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Upstream States Challenge Egypt Over Nile Waters

Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa al-Omrani

CAIRO, Jun 15 2010 (IPS) - A water-sharing treaty among five upstream Nile Basin countries – to the exclusion of Egypt and Sudan – has reignited the longstanding dispute over water distribution. Local experts, however, say the agreement will not jeopardise Egypt’s historical share of Nile water.

“Egypt has relied on the waters of the Nile for thousands of years,” 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. “No one can set a limit on Egypt’s use of the Nile, which is protected by international law.”

But Ethiopia, Rwanda, Uganda Tanzania and Kenya have other ideas, as evident from the new water treaty they hammered out at a meeting in Entebbe in May.

In mid-April, representatives of nine Nile Basin states – including Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda – had met in the Egyptian resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh in an effort to reach a mutually acceptable agreement on the distribution of river water.

As it currently stands, division of Nile water is determined by two treaties penned in 1929 and 1959, which grant Egypt and Sudan the lion’s share. Under the terms of the two agreements Egypt has the right to use 55.5 billion cubic metres of Nile water per year, while Sudan is allotted an annual quota of 18.5 billion cubic metres.

The treaties also stipulate that no major water projects, such as dams or irrigation works, can be undertaken in upstream countries without the express permission of Egypt and Sudan.

But upstream countries have long complained that the two treaties – signed while they were under colonial occupation – fail to secure their legitimate water rights. Egypt and Sudan, however, staunchly reject any reduction of their current water allotments.

Since the late 1990s, Nile Basin states have been trying unsuccessfully to hammer out a revised framework agreement for water sharing, dubbed the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI). Two recent conferences devoted to the issue failed to resolve the impasse.

In May 2009, talks held in the Congolese capital of Kinshasa broke down because Egypt’s and Sudan’s historical water quotas were not mentioned in the text of the proposed agreement. Water ministers met again last July in the Egyptian coastal city Alexandria, where Egypt and Sudan reiterated their rejection of any agreement that did not clearly establish their historical share of water.

Upstream states accuse Egypt and Sudan of attempting to maintain an unfair, colonial-era monopoly on the river. Egyptian officials and analysts, however, defend their position, pointing out that Egypt is much more dependent on the river for its water needs than its upstream neighbours.

According to Raslan, Nile water accounts for more than 95 percent of Egypt’s total water consumption. Some of the upstream countries which enjoy much heavier rainfall depend on the river for less than five percent of their water needs.

The Sharm el-Sheikh talks in April broke down along traditional battle lines, with Egypt and Sudan on one side and the seven upstream states on the other.

In an effort to force a breakthrough, the seven used the occasion to issue a joint declaration that they would “unilaterally” announce a new, more equitable agreement – with or without Egypt and Sudan.

Cairo and Khartoum condemned the declaration and warned of a “strong response” to any such move.

“Egypt has a number of means available to it for taking a strong response to any position that threatens its historical right to Nile water,” said ambassador Ridda Baibars, spokesman for the Egyptian delegation to the conference.

Nevertheless, on May 14, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania signed a new water treaty in Entebbe, Uganda. Days later, Kenya, too, signed on the agreement.

“We couldn’t wait any longer, since we have been negotiating for over ten years,” Rwandan environment minister Stanislas Kamanzi told the BBC shortly afterward.

To the chagrin of Egypt and Sudan, the new treaty made no mention of their historical share of Nile water, nor did it grant them the right to veto upstream water projects.

Voices in the local press were quick to portray the Entebbe agreement as a threat to Egypt’s water resources. The May 16 headlines of independent daily ‘Al-Dustour’ cited experts who warned that the treaty represented “a clear and present danger to Egypt’s share of Nile water.”

Egypt, for its part, refused to recognise the agreement, reiterating its categorical rejection of any diminution of its historical water rights.

“Egypt declined to even acknowledge the Entebbe treaty,” said Raslan. “Egypt absolutely refuses to give up any of its historical share of water and will take any steps necessary to preserve its current allotment.”

In an interview with the pan-Arab satellite news channel Al Jazeera, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi called Egypt’s continued rejection of a revamped water sharing scheme “the source of the problem.”

“Egypt continues to maintain the obsolete notion that it owns the Nile and can dictate the distribution of its waters, and that the upstream states are incapable of using the water because they are politically unstable and poverty stricken,” Zenawi said. “But circumstances have changed.”

On May 22, it was announced that the Egyptian ministers of trade and industry, irrigation, and investment were expected to visit Burundi, Tanzania, Kenya, Rwanda and Sudan in the coming weeks to discuss mutual cooperation.

“Egyptian efforts aimed at joint cooperation with the upstream states are likely to pay dividends,” Raslan predicted. “But if they don’t, Egypt has a number of means of protecting its historical rights – legally, politically and materially.”

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