Al-Ahram Weekly Online   1 - 7 April 2010
Issue No. 992
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Water will flow regardless

Egypt is to host the ministerial meeting of Nile Basin countries later this month, reports Doaa El-Bey

Differences could overshadow the next ministerial meeting of the Nile Basin countries due to be held in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh on 13 April. The talks are to be preceded by a two-day meeting of the technical committees discussing the Nile Cooperative Framework Agreement. However, some differences still impede the conclusion of the agreement which establishes a permanent body to oversee water allocation along the Nile.

The meeting is expected to be attended by the 10 Nile Basin countries: Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda (Eritrea also attends the Nile Basin meeting as an observer. It has been an observer member since the creation of the Nile Basin Initiative in 1999). The talks are to be held under the auspices of the NBI, which is an inter-governmental body.

Magawri Shehata, president of the Arab Association for Healthy Water, said differences between Egypt and Sudan on the one hand and the other Nile Basin states on the other have a political nature, citing the fact that both states signed the 1959 treaty that name the quota of both countries without consulting with the rest of the Nile Basin countries. The 1959 agreement allows Egypt the exclusive use of 55.5 billion cubic metres -- or 87 per cent of the Nile flow -- with Sudan enjoying the exploitation of 18.5 billion cubic metres of Nile water. The other Nile Basin states seek to change the quota.

Another reason, Shehata added, is that the other treaty signed in 1929 was between Egypt and Britain, representing the African colonies. The upstream Nile Basin states regarded these treaties as outdated and wanted to reach new pacts. However, Egypt and Sudan are reluctant to change these treaties as any change could possibly affect their quota.

Egypt had also asked for the inclusion of guarantees that no projects on the Nile be implemented without Egyptian approval, as Shehata added, because together with Sudan, they are likely to be the states most affected by any projects on the Nile Basin.

Regarding this month's meeting, Shehata said he did not expect all states to sign the framework agreement and that they may fail to agree on the same quota for Egypt. "The inclusion of the quota in an agreement is important but not pressing. Water will come to Egypt anyway. In addition, water problems are chronic matters that take a long time to be resolved. Peaceful dialogue can iron out the differences in the end," he told Al-Ahram Weekly.

A few meetings were held last year in order to resolve the differences. A ministerial meeting was held in Alexandria last July and attended by water ministers from Egypt and the other Nile Basin countries. They agreed to form a technical committee to attempt to solve pending issues between upstream and downstream countries. During the two-day meeting, participants could not conclude the Nile Cooperative Framework Agreement.

Another meeting was held in the Congolese capital Kinshasa, in April. But officials from the 10 Nile Basin countries failed to agree on a new system of water sharing desired by the majority of its members. Talks in Kinshasa ended with Egypt refusing to ratify the new pact without the other signatories explicitly agreeing to its original share of Nile water and a veto by Cairo over any future upstream projects.

The new treaty was proposed by the Democratic Republic of Congo's Minister of Water Affairs Jose Endundo Bononge last year when he was chairman of the Nile Council of Ministers (NCM). Egypt is currently the chairman of the NCM. Chairmanship of the NCM is a rotational position among the Nile Basin countries.

However, the establishment of closer cooperation among Nile Basin states in investment, infrastructure and electricity is likely to improve the relationship and ease differences. An initiative to establish cooperation in water projects to guarantee the optimum use of water and reduce wasted water will be of interest to all the Nile Basin states, according to Shehata. "Instead of fighting over quotas, the Nile Basin state could cooperate to make the best use of Nile water."

During the last 10 years, the NBI participated in the Egypt West Delta Irrigation Project, the Ethiopia Irrigation Project, power interconnection between Ethiopia and Sudan, as well as regional transmission projects in the Equatorial Lakes Region.

In addition, closer bilateral and multilateral cooperation is another guarantee for stability among Nile Basin states. It can also reduce tension over water among these states.

Time may not work in favour of the problem as the population growth rate in Egypt and other Nile Basin states could further burden the already scarce water resources, causing more tension and exacerbating the problem.

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