Sharing the Nile

03-01-2012 04:29 PM

Samira al-Mazahy


“Egypt and the Nile Basin: Between Past, Present and Future,” was the topic of a recent lecture at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (BA) in which the speaker was Mahmoud Abu-Zeid, President of the Arab Water Council and Former Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation in Egypt.

WATANI International
3 January 2012
 
“Egypt and the Nile Basin: Between Past, Present and Future,” was the topic of a recent lecture at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (BA) in which the speaker was Mahmoud Abu-Zeid, President of the Arab Water Council and Former Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation in Egypt. 
The event was organised by the BA’s Centre for Special Studies and Programs (CSSP), in collaboration with the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World’s Arab Regional Office (TWAS-ARO).
Agreements and disagreement
The focus was on relations between Egypt and the Nile Basin countries, and the conventions and initiatives that regulate the use of the Nile waters coveted so much by all the riparian States. Yet Egypt, the downstream country where the Nile ends its more than 6000km journey, is practically a desert that only came to life through the waters Nile and, as such, requires guarantees that its lifeblood water supply would never be threatened. Upstream countries, however, also claim their right to the Nile waters, an essential requirement for any development efforts.
Abu-Zeid reviewed the current Egyptian water situation, Egyptian plans to deal with it, and Egypt’s future water requirements. 
Agreements to share the Nile waters between the riparian States go back to colonial times in 1891, and they all honour Egypt’s right to veto upstream projects which threaten its water quota.
The Nile Basin Initiative was signed in 1998 and involved that study of projects to exploit the Nile waters in a manner that would totally respect the needs of every country, encroaching upon the rights and needs of none. The initiative resulted in some 22 studies, and donor countries were willing to mange the funding which invariably falls high above the means of any of the riparian States.
During 2010 and 2011, however, six upstream riparian States signed the Cooperative Framework Agreement which establishes an independent commision to study Nile projects and decide on them, practically annulling Egypt’s right to approve projects. 
Mismanagement
Abu-Zeid noted that the Nile water share per capita has significantly decreased through the years, mainly owing to the rise in population in all the Nile Basin countries. The per capita share which amounted to 12050 cubic metre in 1950, he said, went down to 7310 cubic metre in 2000, and is expected to further drop to 5210 in 2035. 
The 11 Nile Basin countries, Abu-Zeid reminded, include four of the poorest in the world, and house a population of some 300 million, expected to rise to 380 million by 2025. Most of these countries, he said, suffer of inadequate infrastructure as well as increasing desertification.
Yet the problem with sharing the Nile waters, he insisted, is not one of shortage or insufficiency—the waters are ample; it is one of severe mismanagement. A significant proportion of Nile water is lost to evapouration or flows into the Mediterranean without being exploited, he said.
What to do
All the above, according to Abu-Zeid, underscores the need for dialogue, cooperation, and exchange of experience in order for all the riparian States to make best use of the Nile waters. Only 4 per cent of the potential hydropower of the Nile is currently being exploited, he said. Also largely untapped is the river’s fish wealth and its use to transport people and goods.
As far as Egypt—whose population is expected to rise to 125 million in 2050—is concerned, Abu-Zeid explained, there is a dire need for comprehensive management of water resources, allowing the private sector a bigger role in water projects, regulating water usage, and developing modern irrigation systems. Egypt will have to resort to sustainable use of its underground water and to desalinating seawater—Egypt has extensive shores along both the Mediterranean and Red seas. And Egypt must carry out studies on climate change, Abu-Zeid stressed, since that is bound to affect its water policy.  
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