10 April 2011
Last week saw several measures by Egypt to step up efforts at ameliorating dialogue and cooperation with other Nile Basin countries.
The action could not have been more timely. According to its Water and Energy Minister Alemayehu Tegenu, Ethiopia is determined to go ahead with its USD4.76 billion Grand Millenium Dam project on the Blue Nile near the Ethiopian Sudanese border, “with or without foreign grants or loans”. The project should generate 5,250 megawatts of electricity for the power-hungry Ethiopia. The Blue Nile is the source of the annual inundation of the River Nile and, as such, is the source of Egypt’s yearly water supply.
Tanzania is planning to draw water for domestic use from Lake Victoria—the source of the regular Nile water supply flowing downstream—without informing Egypt. The Ugandan Ministry of Water deputy director for urban water Elizabeth Kingu said the USD85.1 million project would be partly funded by the Tanzanian government and the World Bank. Asked about Egypt and Sudan’s concerns, she said, based on the previous experience, “the quantity of water drawn or to be drawn is very little compared with the size of the lake.”
According to Mahmoud Abu-Zeid, water expert, former water resources minister, and current consultant to the Egyptian Cabinet, the Egyptian government has placed the Nile River water issue as a priority issue on its agenda. “It is a national security issue,” he said.
What worries Egypt most, Dr Abu-Zeid explains, are efforts by some Nile Basin States to scrap the “No Harm” provision of previous Nile treaties which were signed and have been in force since the early 20th century. All these treaties included a provision which requires that upstream uses of the Nile waters not interfere with the uses and rights of the downstream countries, Egypt and Sudan. It must be noted that while all the other riparian States have considerable rainfall, Egypt is practically an arid land that depends in full on the Nile for its water. It’s annual quota of Nile water amounts to 55.5 billion cubic metres.
Last May, however, five riparian States out of a total ten—Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), as well as Eritrea as an observer—signed a new Framework Agreement for the equitable use of the Nile waters. The new agreement strips Egypt of its veto right in case any project upstream threatens its water quota. This year, Burundi became the sixth country to sign.
The Framework Agreement, according to Abu-Zeid, does not annul the previous agreements. As long as Egypt does not sign, the agreement cannot be binding to Egypt, and the previous agreements as well as the 1997 UN law concerning rivers which allows no international financing for river projects unless all riparian countries agree, are valid. Egypt, however, becomes excluded from discussing any projects on the upper Nile. But if it signs, it will be party to such discussions but can veto no project that threatens its lifeline.
In an unprecedented move, the Egyptian efforts come by both the government and the public.
PM Essam Sharaf paid a recent visit to both the Sudan and the South Sudan. In both visits he was warmly received on both the official and the public levels.
The ‘national dialogue’ that is ongoing between the government and the Egyptian public as represented by civil society institutions and the independent media, bred a similar dialogue on the level of the Ministry of Water Resources to tackle the issue of the Nile waters.
The minister Hussein el-Atfi noted that there were proposals to establish a fund to support investment and to found a common market among the Nile Basin countries. They also included initiatives to improve relations with the Nile Basin countries in order to reach a compromise that achieves the interests of all countries without prejudicing water and development rights.
Foreign Minister Nabil al-Arabi recently met his Tanzanian counterpart Bernard Kamillius Membe who was on a visit to Cairo during which he said that his country understands the sensitivity of the water issue for the Egyptians as well as the importance the River Nile represents for Egypt. He said his country “will conduct a review of the [outstanding points] in the Framework Agreement to set the order of priorities.” Egypt, he said, would be among these priorities. Tanzania, he said, could live without the Nile River because it has other water resources, but Egypt cannot. The declaration worked to allay Egyptian fears.
Mr Membe pointed out that Tanzania has upgraded its road network and banking system with an eye to becoming a trade hub for the region.
Meanwhile, Abdel-Fattah Motawee who until last week headed the Nile Water Department at the Water Resources Ministry and was on a visit to Addis Ababa said that any country in the Nile Basin should not unilaterally implement projects that may harm the water shares of the other basin countries. Cairo, for its part, will not oppose any project that does not to undermine other countries’ water shares,” he explained, citing Egypt’s past assistance to Sudan and Uganda to build dams.
A visit to Addis Ababa by Dr Atfi and by Egypt’s Power Minister Hassan Yunis is scheduled later this month. Yunis should be discussing with his Ethiopian counterpart the resumption of the electric linkage project between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia. The project involves the erection of a 500KV 560km-long electric line from Mandaya in Ethiopia to Kosti in Sudan, and a 1650km direct current line from Kosti to Nag Hammadi in Southern Egypt. The line would make it possible for Ethiopia to export some 3200 megawatts of power produced in the country’s hydroelectric power plants to Sudan and Egypt. Egypt also trains young technicians and administrators form Nile Basin countries to run the electrical networks back home. Which proves, according to Dr Yunis, that Egypt is not against Nile projects in other riparian states, only against those which threaten its water quota.
Church plays a role
Sources from the Egyptian Coptic Church said that Pope Shenouda III is communicating with the Ethiopian church in an effort to help resolve the water crisis.
Sources said that a trip by the Pope to Ethiopia has been suggested.
Bishop Morcos, head of the information committee at the Holy Synod, said the strong ties between the two churches may help resolve the crisis, and said, “we won’t hold back in performing our roles if political leadership asks for that.”
The Ethiopian Bishop Boules visited Egypt at the end of 2010 and prayed with Pope Shenouda. They Coptic Church sources said Pope Shenouda is willing to travel to Ethiopia—although he has recently come home from a medical trip in the US—for the sake of Egypt’s security.
Pope Shenouda is expected to persuade the Ethiopian church to convince the government there not to escalate the water problem with Egypt and Sudan.
However, the Ethiopian Church said the situation was difficult in light of the secular nature of the Ethiopian government.