Egypt, African countries dispute share of Nile River

Sunday, October 31st, 2010
Nile Basin

A 1959 treaty gives Egypt the greater water management share. Photo By Dina Samra

Four Nile basin upstream countries, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda and Ethiopia, bypassed Egypt and signed a new agreement in May aimed at redistributing their shares of Nile water.

Kenya, Burundi and Congo are expected to sign the agreement within a few months.

The new treaty, partially funded through loans from the World Bank, IMF and the gas-rich state of Qatar, is meant to help the upstream countries build new projects, mainly dams to generate hydroelectric power, for development projects.

“Such loans and investments are for mere economic reasons,” said Mona Abdel Baki, assistant professor of economics at the American University in Cairo.

“About 80 percent of the water reaching Uganda and Ethiopia is used to build dams that can generate electricity to be sold and for irrigation,” she said.

Abdel Baki also pointed to climate change as a possible catalyst for the May agreement. In past decades, upstream countries heavily depended on rain for their irrigation needs.

“Now, it’s different, rain is becoming more and more scarce,” Abdel Baki added.

However, the construction of dams and related projects may be in violation of the 1929 Nile Basin Agreement, because they might restrict the volume of water reaching the downstream countries, chiefly Egypt and Sudan.

The 1929 agreement assigned Egypt a share of 55.5 billion cubic meters and 18 billion cubic meters for Sudan. In 1959, another agreement was reached following the July 26 Revolution.

But African nations, which have gained independence from colonialism in the past six decades and have undergone population growth, say the agreement needs revising.

Riparian countries, those which share the river basin with Egypt, say they can no longer stand Cairo’s control over the Nile water.

“If you think about it, the 1929 agreement was not fair,” said Abdel Baki. “It was signed under the influence of colonial powers. African nations were underdeveloped. Egypt was the main cotton supplier for Great Britain and agriculture of cotton needs a lot of water.”

“Now, Egypt is trying to use arguable international laws to invalidate any new treaties meant to substitute the 1959 one,” added Abdel Baki.

But Yoweri Museveni, the Ugandan president, told Egyptian media recently that it is environmental dangers, and not politics, that are threatening the Nile.

Museveni said that the lack of investment and development in the upstream sources is a real threat to the Nile. He mentioned that the unavailability of enough electricity urged the farmers to cut trees to use them as fuel and this harms the environment.

“Sixty percent of the rain reaching us comes from the Pacific Ocean and 30% is from inner rains. Cutting down trees intervenes with that 60%,” Museveni told The Ahram Weekly.

He stated that the Nile is as important for the upstream countries as it is for Egypt. “Ethiopia is suffering from famines. The Nile is not a matter of life or death to Egypt only,” he said.

Adel Beshai, a professor of economics at AUC, is not surprised that upstream nations are calling on Egypt to revise the 1959 agreement.

Most of the projects will not affect the amount of water reaching us. We need not worry, we just need more cooperation with African countries,” he said.

In recent years, ties between Cairo and upstream capitals have been affected by the ongoing Nile water distribution debate.

Beshai says that Egyptian economic, political and cultural partnerships with these countries and Africa as a whole need to improve.

One way to achieve this is for Egypt to use the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), a partnership launched by riparian countries promoting regional co-operation and security in 1999, to enhance collaboration with upstream countries.

Egypt has traditionally been at the helm of the NBI and has supported numerous projects within the Nile basin countries to improve their infrastructure and irrigation systems.

NBI also feeds into the Nile Equatorial Lakes Subsidiary Action Program (NELSAP) which is designed to utilize with maximum efficiency the lakes of the Southern portion of the Nile Basin.

A source at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs spoke to The Caravan on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press.

He said that Egypt is trying its best to sort this problem out diplomatically through its NBI efforts hoping to see that coming to fruition.

“Egypt considers any tampering with the Nile waters as being a matter of national security,” he said.

He also pointed out that it is in Egypt’s best interest that Sudan remains a unified country. An expected referendum next year could likely see the country dividing into northern and southern states.

A South Sudan would not be, therefore, legally bound to abide by the 1959 agreement. “The southern part could emerge as a rival opposing the old agreement too,” Abdel El Baki says.

In the meantime, Egypt is continuing to find alternative solutions and launch joint ventures with African countries to supervise projects on the Nile. Currently, irrigation projects comprise about 70 percent of water consumption.

There is also a framework agreement to transform the Nile river basin initiative into a commission to be legally recognized by all sectors. Upstream countries are leaving the floor for negotiations open till May 2011 expecting Egypt and Sudan to sign the new agreement by that time.

Abdel Baki, however, feels that Egypt’s irrigation methods need to be improved., as current methods are inefficient and wasteful of resources. A lot of water is consumed by water-absorbing crops such as rice and sugar cane.

“We have to reconsider the way we are using our water. Farmers who irrigate their fields in the morning should rethink about that because most of the water evaporates. Irrigation at night should be considered,” she said.



its the question of survival,not politics that upstream countries should benefit from the Nile. As its known the upstream countries are living on the mercy of nature,which is degraded from time to time because of the increasing global warming. In my opinion Egypt should consider these move positively,otherwise it will be reasonable for the upstream countries to pay any cost when it comes to life. I don't think there is a huge difference between dying in hunger and dying in war....