27 March 2011
The 6850 km-long Nile is the only north flowing river in North Africa and the longest river in the world. It flows in ten African countries, including Egypt and Sudan, and is remarkable for its ample basin which extends 2.9 million square kilometres wide.
The Nile has two major tributaries. The first is the White Nile which rises in the Great Lakes region of Central Africa, passing through Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and Sudan, then finally flowing into Egypt and on to the Mediterranean Sea. The second tributary is the Blue Nile, which sources from Lake Tana in Ethiopia, channels down the Ethiopian gorge and on to the plains of Sudan to join the White Nile at Khartoum and on into Egypt. The Blue Nile brings the annual flood caused by the monsoon rains on the Ethiopian plateau in summer, carrying to Egypt the abundant waters and alluvial mud responsible for the legendary fertility of the land.
Several treaties have always organised each of the riparian States’ share of the Nile water. Treaties signed by Egypt in 1891, 1902, 1906, 1925, 1929, 1959, 1991, and 1993—the two major ones were the 1929 and the 1959 agreements—all centred on not implementing any projects on the Nile upstream or its tributaries that would negatively affect Egypt’s water quota. While all the other riparian States have ample rainfall, Egypt’s water supply comes almost fully from the Nile. The 1929 Nile Waters Agreement also gave Egypt the right to inspect and investigate the whole length of the Nile up to the remote sources of its tributaries in these territories. The agreement allocated to Egypt 48 billion cubic metres per year of Nile water as its acquired right, while that of the Sudan was four billion cubic metres per year.
In 1959, the Full Utilisation of the Nile Waters agreement was signed between Egypt and Sudan, allowing the construction of the Aswan High Dam as the major element in control of the Nile waters for the benefit of the two countries. This agreement stipulated that Sudan’s yearly water allotment of the water which flows into the two countries would rise from 4 billion cubic metres to 18.5 billion cubic metres, and Egypt’s would rise to 55 billion. The Sudan was allowed to undertake a series of Nile development projects, such as the Rosieres Dam and the Jonglei Canal.
The 1929 agreement has been criticised by the east African riparian countries as a colonial relic. And while east African countries are eager to make greater use of the river—especially given more frequent spells of drought—Egypt fears any threat to its lifeblood.
The Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) which was signed in 1999 by the water ministers of the riparian States, is a partnership among the Nile riparian states that “seeks to develop the river in a cooperative manner, share substantial socioeconomic benefits, and promote regional peace and security”. It was formally launched in February by the nine countries which then shared the river: Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), as well as Eritrea as an observer—today South Sudan has become the tenth State. Since its inception, the NBI was supported by the World Bank, as well as by the NBI countries themselves and through the generous support of several multilateral and bilateral donors. The financial mechanisms in support of the NBI were designed to maximize riparian ownership and control of the process; to meet donor requirements for fiduciary accountability; and to provide timely and efficient administration of funds.
“Tired of Egypt”
In May 2010, five upstream States signed the River Nile Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) to seek more water from the Nile, a move which was strongly opposed by Egypt and Sudan. Earlier this month Burundi signed the agreement, leaving out only Egypt, Sudan and Congo. Representatives of upstream countries said they were “tired of first getting permission from Egypt before using the Nile water for any development project like irrigation,” as required by the treaty signed in 1929. The new agreement, once effective, is designed to replace the NBI.
“This agreement does not exempt the six countries from their commitments towards Egypt,” said Hussein al-Atfi, former minister of water resources and irrigation. But, he added, the agreement will not be activated unless nine countries sign. The six signatories so far, he said, are not in agreement on the details of the accord.
“Cooperation between the Nile Basin countries is very significant in that it can secure every country’s water rights,” Dr Atfi noted, admitting that Egypt’s role with the other riparian nations has witnessed a recent recession in the view of the turmoil in the country. The new Cabinet headed by Essam Sharaf, however, is expected to give the matter due attention.
On the ground, Egypt never disregarded relations with Nile Basin countries as some allege. Through its Egyptian Fund for Technical Cooperation with Africa, Egypt has allocated a full budget to be used for grants and aids to African nations.
In recent years, Egypt established hospitals in Ethiopia, and offered more than 300 training courses in Cairo to people from Nile Basin countries, on such topics as agriculture, irrigation, and power generation and networks.
Since 1925, Egypt has regularly contributed, through technical and financial support, in projects to maintain the water course upstream the Nile and clear it of weeds, as well as in water projects and power generation.
In 1925, Egypt established the Senar dam on the Blue Nile for the benefit of Sudan. In 1937, it financed a power generation project at Jabal al-Awliya’ on the White Nile south of Khartoum. In 1945, it financed the construction of the Owen Falls Dam in Lake Victoria in Uganda, and has contributed to its annual operational expenses. Egyptian engineers are there permanently to supervise the operation of the dam for the benefit of both countries. In 1991, Egypt helped expand the hydroelectric power station at the Owen reservoir.
In 2004, Egypt dug ten wells in Kenya, within a project to dig 40 wells financed by an Egyptian grant of USD2 million.
A water research centre was established by Egypt in Tanzania and, upon the request of the Congolese government, Egypt is extending technical aid towards developing water management in Congo.
An Egyptian grant of some USD14 million was used in 2004 to clear the lakes Victoria and Kyoga in Uganda and Tanzania of weeds for the benefit of the local fishermen, which have been cleaned up several times. Another USD13.9 million grant was later extended by Egypt for the second phase of the project.
Economy expert Mukhtar al-Sherif told Watani that Egypt’s preoccupation with its current internal upheaval was among the factors which drove Burundi to sign the agreement. Egypt and Sudan, Dr Sherif reminded, had stressed that any agreement ought to be unanimous and that the downstream countries ought to approve projects upstream since, admittedly, they stand to affect their water rights. The Border Dam planned in Ethiopia, for instance, he said, is one of four projected dams on the Blue Nile which could decrease the water quota of Egypt and Sudan. Dr Sherif reminds that upstream countries, including Ethiopia, depend on rainfall for their water, but Egypt is almost completely dependent on the Nile as its only sustainable source of water.
“The matter should be resolved through peaceful cooperation among the Nile Basin countries,” Dr Sherif says, “bearing in mind the significance of international agreements. The media, whether in Egypt or in other countries, should not exacerbate the differences, but should allow the economic and water experts handle of the crisis. Then comes the role of the politicians.”
Mahmoud Abu-Zeid, former minister of water resources and irrigation, said that the six countries signing the agreement is not the end of the road, there is still room for future cooperation. And there is no peril threatening Egypt’s water quota, he said, by any number of dams Ethiopia may build. Is he being over-optimistic?