Countries are struggling to agree over the use of the Nile's water, raising questions about cross-border resource management.
Resources rarely respect national boundaries. One of Africa's greatest infrastructure challenges, then, may be the management of natural assets that cross borders, requiring compromise and cooperation on a continent where state-to-state economic relations are rarely cordial. Water may prove the most problematic resource of all. Africa has 15 landlocked countries and 63 trans-boundary river basins. Regional cooperation is not, so far, the norm.
On the back of hydrocarbon discoveries in East Africa's great lakes, Tanzania is seeking international mediation regarding its long-standing border dispute with Malawi over rights to Lake Malawi. Lake Chad's waters, used for farming purposes by Niger, Chad, Cameroon and Nigeria, are depleting at worrying speed but with no framework to govern the activities of each state. "The lake has shrunk very significantly over the last three or four decades, to a small fraction of its original size, and this is having an impact on fisheries dependent on Lake Chad," says Zafar Adeel, director at the International Network on Water, Environment and Health, at the United Nations University.
The Nile, however, is one of the most complex cross-border water resources to manage. The basin now covers 11 countries with a combined population of around 300 million people (Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania and since July 2011, South Sudan). To date there has been no commonly agreed view on how its waters should be shared.
Colonial-era agreements governing the use of the Nile recognised only Egypt and Sudan as users. The latest agreement dated to 1959, allowing Egypt to hold on to its lion's share of the Nile, as well as the power to veto any projects threatening its access to water. No other states in the region - some then under colonial rule - were party to the treaty, and all lacked the muscle to contest it.
Forty years later, the Nile basin countries came together to work out a new legal method for sharing the water. In cooperative spirit, the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) was born, pushed by the likes of Ethiopia to ensure that no one single country would continue to take more than its share of the river. Relations deteriorated in 2010 when a new legal instrument was drafted. The Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) defined principles of cooperation, but not all countries signed. The absence of Egypt and Sudan was most significant.
"Negotiators from Egypt and Sudan could not reach an agreement with the other Nile basin countries on how to implement the notion of 'water security'," says Dr Gabriel Eckstein, professor of law at Texas Wesleyan University School of Law and director of the International Water Law Project. "While Egypt and Sudan wanted the CFA to define water security in view of the current uses and rights already in place, the other nations preferred a broader interpretation that would take into account changing circumstances and needs."
Six upstream countries have so far signed the CFA. Burundi's signing in 2011 achieves the number the CFA needs for ratification and paves the way for the creation of a permanent river basin institution to succeed all rights, obligations and assets of the NBI. But without the input of downstream countries, Egypt and Sudan, this new legal framework merely cements divides.
Although Egypt and Sudan are playing hardball, Ethiopia is still marching ahead with its own plans for the river. The country's energy potential is enormous. Ethiopia's unrealised hydropower capacity stands at 45,000MW; sufficient for the country to become a regional exporter. Neighbouring governments are interested customers. Ethiopia has already signed Memorandum of Understandings with Kenya, Djibouti, South Sudan, Sudan and even Yemen for exporting electricity, and is busily conducting studies for 17 dams on the Nile.
Its most controversial move was to announce the go-ahead for the Grand Renaissance Dam in 2011, its first project on the Blue Nile, and the part of the river from which Egypt receives the majority of its Nile stream flow. The Grand Renaissance Dam, if completed, could produce 5,250MW, making it Africa's largest hydroelectric project.
"Two factors have changed," says Ana Cascão of the Stockholm International Water Policy Institute. "First, the upstream Nile countries [such as Ethiopia] are more willing to develop their water resources to meet development needs; a result of greater economic and political stability compared to a decade ago.
Second, upstream countries now have access to alternative financial support for water development. Most comes from China, although funding does not have to be direct for projects to influence the power balance. Ethiopia's confidence is strengthened by the knowledge that it has the general backing of a wider range of partners who are inputting into other, related parts of the economy such as agriculture. This includes China but also India and countries in the Gulf. Ultimately, this tips the balance of power which historically has favoured Egypt."
Uganda is also building dams, but while Ethiopia's dam programme is more aggressive, Addis is not entirely disengaging with its neighbours. After Ethiopia announced plans for the Grand Renaissance Dam, it was also spearheading the formation of a tripartite committee with Egypt and Sudan, which is producing an independent assessment of positive and negative impacts of the dam on downstream countries. Climate change uncertainties aside, the effect on the Nile's flow will depend upon how quickly Ethiopia fills up the dam, after which the Nile flow should be constant.
"Some dismiss the committee as Ethiopia merely placating its downstream counterparts," says Ms Cascão. "But its inclusion of some of the same high-level representatives from Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia as feature in the NBI is significant."
Egypt, too, is interested in hydropower. Whether technical committees can iron out deeply political issues like water security, however, is another question. "Without a solid legal basis, those technical committees could end as gentlemen's agreements," says Salman Salman, a former water law adviser to the World Bank.
So what happens when the gentlemen change? Without internationally ratified agreements, individual personalities play a major role in determining how regional issues play out, and Ethiopia just lost an important figurehead. "[The late president] Meles Zenawi was a charismatic figure who was a highly skilled negotiator," says Mr Salman. "He was working on his regional engagement strategy for Ethiopia's dam programme for years. It is too early to tell what impact his death may have, but the dam programme is an intrinsic part of his legacy and who knows if the new leader has the political clout and audacity to take it forward."
A trip by new Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi to Addis Ababa for the AU summit in July, however, was significant, and reversed former president Mubarak's reluctance to travel to Africa. But the effect of recent changes in leadership cannot be assumed at this early stage.
A more technical approach has also been floated by a multi-donor trust managed by the World Bank. The Cooperation in International Waters in Africa project, launched in 2011, aims to provide "targeted technical assistance to Nile Basin countries, such as working on pre-feasibility studies for potential regional or trans-boundary investments, designed to improve integrated water resources planning", says programme manager Gustavo Saltiel. Significantly, this initiative does not focus on the development of the CFA.
Ignoring legal questions over mutually agreed water rights poses risks. A 2010 Wikileaks report suggested that Sudan and Egypt were building an airbase in Sudan to launch attacks on Ethiopian dam facilities if negotiations did not go well. Although water is rarely a sole source of conflict, the risk of tension at the local level persists if the Nile's flow is altered. Lori Pottinger from International Rivers' Africa programme and editor of World Rivers Review says: "Ethiopia is playing with fire by turning a blind eye to the conflict its dams could cause... Large dams are a way of controlling water flow, and in a time of climate change, are apt to create conflict among water-stressed downstream communities."
Egypt and Sudan are both politically and economically vulnerable at the present time. Neither government is likely to entertain a conciliatory stance on the legal rights of such a political issue as water security. Increased demand in the region makes some collaboration more necessary than before.
The fact that over 1m hectares of East Africa's agricultural land has been leased to mainly Gulf state corporations since 2000 also indicates that demand for water is not only limited to Nile Basin countries. Technical collaboration might not bind all parties together, but by demonstrating the practical benefits of water as a source for cooperation rather than conflict, they could build trust in the longer-term.