Cooperating on transboundary water is a must, not an option said Fekiahmed Negash, CEO of Eastern Nile Technical Regional Office (ENTRO), when speaking about Nile-sharing countries.
Fekiahmed said that the Nile Basin provides many challenges and opportunities to the member countries; and sidelining the challenges, "the river provides a huge development potential for the Basin countries." Even the challenges can be transformed into an opportunity and can serve as an avenue for cooperation rather than being an area of contention.
As per many research findings, the Nile Basin countries are feeling the pressure of expanding population requirements for food production, and energy to develop their countries more than ever, making cooperation a necessity - the kind that involves integrative and holistic water resource management and utilization.
"Although there is water shortage, if they are able to cooperate there is a huge power potential in the Basin that can further develop. For instance, in Ethiopia's highland areas, there is potential for dam building, water reservoir and power generating. In the same token, there is huge irrigation potential in Sudan and Ethiopia."
According to a 2014 flagship paper of Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) titled 'Nile Cooperation Opportunities and Challenges', the Basin countries can also cooperate to address the root cause of watershed degradation, which is costing them millions of dollars. The paper also mentions avenues for cooperation to harness agricultural opportunities, to reap socio-economic and ecosystem benefits, among others.
There were long standing cooperation on Nile, which for the most part was not carried out on a basis of fairness, the CEO says, however, since the NBI was established in 1999, the countries were doing parallel work to bring about better benefit for all, one of which was to create legal and institutional framework. This bore out the, Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) to equitably share the Nile waters, which was signed by six countries on May, 2010.
Regarding the NBI, Prof. Yacob Arsano of Addis Ababa University and Senior Researcher on the Nile River, once said that the initiative has been able to bring the riparian countries on board for dialogue towards establishing plans for cooperative utilization and management of water resources, and to make an effort towards establishing a legal institutional framework.
The cooperation work is being done through NBI, for the most part relates to capacity building, creating trust and promoting information sharing.
"Especially the work done on promoting information and knowledge sharing on the Basin area have opened the situation where the countries can better cooperate and trust each other compared to the previous years' trends, where distrust and suspicion reigned supreme." Now, he believes that the interest to utilize the water cooperatively is getting strong, he adds.
In addition to this, projects that use the water and land resource around the Basin in an integrated manner were being built on the ground.
One of those projects is the Nile Basin integrated conservation work, which is intended to improve the living conditions of the people who depend on the water. And this work has been done in Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt.
Another one is the Eastern Nile irrigation development project. Through this project, currently a 30 thousand hectare irrigation work is being undertaken. Similarly in Sudan, the irrigation work covers 7500 hectares of land at the Upper Atbara River, and on 30 thousand hectares of land in Egypt.
The Ethio-Sudan power trade is prepared through ENTRO, where Ethiopia is selling up to 200 MW for Sudan for the past 3 to 4 years. There was also a study conducted on potential power trade, where it showed that if Ethiopia manages to generate 3200 MW of power for Sudan and Egypt, every country can benefit. But, since Egypt left the cooperation framework, it is halted.
However, Ethiopia and Egypt are currently working to install 2000 MW based on this study in another framework. In addition to this, there are studies that have been done on Baro Akobo River. There are also many other projects that are about to undertaken in East Nile.
And in terms of utilizing a common agro-hydrology model with in the Basin, Fekiahmed mentions the Baro-Akobo-Sobat Basin development project.
He says that this project aims to integrate the water resource that exists between Ethiopia and South Sudan. "It is a multidimensional project, which also includes Basin conservation, energy trade, fishery and many other sectoral works within it." Though the project is undertaken in South Sudan and Ethiopia, the CEO notes that Sudan and Egypt will also benefit from this project indirectly.
The Nile doesn't only provide an avenue for cooperation between the Basin countries, but it also presents an opportunity for investment.
According to NBI, despite some investment at national level and accomplishments at multilateral level, investment in water-related infrastructure is only a fraction of the region's potential.
"There is huge opportunity for investment. There are many projects that are bankable for the private sector." But, he contends that suitable conditions should be created for the private sector to enter into that - and one such conducive condition is cooperation.
For Fekiahmed, legal agreement and institutions that administer the water are pivotal in order for the countries to cooperate. "So far, such conditions are not created yet. We have no binding framework that every country agreed upon. We don't have lasting institution as well. These institutions we have now are temporary ones."
He mentions various root reasons why such thing don't exist in the Basin countries. "There is historical relation between the countries. And this historical relation has its own effect on water cooperation. The geopolitics is there. The water politics is there. The economy is there as well. The balance of power is also another issue. All these variables decide the outcome of the relation that would exist over the water."
Nevertheless, the Basin countries should cooperate over water as it is a must and not an an option, he underscores. He continues to say that it is difficult to answer when and how the countries will come to this acknowledgment, as they are sovereign states, and make their own decisions.
However, "there is no alternative to cooperation in the Nile Basin", as there are potential risks associated with noncooperation that ranges from negative impacts on water quantity and distribution to intensification of environmental degradation.