President Museveni seemed to throw diplomacy to the wind when during the budget reading on June 13 he referred to attempts by the government of Egypt to stop the building of a mega hydro power dam on the Nile as chauvinistic.
But he is not alone. Many observers say that it is not only Egypt’s position on the use of the Nile waters which is untenable. They now also disapprove of the way the North African country has responded to the fallout from comments made by different Egyptian political leaders during a “national dialogue” about the Nile.
Egypt’s foreign Affairs Minister, Mr Kamel Amr, rushed to Ethiopia to cool the tempers and at the end of his visit last Tuesday, the Reuters news agency quoted him as saying: ““Some pronouncements were made in the heat of the moment because of emotions. They are behind us.”
Tempers had flared before, with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy being quoted as saying although they did not favour war over the dam issue, they would keep “all options open”.
During an inclusive meeting of Egyptian politicians to discuss Ethiopia’s use of the Nile waters to build a dam that was aired live on television without the participants’ knowledge, suggestions ranging from brooding disharmony inside Ethiopia to destroying the dam were made.
Ethiopia’s Great Renaissance Dam, projected to cost $4.7b with an installed capacity of 6,000MW of electricity, will be the largest power plant in Africa. But Egypt fears the dam could reduce the Nile’s water flow, affecting the country’s over 80m people, the vast majority of whom live in the Nile valley, getting virtually all their water from the river.
Egypt bases its claim on a 1929 colonial agreement which guaranteed it an annual 55.5b cubic meters out of the Nile’s total flow out of an estimated 84b cubic meters.
Egypt’s new push
The Egyptian state-owned Mena news agency reported ahead of Mr Kamel’s visit to Ethiopia that the foreign affairs minister was expected to follow up the trip with flights to Khartoum and Juba.
But why does Egypt prefer to talk to some of the Nile basin countries and not the others? Mr Mwambutsya Ndebesa, a political historian at Makerere University, says the circumstances have changed and Egypt must come into the fold.
On May 14, 2010, Uganda signed an agreement with three of the Nile Basin countries regarding the use of the waters of the Nile in Entebbe.
In the accord, called the Entebbe Framework Agreement, Rwanda, Tanzania and Ethiopia joined Uganda to ignore the colonial agreement and the centuries old threats respective Egyptian governments had been making over the use of the Nile waters.
The agreement was approved after Burundi endorsed it in March 2011. Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo also backed the agreement and with the birth of South Sudan two years ago, the number of countries bound to defy Egypt increased, further weakening Egypt’s position.
Sudan had kept with Egypt to refuse to endorse the Entebbe pact. An agreement signed in 1959 had given Sudan secondary rights to the Nile waters, guaranteeing it an annual allotment of 18b square meters of Nile waters.
The deal did not take due care about the other Nile basin countries, which, apart from Ethiopia, were still under colonialism.
But things changed pretty fast in the recent past.
Sudan quickly gravitated towards the new Nile basin alliance, probably taking into account the new realities. A popular uprising swept Mr Hosni Mubarak off the presidency in Egypt, giving rise to an elected government which is still trying to find its footing.
Also, Sudan launched expansion works on the Roseiris Dam to raise its power production by 50 percent to 1,800MW just this year. It may no longer want to always seek Egypt’s approval when it undertakes such projects.
But more importantly, with Sudan’s President, Mr Omar al Bashir, indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC), says Mr Ndebesa, cooperating with countries like Uganda, Ethiopia and Kenya against Egypt seems more profitable.
Egypt has not been an influential power within the community of African states for a long time now, yet Sudan needs allies within the African Union to fight off the ICC.
Ethiopia hosts the headquarters of the African Union and holds some sway over matters pan-African. Uganda, on the other hand, is leading the crusade against the ICC within the African Union, while Kenya has its President and his deputy awaiting trial by the ICC at The Hague.
But whereas Egypt was never sure of the support of the other Nile basin countries and took a patronising position against them, it at least expected the backing of Sudan.
This is why some Egyptians are frustrated by Sudan’s new approach to the issue.
“Sudan’s stance on the crisis is disgusting,” the liberal Egyptian politician Ayman Nour is quoted by the state-owned online newspaper, Al Ahram, as having said in the televised dialogue.
Building dams on the Nile not a luxury – experts
Daily Monitor was not able to speak to officials at the Egyptian High Commission in Kampala. Our emailed request went unanswered and the official who received our telephone call said they would not be commenting on the matter at this stage.
