what his country wants are “assurances” which are not catered for in the CFA.
“There can never be collective working together when one of the partners has doubts or worries. We should all have a shared vision and at the same time feel comfortable working together collectively. If one or two parties are not in agreement with the rest of the members, there will always be a sense of doubt,” he said.
Ambassador Mostafa, asked what he meant by “working together collectively,” said it is by all countries listening to each other’s concerns, taking them into consideration and addressing them.
Some of the concerns in the current arrangement, he explained, “Egypt is a country that has scarcity of waters; our resources of water are extremely limited. We are the last hand that uses the Nile and now everybody wants to have their share as they desire and leave the remaining for Egypt which is at the extreme end.”

With a GDP of $272b and a GDP per capita of $3,500; Egypt currently has a population of 83 million, which is growing at a rapid rate of 1.88 per cent per annum and is expected to rise to 140 million by 2050. As the population grows, water demands for household and industrial use and to grow the food required to ensure the country’s food security also grows.
“We are not lucky to have rains like the rest of our African colleagues; our only source is the Nile so we need to have guarantees that we will not be harmed. This is what we need. You cannot just promise me that you are not going to harm me, you think that is enough?” Ambassador Mostafa asks.

“Nobody knows the future; we have many wise presidents. We have President Museveni right now who understands and is interested in the cooperation that we have but who knows the future?”
Ambassador Mostafa, nonetheless, like Mr Aty, reiterates that they are very open to talks to have gridlock sorted.
NBI’s executive director John Rao Nyaoro told Sunday Monitor that Egypt’s continuous staying out does not in any way affect the current framework (CFA) because it is yet to enter into force as all the six countries that signed on earlier are to ratify it.

An irrigation scheme in Egypt. Irrigation is the lifeline of the country.

“With respect to NBI activities, Egypt’s continued stay out does not directly affect the activities of the NBI, but is a big concern to other Basin states as they would like to work together in all the activities they are rolling out. Unity is power and enables the Basin states find lasting solutions together to the challenges facing the Nile Basin,” Dr Nyaoro said.

Bone of contention
In a 2013 paper titled “Conflict on the Nile: The future of trans-boundary water disputes over the world’s longest river” published by Future Directions, a research institute, the author Jack Di Nunzio, indicates that the British in 1929 gave Egypt a bigger share of the Nile water—almost three-quarters of the total water volumes (55.5 billion cubic metres) due to its strategic importance to the Queen’s empire. Egypt controlled the Suez Canal and thus British access to India.

“Decades later, in 1959, Egypt and Sudan signed the Nile Water Agreement. Egypt was allocated three-quarters of the total water volume (55.5 billion cubic metres) and thereby the ability to construct the Aswan Dam, while Sudan was allocated a quarter of the volume (18.5 billion cubic meters). Other Basin nations vehemently criticised the legitimacy of the 1929 and 1959 Nile water agreements; as they were not independent at the time, they claimed that they were prevented from fighting for a claim over the water.”
Just recently matters were worsened when Ethiopia began constructing its 6,000MW Grand Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile, setting off new tensions with Egypt, which at one time threatened war over the development. However, tensions were quelled and the two countries reached understanding brokered by Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir.

However, according to the new NBI arrangement, the new water resources allocations are yet to be drawn. The CFA has so far only dealt with the procedural rules which will be developed by the permanent Nile River Basin Commission to be established under Article 15 when the CFA enters into force.
Egypt’s main contention in the NBI, Dr Nyaoro, explains is the unresolved Article 14 (b) of the CFA on the water security.
Article 14 states that: “Nile Basin States therefore agree, in a spirit of co-operation: (a) to work together to ensure that all states achieve and sustain water security; (b) not to significantly affect the water security of any other Nile Basin State.”

