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Nile Basin Management: East Africa’s Emancipation? Print E-mail
Thursday, 16 September 2010
Ethiopia and the EAC riparian states have challenged Egypt’s monopoly on Nile water use through the Nile Basin Initiative. Egypt, in contrast, is categorical in its denial to renegotiate an arrangement that is a colonial legacy, and hampers the other states’ ability to use the Nile for their own agriculture and power generation.

The Nile is one of the world's longest rivers and stretches from southern Rwanda all the way to Egypt in the north of the continent, touching on Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), as well as Eritrea on its way to the north. But the bulk of use of its water goes to Egypt, and has done so for decades. The river’s management is a colonial legacy: It was governed by two treaties, the 1929 and 1959 agreements, that were implemented by Britain with Egypt. The British accorded Egypt very high priority as it was the key to the Suez Canal.

Not surprisingly, East Africa’s rapidly economies have begun to challenge this: The Nile Cooperative Framework Agreement, negotiated over years under the auspices of the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) and signed in May 2010 by Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania, intends to provide for a more equitable allocation of water rights. Yet it is categorically opposed by Sudan and Egypt. The latter had repeatedly asked to defer the signing ceremony, leading to years of delays.

What the East Africans Want
The other Nile riparian states argue that they, too, need the Nile’s water. The river has two tributaries: the Blue Nile, the main source of water and fertile soil, flows from Ethiopia’s Lake Tana into Sudan, and the White Nile, the longer of the two tributaries, flows through Rwanda, Tanzania, Lake Victoria in Uganda into Southern Sudan. Both tributaries converge near Sudan’s capital Khartoum.

Agriculture:
The White Nile from Lake Victoria – which is shared by Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya   contributes only around 16% of the water towards the combined Nile river that flows in Egypt, and its water mostly go towards swamplands in Southern Sudan. Against this background, the Lake Victoria countries question Egypt’s claims on the Nile. Kenya, for example, draws about half its fresh water supply from Lake Victoria and has no irrigation based agriculture even though 80% of its land is arid or semi-arid. This is not the only, but still a material factor in explaining the repeated threat of malnourishment and outbreaks of famine. The countries could therefore expand their agriculture on this part of the Nile fairly legitimately.

Agriculture plays a key role across the East and Horn of Africa region: In Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, the sector contributes between 21% and 26% to GDP, but the percentage is much higher in Ethiopia (44%) and Sudan (32%). Typically, however, the percentage of the overall population that depends on agriculture for its survival is much higher: In Uganda, for example, it is estimated that this figure may go up to 80%, even though much of it is subsistence agriculture with limited productivity, and a sector growth rate often lower than the population growth rate. As a consequence, improved irrigation could have a far wider impact. Ethiopia is the persistent victim of droughts and famines. Dams could, in theory, provide a stable source of water, enabling a longer agricultural cycle than just the seasonal agriculture used right now, and strengthen food production.

Power Generation: A further concern are the insufficient power supplies across the region that have had a negative impact e.g. on manufacturing. Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania derive around two thirds of its electricity supplies from hydropower. Although there are a number of initiatives to diversify energy sources, including coal, wind, solar and geothermal, Ethiopia could not just improve its own power supplies, but hold the key to East Africa’s power problem: When all four phases of the Gibe project are complete, Ethiopia is set to produce up to 5,000MW of hydropower, which it plans to both use locally and sell to its Eastern African neighbours. These plans not only help to resolve a region-wide headache for business, but also represent significant revenue potential for Ethiopia: Projections for the Gibe dam show that Ethiopia was estimating USD400m from energy sales.

Ethiopia is estimated to only make use 10% of its full hydro power potential at the moment – but most of the potential is in the Blue Nile and its rapid descent from the highlands. The Blue Nile, where the Gibe project is situated, provides up to 80% of water to the Aswan dam. While hydropower will have no adverse effect on water volumes to the Nile, according to Dr Khaleed Abou Elnour, a researcher at the Agri–Economic Institute in Giza, Egypt is concerned that Ethiopia may use any of the water for irrigation, which would then reduce water flowing to the Aswan dam, Egypt’s lifeline.

Perspectives
The agreement would end Egypt’s monopoly on the Nile and, ’in a spirit of cooperation allows Nile Basin states to work together to ensure that all states achieve and sustain water security and not significantly affect the water security of any other Nile Basin state.’

But Egypt does see the end of its monopoly as significant harm: The Nile has always been crucial to Egypt’s economy, especially to its food production and agriculture, since ancient times. Egypt feels that if the other countries start harnessing a bigger share of the Nile, it would hamper their own agricultural efforts to grow food. Egypt’s population is estimated to soon exceed 90m, which renders food security issues ever more pressing. And Egypt plans to become more self-sufficient and grow more of its own food, for which the country would require more rather than less water from the Nile. The Nile is crucial to its food supplies, which fall short of demand already: In Egypt, agriculture only contributes around 14% of GDP and the country is classified as a food deficit country by the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP), which has a budget of USD44m for its 2007-2011 programme in Egypt. Having experienced food riots in 2008, Egypt is even more sensitive to any initiatives affecting its food security. Unlike the other countries, Egypt and Sudan do not really have any other freshwater sources.

Negotiations to settle on a co-operative framework agreement have been going on for 13 years, and Egypt has made it quite clear that it does not, in fact, see any justification to negotiate over any reallocation of rights to the Nile’s water, and would resist any attempt to so. Citing its historical right, Egypt considers maintaining its share of the Nile’s water a ‘national security issue’.

Legally, Egypt’s uncompromising position is difficult to defend: The law of treaties states that a country has the right to renegotiate treaties signed by its colonial government. As none of the countries were independent at the time of the 1929 and 1959 agreements, they can therefore renegotiate the treaty. However, to become legally binding, the agreement needs six of the Nile states to sign it. It is open for signature for a one-year period, and the Egyptian government has been trying to convince the remaining countries not sign the agreement. If successful, this could be a deal breaker, though so far neither government has openly sided with Egypt.

The language has certainly been uncompromising and almost militant, but what options does Egypt have, other than leaning on the remaining member states to the Nile Basin Initiative to dissuade them from signing it? When Egypt describe the Nile management as a national security issue, this appears to imply the threat of a military intervention. However, in the current geopolitical circumstances, this still appears unlikely. Not only is Egypt, like several East African states, a close US ally, but it also has trade relations with East Africa, and apart from Tanzania, all the EAC countries as well as Sudan and Ethiopia are COMESA countries, a trade bloc that Egypt also belongs to. It is conceivable, however, that the aggressively pursued investment of Egyptian private equity firm Citadel Capital in the Kenya-Uganda Rift Valley Railway (RVR), a strategic infrastructure project of importance especially for Uganda’s nascent oil sector, was done with the additional intent of reinforcing Egypt’s influence in the region.



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