Egypt better off settling water spat with Ethiopia led Nile Basin negotiations

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The Nile river from space
The Nile river from space

Negotiations between the ten countries of the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), April 13 in Sharm Al-Sheikh, hit the wall over Cairo’s refusal to give its stamp of approval to a new Nile water share plan that could see a reduction of its water quota. Egypt enjoys more than half of the Nile River’s water resource by virtue of a treaty signed with Great Britain in 1929. According Mikaïl Barah, a researcher at the Institute of International and Strategic Relations (IRIS), Egypt has everything to gain by changing its attitude. Interview.

“Egypt’s share of the Nile’s water is a historic right that Egypt has defended throughout its history,” Mohammed Allam, minister of water resources and irrigation, told the country’s parliament in Cairo, adding that Egypt saw the matter as a national security issue. “Egypt reserves the right to take whatever course it sees suitable to safeguard its share,” he said. Thus Egypt’s reiteration of its rejection of a new Nile water share plan. Egypt alone enjoys more than half the Nile’s water resource.

A recent Extraordinary Nile Council of Ministers’ Meeting that saw the gathering of all ten Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) member countries at Sharm El-Cheikh, in Egypt, failed to produce an agreement over equitably sharing the Nile’s resources. Egypt, supported by Sudan, refused to give its stamp of approval to a Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA), that seeks to develop the Nile river in a cooperative manner and share its resources equally without causing significant harm to other riparian countries.

A treaty signed in 1929 with Great Britain on behalf of its East African colonies, and another in 1959 between Egypt and Sudan allowed Egypt alone to use 55.5 billion cubic meters (87% of the Nile’s water flow) and Sudan 18.5 cubic meters of water each year: Treaties that upper riparian countries, including Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo, strongly disagree with because they are not signatories. Led by Ethiopia, which contributes to over 80 per cent of the Nile’s water, upper riparian countries among the Nile Basin countries want a fair deal and a departure from pre-independent and colonial treaties.

The issue, which, according to Egypt, has become a matter of national security, could encourage the use of military force should the northern African country feel its interests on the river are threatened. Some analysts fear that these tensions could degenerate into a “water war”. According Mikaïl Barah, a specialist on the subject of Geopolitics of water in the Middle East and also a researcher at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations (IRIS), Egyptian officials “would be better off to contemplate diplomacy today for what they cannot obtain by force tomorrow.” Negotiations on a framework agreement for the sharing of the Nile’s water, held a few days ago between the ten countries of the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), failed. Egypt, drawing on ancient treaties, refuses every move to question its quota. Do you think it is legitimate?

Barah Mikaïl: Undoubtedly, the prevailing formal terms in what concerns the sharing of the Nile’s waters are somewhat unfair. Egyptians and Sudanese lay claim to rights that strips Ethiopia of all rights, despite it (Ethiopia) being the source of 80% of the Nile’s water. As such, the legitimacy of the current situation is weak. And it goes without saying that, given the restructuring of power relations being developed in the Nile basin, an amendment to the current situation needs to be outlined.

Upstream countries have announced that they will sign the Cooperative Framework Agreement, even if Egypt and Sudan refuse to append their signatures. What, in your opinion, could be the eventual consequences?

I think we should refrain from seeing signs of an impending catastrophe, in the near future. Indeed, disagreements remain between Egypt and Sudan on the one hand, and their counterparts in the Nile Basin on the other. Having said that, as time goes on, Egyptians and Sudanese are coming to terms with the counter productivity of the use of military options to mark their authority. With this, I think we should eventually expect some kind of soured government statements and allusions in the coming months, but not enough to see the beginning of a permanent disquiet.

Egypt suspects that ill intentions are being concocted against it in relation to government accords between Ethiopia and Israel to build hydroelectric facilities on the Blue Nile. The same goes for projects planned on the Nile in Uganda. Are these fears justified?

To a certain extent, Egypt is right to dread the nature of Israeli-Ethiopian relations in what concerns Hydraulics. The past has indeed shown that the proposals made by Israel to Ethiopia in this particular area could alter Egypt’s water flow from the Nile. That said, it does not mean that Cairo is right to adopt a wait-and-see attitude. On the contrary, the changing outlook shows that Egypt’s position wont hold for long. The balance of power is changing, and it might probably not be in Egypt’s favor. They would, therefore, be better off contemplating diplomacy today for what they cannot obtain by force tomorrow.

How could the Nile basin countries succeed in changing the status quo? In your opinion, what could help settle the problem?

What is happening in the Nile basin is not different from what takes place among an overwhelming majority of these transborder basins across the world. It brings into focus a lack of cooperation between States concerned by the waters of a same river. Undoubtedly, the solution lies in its equitable sharing. But it behooves them to take into account all the needs of countries involved, particularly in what concerns their respective populations and their needs thereof. Of course, before that, the collective will of all the riparian countries is needed ahead of negotiations for better sharing. If this is not done all efforts will lack a clear vision, and will therefore necessarily be compromised.

Egypt has repeatedly hinted it was prepared to use military action to affirm its “natural right” on the Nile. Do you think that these tensions could degenerate into a “water war”?

That risk is lowered as time goes on, although that possibility can’t be entirely dismissed. Egypt no longer holds the same power it did in the 1980s, when it was endowed with military means that towered over its regional counterparts in Africa. Today, it faces a number of realities that include a deterioration of the Sudanese political environment, the political and diplomatic strength of Ethiopia, and of course a strong political will among world powers not to allow a water conflict in the region. Egypt simply has everything to lose by giving priority to a military solution. A water conflict will clearly isolate Egypt. Moreover, albeit difficult, Egypt’s situation in terms of renewable fresh water is not necessarily fatal.

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