However, “building dams like Uganda and Ethiopia are doing is not a luxury,” says Mr Moses Dhizaale, head research, innovation and monitoring and evaluation at the National Planning Authority.
Mr Dhizaale says Uganda, for instance, needs enormous amounts of electricity to support economic growth, “necessitating the harnessing of any possible source”. He says the need for tapping Uganda’s hydro potential to generate power is even more pertinent since “our sunshine is not good enough to produce enough electricity for industrial purposes.”
Mr Titus Mugume, a hydrologist, says countries like Egypt may need to seek alternative sources of water and reduce dependence on the Nile. He says water can be drilled from underground, even in the Sahara Desert, like Libya did under Muammar Gaddafi.
Barring such initiatives, says Mr Mugume, the Nile waters may at some point prove insufficient and brew further disagreements.
Mr Ndebesa already fears that the disagreements over the Nile have touched off an arms race in the region. Uganda has budgeted to spend a trillion shillings on defense next financial year, much of it meant for buying equipment.
Facts on the Nile
Length: Longest river in the world – approximately 4,160 miles (6,670 km) long.
Tributaries. Has two major branches – the White Nile which originates in Lake Victoria and the Blue Nile which originates from Lake Tana in Ethiopia. The two branches join at Khartoum and flow through Egypt to the Mediterranean Sea:
Path. The Nile and its tributaries flow through ten countries - Egypt, Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzanian, Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan and Kenya.
Nile basin nations dispute over supplies
Resource clash. While Egypt is entirely dependent on the Nile for its water supply and regards any possible reduction as an issue of national security, some of the world’s poorest countries see the river as a vital source
for national development.
1929 colonial agreement gave Egypt full control of the river but in 1959 Sudan was also given a share.
In a televised meeting on June 3, Egyptian politicians suggested attacks against Ethiopia to sabotage the construction of the Grand Renaissance Dam. Egyptian President Mohammed Morsy (above) warned that “all options are open” to challenge Ethiopia’s Nile project. In response, Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn (below) vowed “nothing” and “no one” will stop the dam’s construction. However, the two countries have tried to mend fences, with their foreign affairs ministers meeting in Addis Ababa last week.
President Museveni says the belief that only Egypt is entitled to the Nile waters is chauvinistic and fails to realise the need for speeding up economic growth up the Nile.
Speaking after the reading of the budget last Thursday, Mr Museveni warned the new government of Egypt and “some chauvinistic groups inside Egypt” not to “repeat the mistakes of the past Egyptian governments.”
Mr Museveni called for “rational (not emotional and uninformed statements) discussions” under the auspices of the Nile Valley Organisation, adding, “No African wants to hurt Egypt; however, Egypt cannot continue to hurt black Africa and the countries of the tropics of Africa.”
He argued that unless the countries up the Nile valley utilise the Nile to generate electricity, not even Egypt is safe because poor people upstream will degrade the environment, lead to dwindling rains and less water flowing in the Nile.
With the 1929 agreement that gave Egypt rights to a large majority of the Nile waters and veto powers over development projects now effectively shunted aside by the new Nile basin treaty, it remains to be seen how long it will take Egypt to embrace the framework.
Egypt generates much of its power from the two Aswan dams on the Nile and the river supports grand irrigation projects and deposits the fertile soils that mainly support the country’s agriculture.
The other countries also want a share of the benefits. Uganda launched the 250MW capacity Bujagali dam last year and will start work on the bigger Karuma Dam, also on the Nile, later this year, without having to seek Egypt’s consent.
History of the wrangle
The Nile has been referred to as the “lifeblood” of Egypt, without which the Mediterranean country would have been a desert.
Because of this, Egypt has historically reacted sharply to any perceived attempts to threaten its interests in the Nile.
On the other hand, Egypt’s rivals have also historically threatened Egypt with diverting the course of the Nile.
Such threats are said to have been historically made by especially Ethiopian kings.
Egypt’s desire to colonise the countries upstream the Nile had a lot to do with securing the river.
In 1882 when Britain outmaneuvered France and colonised Egypt, France reacted by moving upstream and attempting to take over Sudan, with the reported aim of diverting the Nile to the western parts of the Sahara Desert, particularly Tunisia, where it had colonial interests.
Britain reacted strongly and in 1892, at Fashoda in Sudan, Britain and France nearly went to war until a French force withdrew from the scene.
Britain later facilitated the controversial pact of 1929 which gave Britain veto powers over development projects on the Nile, at the expense of the other countries in the Nile Valley.