25 June 2013

Africa: The Nile Basin States Are Gifts of the River


"Egypt is the gift of the Nile." This Fifth Century BC pronouncement of Greek Historian Herodotus was reaffirmed when Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi declared that his country is keen not to risk losing a "single drop of Nile water" on which their civilisation is based.

Speaking to supporters, President Mursi declared that Egypt had no intentions to wage war against Ethiopia but vowed to keep all options open. According to Ayman Shabaana, political science professor at Cairo University, the Nile is the state and a threat to the river constitutes a threat to national security.

President Mursi's remarks came following a move a by Ethiopian authorities to divert the waters of the Blue Nile to in advance of its planned $4.7 billion (Sh403.4 billion) dollar Grand Renaissance Dam. This will be Africa's largest hydropower plant, producing 6,000 megawatts of electricity and creating a reservoir with a capacity of 63 billion cubic metres.

A report of a tripartite technical committee comprising Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan has announced that its findings are inconclusive on the planned dam's effects on Egypt and Sudan. However, it is estimated that Egypt could lose up to 20 per cent of its "water share" over the three-five years needed to fill the dam. Over the last couple of weeks, bellicose rhetoric, including talk of hostile acts to force Ethiopia to halt the dam has raised concerns of conflict over the waters of the Nile.

With an annual discharge of 2,830 cubic metres per second, just six per cent of the mighty Congo River, the Nile basin is worryingly water constrained. The population of its upstream neighbours are growing rapidly, fueling increased demand for more water and food.

Projections by the UN show that the combined population of the Nile Basin countries will grow to circa 340 million by 2030. The enduring ghosts of the colonial agreements, which preclude inclusive upstream cooperation, aggravate this grim reality.

The agreements are absurd. For example, Ethiopia, the source of the Blue Nile, which contributes an estimated 85 per cent of the Nile River, has no rights over the water to the extent that it infringes the natural and historical rights of Egypt in the waters of the Nile.

A 1929 agreement with Britain-representing East African colonies-gave Egypt the right to veto upstream projects that would affect its "water share". With the posturing in Cairo, Egypt is essentially defending its unbridled historic rights over the Nile waters.

The enduring binding nature of the treaty beyond the British colonial rule is largely because of the compulsory transmission of all the rights and obligations of the predecessor upstream colonial state to their independent successor.

Egypt's natural and historical rights over the Nile waters was challenged in 2010 when a new water-sharing agreement, Nile Cooperative Framework Agreement, was signed among six upstream states, including Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania. Congo and South Sudan have signaled that they will sign the CFA.

Last week, Ethiopia's Parliament ratified the Nile Cooperative Framework Agreement; an agreement intended to replace colonial-era agreements that gave Egypt and Sudan the biggest share of the Nile waters.

Buoyed by this ratification, Ethiopia has indicated that it is happy to talk with the Egyptians but such talks would not entertain any consideration to halt or delay the construction of the dam.

Unanimous agreement and ratification of the CFA has not been achieved largely because of unhelpful inclusion of the nebulous notion of "water security" and the insistence by Egypt and Sudan that Article 14 (b) should obligate upstream states not to adversely affect their water security and current uses and rights.

Egypt and Sudan are also unyielding in their demand for early notification mechanism before upstream countries undertake any irrigation or hydropower projects. Egypt wants the CFA to guarantee its access to the historical 55.5 billion cubic metres based on the 1959 agreement with Sudan.

Given the enduring colonial legacy, the Nile is the only major river basin without a permanent legal and institutional framework for its use and management.

Herodotus was wrong. All the Nile basin states are the gift of the Nile.

Egypt and Sudan must return to the negotiating table. They must work cooperatively with the upstream Nile basin states on inclusive binding rights and responsibilities, beyond distracting and unattainable delusions such as water security. Relinquishing exclusive rights over the waters of the Nile is the bitter but necessary pill Egypt and Sudan must swallow.

Dr. Awiti is the Director of the East African Institute and Assistant Professor at Aga Khan University

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