Africa, Development & Aid, Headlines, Middle East & North Africa

EGYPT: Unquiet Flows the Nile

Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa Al-Omrani

CAIRO, Jun 21 2009 (IPS) - Differences over sharing of Nile waters may have deepened following the failure among the nine countries along the Nile to come to an agreement.

Egypt refused to sign a long-negotiated water-sharing agreement at the talks held in late May. Egyptian experts say the proposed treaty failed to guarantee a fair share of Nile water.

“Egypt’s position on the matter isn’t new,” Hani Raslan, head of the department for Sudan and Nile Basin countries at the Cairo-based Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies told IPS. “Egypt has the right to maintain its current share of Nile water under international law.”

Under the two Nile treaties signed in 1929 and 1959, Egypt has the right to consume up to 55.5 billion cubic metres per year of Nile water.

“Egypt’s longstanding right to this amount was only referred to in the treaty as a postscript,” said Raslan. “It was not included in the main text of the proposed NBI (Nile Basin Initiative) agreement, prompting Egypt to reject it.”

“We will not concede our historic share of Nile water,” minister for water resources and irrigation Mohamed Nasreddin Allam was quoted as saying in independent daily Al-Dustour Jun. 2. Two days later, Allam declared that Egypt and Sudan had agreed that neither would relinquish water rights as stipulated in previous agreements.

“For Egypt, a threat to the Nile constitutes a threat to national security,” Ayman Shebaana, political science professor at Cairo University told IPS. “In the 1970s, when Ethiopia prepared to embark on river projects that infringed on Egypt’s share of water, (late president Anwar) Sadat threatened to declare war in response.”

But upstream countries complain that the previous agreements – signed while they were under colonial occupation by European powers – fail to secure their legitimate rights. Along with Egypt, eight other African countries share the river: Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda.

“Because the 1929 and 1959 agreements were both signed before their national independence, upstream countries are keen to see a new treaty formulated,” said Raslan.

In an effort to find a mutually acceptable system of water sharing, Nile river states have been trying to hammer out a revised agreement since 1997. In 2007, a draft framework treaty was submitted to respective government agencies for review.

But final agreement remains elusive. Talks at DRC capital Kinshasa broke down last month over three key Egyptian demands: recognition by all signatories to Egypt’s right to 55.5 billion cubic metres of Nile water annually; that no major upstream projects be undertaken without Egyptian approval; and that amendments to existing treaties only be made by unanimous vote.

Others rejected these conditions. A second round of talks is due in the Mediterranean Egyptian city Alexandria next month.

Upstream states accuse Egypt of maintaining an inequitable, colonial-era monopoly on the Nile’s resources. They argue that the river produces more than enough water to meet the needs of all parties concerned.

“It is clear from the scientific point of view that the fear expressed by some individuals or countries should not be a big issue,” Rwandan minister for the environment and natural resources Stanislas Kamanzi said ahead of the meeting, in a reference to Egypt and Sudan. “The Nile waters are too much; surely there will be equal sharing of all benefits.”

Raslan, however, citing Egypt’s historic dependence on the celebrated river, defended the decision to rebuff the proposed agreement.

“Egypt is the only Nile country that relies almost entirely on the river for its water needs,” he said. “The upstream countries, meanwhile, have many other sources of water at their disposal, including copious rainfall. The DRC, for example, also has the Congo river, which produces more than twice as much water as the Nile.”

According to Shebaana, the Nile currently provides for more than 95 percent of Egypt’s total water consumption, for drinking water, agriculture and industry. “Meanwhile, some of the upstream countries depend on the river for as little as 5 percent of their overall water needs,” he said.

Raslan says the looming threat of water scarcity has contributed to Egypt’s reluctance to relinquish its traditional quota of Nile water.

“In 2000, the average per capita water consumption rate fell below 1,000 cubic metres per year, officially making Egypt a water-scarce country,” he said. “Egypt’s per capita usage now ranges between 750 and 800 cubic metres, compared to an international average of 1,000 cubic metres.”

Although the upriver countries also suffer from varying degrees of water scarcity, per capita water consumption figures remain difficult to assess.

“In most of these countries water infrastructure in the cities is sub-standard, while in rural areas it’s non-existent in many cases,” said Shebaana. “Average water consumption statistics for these states are therefore notoriously unreliable.”

Egypt’s skyrocketing population, which currently stands at some 80 million, is another reason for its reluctance to give up any of its current share of Nile water. Between 1997 and 2000, Egypt’s water consumption rose from 64 billion cubic metres to some 72 billion cubic metres according to official figures – an increase directly attributable to population growth.

Raslan says Egypt’s current share represents only 5 percent of the water from the Nile used every year. “Much of the rest, unfortunately, goes largely unutilised. Therefore, Egypt is less interested in relinquishing its time- honoured rights than in cooperating with upstream countries to explore ways of boosting upstream water production.”

From its primary source in the Great Lakes region of Central Africa, the Nile flows north more than 6,500 kilometres before emptying into the Mediterranean Sea on Egypt’s Nile Delta.

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