A Political Storm Hovers Over Calm Nile Water

With 300 million people dependent on the water of the Nile, it is not surprising that a deal on its usage by several countries is difficult to ratify.  As Uganda’s Monitor reports the tenuous and contentious state of discussions have not yet subsided:

“…It’s been a decade of negotiations-sometimes exemplified by mistrust, intrigue and walkouts. And now it appears that Egypt and Sudan are not close to signing the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA), a final deal with seven other countries on how to equitably use waters of the River Nile. The calm waters of the Nile could kick off a dangerous storm after the countries dependent on it failed to agree on equitable usage. Egypt whose lifeblood is the Nile River, appears unwilling to relax on the rigid colonial agreements that gave her near-absolute rights on the usage of the water against the interests of other stakeholders particularly Uganda that hosts the origin of the waters.

The two colonial-era-agreements in 1929 and 1959 gave Egypt and Sudan preferential rights to use 100 per cent of the river Nile waters. The 6,695km (4,160 mile) River Nile, the second longest river in the world has for decades been a source of both water and conflict for the 10 countries of Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania, Eritrea and Burundi that share it. However, Eritrea holds observer status to the Nile Basin. Currently though, seven of these countries are required to first seek permission from Cairo before embarking on any large scale development projects on the river that would affect the level and flow of the waters.

Water deal

Under the proposed Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA), this would change. With a legal framework in place, Egypt’s share of the Nile water would reduce as all countries within the Nile Basin would have equal access to the river’s resources that would include engaging in large scale energy, irrigation and industrial projects. The CFA would replace the current Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), a transitional arrangement formed in 1999 to allow for negotiations that would later give way to a permanent commission. The secretariat of the transitional body is currently hosted by Uganda.

The Nile basin countries had argued that the bilateral agreement between Egypt and former colonial rulers-Britain was outdated and that other countries within the Nile had not consented to it. In fact Kenya has consistently said it does not recognise the treaty that gave Egypt powers to control the River Nile waters. But while the 1999 transitional agreement provides a level playing field for sharing the water, it is hoped that a final legal agreement would pave way for all Nile countries to benefit equally and not have to seek permission from Egypt before carrying out any development project.

It now seems that after 10 years of intense negotiations and previous promises to clinch a deal by 2010, Egypt and Sudan are reluctant to entertain the idea of a new Nile Water Agreement. At a meeting two weeks ago in the Egyptian city of Sharm el Sheikh, the countries failed to reach an inclusive deal with Sudan and Egypt even though it had been highly anticipated that they could sign the CFA. According to a statement from NBI, seven out of the nine Nile basin countries have said they will, without necessarily involving Egypt and Sudan go ahead with the signing of the CFA based on the decisions of the Extraordinary Nile Council of Ministers meeting held in May 2009 in Kinshasa-DRC.

“During the extraordinary Nile Council of Ministers meeting, Burundi, DRC, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda agreed that with regard to the signing procedure, we should open the Cooperative Framework Agreement from 14th May, 2010 and it shall remain open for not more than one year,” the statement reads. The statement, however, adds that Egypt and Sudan have rejected the position by the seven countries saying that the proposal “reflects only the views of seven States.” Uganda’s state minister for Water, Ms Jennifer Namuyangu said in an interview that the countries will now go ahead and sign the Nile River Basin Commission as they await Egypt and Sudan to reverse their stand.

“Hopefully then, it will create some level of confidence among the two countries so that they can sign the CFA,” said Ms Namuyangu. Asked what would happen if the one year elapses before the two countries sign the agreement, Ms Namuyangu said she was still optimistic that “they would change their standpoint.” “We are already in agreement with them on all the articles of the agreement except the sticking issue of water security,” explained Ms Namuyangu.

Contentious words

Article 14, part (b) of the agreement talks about water security and how it will be used. Egypt wants that bit changed before it can put pen to paper. It is said that the main words of disagreement in the article refer to “current uses” and “rights”. Analysts say Egypt is unlikely to give up its preferential rights as a major determinant of what activity takes place along the Nile, although it has strongly denied this claim saying the country is committed to a deal that allows riparian countries to undertake development projects on the Nile.

Under the colonial-era-treaty, Egypt is guaranteed access to 55.5bn cubic metres of water while Sudan gets 14.5 billion cubic meters of the total of 84bn every year. When NBI marked 10 years in Dar el Salam in December 2009, Dr Mohamed El-Din Allam, the Egyptian minister for water and irrigation, who is also the current chairperson of the Nile Council of Ministers, told Sunday Monitor in an interview that while his country was committed to seeing a deal inked, joint water use agreements are not easy to achieve and it could take years before a deal is reached. He cited the Columbia and Senegal basin initiatives which took decades before countries could agree on sharing the water resources.

“For some it took over three decades, but that doesn’t mean that we need three decades to reach an agreement as most of the items have been finalised,” Dr Allam said. “It is the issue of water security that is only left. This is not like going to the shop and buying an item, you are deciding the destiny of countries and it’s critical and sensitive.”

Earlier deals

The negotiations for a joint deal started as early as 1997 and since then, numerous meetings and conferences have been held in various capitals of the riparian countries, including coming up with joint projects especially in the area of water management, generation of hydropower development and irrigation for large scale agriculture. However, since Egypt must consent to other nations’ use of the Nile water, most of the other basin countries have not developed projects that use the water extensively.

Controversy Over Use of Nile River Water

In a presentation on the NBI and the CFA, Dr Callist Tindimugaya, a commissioner for water regulation in Uganda’s Ministry of Water and Environment, said although the Nile has great potential for social-economic development, most of the people who live within the basin are not benefitting from its possible applications in development projects like irrigation to boost modern farming. They thus remain very poor.

Population pressure

Experts also worry that a fast growing population is putting enormous pressure on the water resources. The Nile currently sustains life for at least 300 million people in the 10 basin countries. Most of the basin countries have also not developed projects in great potential that this river has for hydropower generation.

This entry was posted on Sunday, May 9th, 2010 at 7:58 pm and is filed under Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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