Ethiopia-Egypt accords, a danger to Nile Basin negotiations?

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Ethiopia and Egypt have moved a significant step, this week, towards leveling their bumpy relations. The two countries have agreed to strengthen their economic collaborations to enhance their overall relations in a backdrop of a longstanding disagreement over the Nile’s water resources. Whether or not this agreement stands to disrupt ongoing negotiations within the framework of the Nile Basin Initiative, the answers remain vague.

Leading a delegation of ministers and companies during his visit last week to Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, Egyptian Prime Minister, Ahmed Nazif appended his signature to a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on Wednesday, December 30, 2009 to establish an Ethiopia-Egypt Council of Commerce.

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi who chaired the meeting said that the relationship between the two countries has turned from distrust to a friendly cooperation.

The Nile River resource has been a bone of contention between the two countries for over a decade.

For over a decade now, the nine riparian countries of the Nile River have been involved in numerous rounds of negotiations within the framework of the Nile Basin Initiative [[Formally launched in 1999 by the 9 riparian countries made up of Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Burundi, Egypt, Sudan, Rwanda, the Nile Basin Initiative is a partnership that seeks to develop the river in a cooperative manner, share substantial socioeconomic benefits, and promote regional peace and security]] aimed at solving their disagreements over the river’s resources, and also to establish the Nile Basin Cooperative Framework for the establishment of a permanent river basin commission.

With 38 articles established to date within the framework of the Nile Basin Initiative, Egypt and Sudan are the only countries (among member countries) to oppose a final but essential article that proposes equal sharing of the Nile water resource. The two countries have rather recommended an assertion that will protect their current water quota. [[An agreement signed in 1959 between Egypt and Sudan allowed Egypt alone to use 55.5 billion cubic meters (87% of the Nile’s flow) and Sudan 18.5 cubic metres of water each year. Ethiopia, which contributes more than 80 percent of the water to the Nile basin, and the rest of the riparian countries were left out]]

A shift

This partnership agreement comes despite the two countries’ seemingly strong disagreement over the Nile issue, which has led to considerable tensions in Ethiopia-Egypt relations. There has been no official announcement as to whether or not Egypt has changed its stance on the water sharing issue.

Analysts at the Ministry of Water Resources in Ethiopia believe that Egypt’s new strategic relations with Ethiopia will most likely lead to a shift in Ethiopia’s position [[An Ethiopian proposed article that deals with the possibility of water sharing without causing significant harm to other riparian countries has caused negotiating countries to split into two major blocks: Upper riparian countries, consisting of a host of countries under Ethiopia’s leadership including Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Burundi; against lower riparian countries, made up of Egypt and Sudan]] on the water sharing subject.

Observers have also said that a suggestion by the Ethiopian PM during the MoU ceremony, which indicated that the two countries will, from henceforth, develop the Nile Basin jointly through the Nile Basin Initiative, confirms a future shift. Egyptian Prime Minister, Ahmed Nazif also announced that the two nations had reached a consensus to work together, while insisting that the Egyptian government would do everything possible to enhance the trade and investment ties between the two countries.

Member of the visiting delegation, Mohamed Allam, Irrigation Minister of Egypt also threw some light on the Nile basin issue ahead of the visit. He revealed that Ethiopia has proposed building three medium-sized dams on the Blue Nile to generate electricity for industrial purposes. “We have agreed to the offer as long as it does not affect Egypt’s Nile water quota,” Mr. Allam said.

Huge investments

The first Egyptian delegation headed by Mrs. Fayza Aboulnaga, Minister of International Cooperation was in Ethiopia in October last year. The delegation, which included Amin Abaza, Minister of Agriculture & Land Reform and more than 90 owners, leaders and representatives of nine giant Egyptian companies, met with various Ethiopian officials, including Minister Tefera Derebew of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development who promised agricultural plots to the business delegates.

Among the delegation headed by Mr.Ahmed Nazif were 26 agriculture companies who aspired to inspect the land proposed by Tefera. Most of them have expressed their interest to grow sugar cane and also engage in meat exportation.

Before meeting with PM Meles, PM Nazif visited Elsewedy, an Egyptian cable factory that inaugurated its Ethiopian branch two months ago in Dukem 37 kilometres East of Addis Ababa in the Oromia region. The cable company has also submitted a proposal to Girma Birru, Minister of trade and industry, requesting a huge plot of land for the construction of an industrial zone. This demand should be approved in the coming week.

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