African nations fight over who lays claim to the Nile. Egypt is fighting back. Image via Michael JG
It is water. Water for all. At least this is the argument that upstream countries along the Nile River have been saying for years, but Egypt continues to refuse to renegotiate a colonial-era treaty that would allocate more water for use in the upstream countries part of the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI). Egypt says that without its access to water, the country could face severe shortages and possible nationwide anxiety and protests.
Either way, at least four of the seven upstream NBI countries have decided to go it alone. On Saturday, despite strong Egyptian and Sudanese opposition, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda and Ethiopia signed a new water-sharing agreement. The other three countries, Kenya, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo are expected to sign the new deal within the next 12 months as allowed by the accord, NBI officials said on Sunday.
However, despite a new agreement being signed, little is likely to change. Egypt is already pushing international donor bodies, such as the World Bank – the main financier of the NBI – to cut funding to the signatories.
According to World Bank officials last July in Alexandria, they would not fund any new project without the approval of Egypt. “Egypt is the leading country in this consortium and the World Bank will not get behind any initiative that leaves them out,” a World Bank official said at the time on the sidelines of the NBI conference in the Egyptian port city.
The Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) ministers had met in Sharm el-Sheikh on April 13 in another attempt to come to agreement on a water-sharing deal, but Egypt again refused to renegotiate an 80-year-old treaty that ensures they receive the lion’s share of water from the Nile River.
According to the country’s MENA state news agency, the 10 nations failed to agree on a new deal, instead saying they will look for closer cooperation instead. This all changed on Saturday as the upstream nations apparently said enough is enough.
Burundi’s Environment Minister was disturbed at the proceedings, blaming Egypt for the lack of a new agreement that would give upstream nations, including his, a larger proportion of water for irrigation and development.
“Egypt is continuing to act as if they can do whatever they want, but the time is soon coming where they will not be able to dictate our water consumption, especially if they treat us this way,” said Minister Degratias N’Duimana.
Ugandan Minister of Water and Environment Maria Mutagamba, in her opening speech at the meeting in the Red Sea resort town of Sharm al-Sheikh called on her counterparts to sign the agreement without further delay.
Egypt’s Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation Mohamed Nasr el-din Allam refused, saying his nation required the treaty to remain the same with expected water shortages coming in the near future.
In February, a senior Egyptian water ministry official said that the Nile Basin nations do not suffer from these shortages and if they do it is because of misuse of the resource.
Saad Nassar, an advisor to the Egyptian agriculture minister, said the Nile Basin countries, in fact, “enjoy huge water resources.”
He said the quantity of rain water received by the upstream countries hits 1,800 billion cubic meters and that the quota of downstream countries (Egypt and Sudan) hits 73 billion cubic meters annually, 55 billion of which goes to Egypt and 18 billion goes to Sudan.
However, an NBI official told Bikya Masr in a phone conversation at the time that the Egyptian minister is “delusional if he honestly believes there are no problems and that if there are problems it arises from misuse by other countries along the river.”
The official, who asked not to be named, was irate over the official’s comments, adding that Egypt has been “continuing to push a new agreement to the backburner for months now because they know that they are taking way too much of the water and leaving other nations in a position where they cannot develop or even get enough water to their people. It is arrogance that these things are said.”
Nassar said that much of the water resources in the Nile Basin countries are excessively wasted, underlining his county’s keenness to make the best use of water for the benefit of both upstream and downstream countries.
The NBI nations met last summer in Kinshasa and Alexandria to hammer out a new agreement, but nothing came from those negotiations, as Egypt’s water ministry wouldn’t budge on its position to maintain its current water consumption.
Cairo refused to sign onto any convention without assurances by other members that the country would not lose the 55.5 billion cubic meters of Nile water they are allowed to use and demanded a veto power over any projects implemented upstream in southern Nile nations.
It is still unclear what the new agreement means for the NBI and if there will be any mobilization of development projects along the Nile, but for now, the upstream countries believe they have taken back what is rightfully theirs, despite Egypt opposition.
(This story first appeared on the Cairo-based blog Bikya Masr)