Egypt and Sudan continue to argue over the Nile

April 22, 2010


CAIRO // Despite a lack of agreement from Egypt and Sudan, seven of the nine countries that share the Nile River basin will proceed with plans to create a permanent negotiating body for determining the equitable use of the world’s longest river, African water ministers have said.

Water and irrigation ministers from seven up-river African nations said they hope to finalise negotiations on the Co-operative Framework Agreement next month, with or without agreement from down-river nations Egypt and Sudan.

The plans follow failed negotiations last week in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, between the nine countries of the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), a World Bank-funded programme that seeks to establish a diplomatic protocol for evaluating the fair use of the river for agricultural and energy projects.

The impasse between up-river and down-river countries has led to more than a decade of delays in forming the framework agreement, which supporters say could become an example of international co-operation for the fair use of water resources in the impoverished and conflict-prone region of north-eastern Africa.

A spokesman for the Ethiopian government accused Egypt on Tuesday of “delaying” negotiations, according to the Bloomberg news agency.

But Egypt, which is where the river flows into the Mediterranean, and Sudan say such an agreement could threaten their “historical rights” to secure sources of water. Their position downstream renders them particularly vulnerable to changes in water availability caused by up-river development projects, they said.

Egyptian water officials said if up-river nations exclude them from the agreement, it could spell the end of negotiations on equitable water-sharing for the entire river basin.

“Egypt’s share of the Nile’s water is a historic right that Egypt has defended throughout its history,” said Mohammed Allam, Egypt’s minister of water resources and irrigation, to a parliamentary session on Monday, according to Agence France-Presse. “If the Nile basin countries unilaterally signed the agreement it would be considered the announcement of the Nile Basin Initiative’s death.”

Egypt and Sudan’s historical claims to the Nile’s water stem from two past treaties that did not include signatures from the other Nile basin states. The latest treaty, which was signed between Egypt and Sudan in 1959, gave the Egyptian government rights over 55.5 billion cubic metres of water annually out of the 84 billion cubic metres that reach Egypt’s High Aswan Dam each year.

Although all of the countries have agreed on most of the terms of the framework, Egypt and Sudan have insisted that the agreement should include guarantees of the “historical rights” to which upper riparian states were never a party.

“We are not party to that agreement and we don’t recognise it,” said Teferra Beyene, the head of trans-boundary river affairs for Ethiopia’s ministry of water resources, of the 1959 treaty between Egypt and Sudan. “We don’t know of such a thing called historical rights. After all this is going to be a new covenant, a new agreement among the riparian countries.”

Egyptian diplomats urged negotiators to proceed directly towards the formation of a Nile River Basin Commission instead of first negotiating the terms of the framework agreement. The commission would act as a deliberative body and would make its decisions by a consensus of all the riparian states.

Egyptian officials say that unlike upper riparian states such as Ethiopia, whose rainy highlands provide an estimated 85 per cent of the Nile’s waters, projects on the Egyptian section of the river have no impact on countries further downstream.

“Our Egyptian water comes from the geography of the river and they can’t control that,” said Abd el Ati el Shafei, the chairman of the Nile Guards and Environment Protection Association.

Mr el Shafei said the Nile water that reaches Egypt only constitutes around five per cent of the Nile River’s total reserves of 1,600 billion cubic metres. And with its large and growing population that dwarfs those of other Nile Basin states, with the exception of Ethiopia, Egypt’s need for water security is particularly acute. “They don’t need the water that runs into Egypt and we didn’t take it from them by force,” Mr el Shafei said.

But as the countries of the Nile basin bicker over who is responsible for the stalled negotiations, the impasse continues to delay the creation of a permanent body that might arbitrate such disputes. Hani Raslan, the director of the Sudan and Nile basin studies programme at the semi-official Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, said he does not expect any serious decisions on a co-operative agreement within the next 20 years.

“These countries are small and fragile, they have many crises, and they act with Egypt like maybe they think they are superpowers,” Mr Raslan said. “That is not real. Egypt must have the right to do anything to protect its people.”