All the Nile Basin States except Egypt and Sudan agreed to the provision of Article 14(b). However, Egypt and Sudan want Article 14(b) to be replaced with the following phrase: “Not to adversely affect the water security and current uses and rights of any other Nile Basin States”
“This position of Egypt and Sudan was not acceptable to other Nile Basin states at the signing of the CFA in 2010. This phrase is seen to entrench rights provided by the historical Nile Agreements, which the other Nile Basin states are saying they are not party to and are not based on the prevailing principles of equitable and reasonable use of the shared water resources,” Dr Nyaoro says.

“These positions should not stop the Nile Basin states from cooperating, as through cooperation, there are more opportunities and benefits.”
“There is a lot to bring the basin states together as the issue today might not be an issue tomorrow. This situation calls on Egypt to resume full participation in all NBI activities.”
Prof Phillip Kasaija, the programme manager of the Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division at the Addis-based Institute for Security Studies, shared the same school of thought, saying “times have changed and Egypt ought to know that better.”

“The agreements they reached with Britain in the colonial days are really outdated and a new agreement ought to be negotiated because it brings a lot of benefits to the table. If there concern is the future, then they better be starting to secure that future by now.”
Indeed, Mr Nunzio in the paper advances that in 1988 Egypt’s foreign minister, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, posited that the Nile would at one time spark Egypt’s next war.
Historically, Egypt has imposed its control over the Nile granted through the 1902, 1929 and 1959 colonial agreements on other Nile Basin nations. In 1970, Egypt threatened war over the building of the Fincha Dam in Ethiopia and when Ethiopia tried to secure funding from the World Bank, Egypt and Sudan invoked Article 3 of the 1902 treaty between Britain and Ethiopia.

In 2004, Tanzania planned the construction of the Lake Victoria pipeline, which would have benefited approximately 400,000 of its north-western citizens. Egypt threatened to bomb the construction site, claiming it needed that water to flow northward into the Aswan Dam. The 1929 agreement restricted Tanzania from blocking the Nile’s waters without British permission.
At the end of the day beyond the legal jargons and especially in light of such bellicose heckling, Prof Kasaija says the issues over the Nile can only be resolved politically.

Entebbe meeting

In a bid to fight against the continued degradation of wetlands around Lake Victoria, the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) with assistance from the German government last week launched a four-year $6m (Shs20 billion)programme to help sustain wetlands in the Nile Basin in Entebbe.
Dr John Rao Nyaoro, the NBI executive director, speaking at the launch of the inaugural Nile Basin trans-boundary wetlands project said the initiative is meant to promote joint interventions towards Nile Basin wetlands sustainability.
Speaking at the same event, the Uganda’s minister of Water and Environment Samuel Cheptoris said: “There is need to tap into case studies of best practices and innovations to be able to sustain both the national wetlands, trans-boundary wetlands and wetlands of regional significance.”

“More work is needed to prove and show value for wetlands in flood control, water purification, carbon storage, wastewater treatment and other services where artificial technologies have proven expensive and ineffective in the long-term.”
The minister applauded the initiative, stating that it would serve as platform where state and non-state actors link and learn from each other, share innovations and information for wetlands sustainability and promote thematic dialogues on contemporary issues facing the wetlands of the Nile Basin.

Nile Waters Agreement

The construction of the Owen Falls Dam in the early 1950s was subject to the Egyptian government approval; failure to secure one meant it would have taken Uganda much longer than it did to have the dam constructed.
In May 1929, the governments of Britain and Egypt signed what was known as the 1929 Nile Waters Agreement.
This agreement gave Egypt “historical rights” to the River Nile waters, where no country which shared the Nile could do anything that would affect the flow of the Nile waters without consent of the Egyptian government. As a result, in the Egyptian circles, the Owen Falls dam project came to be known as Egypt’s Century Storage Scheme on the Nile.
After deciding on the construction, the British government, through its ambassador in Egypt Ronald Campbell, presented its plans to the Egyptian government.

Additional reporting by Paul Adude


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