Al-Ahram Weekly Online   22 - 28 April 2010
Issue No. 995
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Danger on the Nile

The absence a final agreement on sharing the vital river raises concerns about Egypt's water resources, reports Mohamed El-Sayed

The growing political fallout from last week's failure of the extraordinary meeting of the Nile Council of Ministers (NileCom) to reach a consensus on the Nile Basin's legal and institutional framework agreement persisted this week. The issue has been a bone of contention in parliamentary and political circles that see a threat to Egypt's national security in the wake of the announcement by seven Nile Basin countries about their intention to sign a unilateral agreement on the sharing of the Nile's water.

President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and President Omar Al-Bashir of Sudan sent messages to the heads of riparian states to open the door for a new round of negotiations following the failure of last week's round in Sharm El-Sheikh, according to Minister of State for Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Moufid Shehab. "Egypt hopes that the upstream countries reverse their decision to sign a unilateral framework agreement so that negotiations continue," Shehab said in a parliamentary session on Monday.

Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit is currently visiting three Nile Basin countries to convey a message from President Mubarak regarding the Nile Basin agreement.

Meantime, Minister of Irrigation and Water Resources Mohamed Nasreddin Allam adhered to his position adopted during the last round of negotiations. "Egypt will not sign any deal before its conditions are met," Allam insisted, adding, "requirements include the commitment to an early notification mechanism before the construction of any projects in upstream countries, and that all decisions are to be finalised unanimously and not through majority vote."

Allam accused the riparian countries of "violating the rules agreed upon in the Nile Basin Initiative and which state that decisions should be taken by consensus, not by majority."

"If upstream countries insist on signing a unilateral agreement, Egypt will not abide by it and it will not have any legal impact on our share of Nile water," he added.

"The Nile Cooperative Framework Agreement must clearly recognise Egypt and Sudan's historic share of the Nile waters," Allam said in a session held in the People's Assembly to debate the issue. "Egypt is in bad need of Nile water. Its share is limited in light of the steady increase in the population and the decline in the per capita share of water to 700 cubic metres annually," he added.

Egypt's annual share of the Nile water stands at 55.5 billion cubic metres, according to the 1959 Nile agreement between Sudan and Egypt, which remains to this day the cornerstone of the Nile Basin cooperation projects, much to the consternation of upstream nations.

Shehab added, "Egypt deals with the Nile water issue as a life-and-death matter, given that Egypt does not have a water resource other than the Nile." He added that, "unlike the other Nile Basin countries, which have several sources of water, the River Nile provides Egypt with 95 per cent of the country's water needs."

Zakaria Azmi, chief of the presidential staff and the National Democratic Party's (NDP) secretary of financial and administrative affairs, warned MPs who made fiery speeches while debating in parliament against "talking nervously about the issue". He added that it was "a very sensitive issue which should be tackled by diplomatic means".

Shehab stressed that Egypt's rights to the Nile water were based on the principles of international law. "No country shall abandon an international agreement on the pretext that the agreement was signed during the imperial era, for this undermines international relations," he said. "The rules governing international rivers ban the implementation of any work that might [negatively] impact navigation safety or the interests of other riparian countries," Shehab pointed out.

In light of the polarisation between the upstream and downstream countries, pundits believe that the failure of reaching a consensus over the distribution of the world's longest river is not the end of the world. "There are efforts exerted by Mubarak and Al-Bashir to form a higher presidential commission to be charged with solving disputes and determining joint projects," said Hassan Abu Taleb, of the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. "This could be considered an expression of good intentions on the part of Egypt and Sudan so that matters do not worsen," Abu Taleb said.

Abu Taleb believes that the formation of a presidential commission enhances the possibility of a win-win deal. "This commission will guarantee a high level of commitment, yet it will acknowledge Egypt and Sudan's historical rights to the Nile water," he added.

However, he did not rule out the possibility that the whole issue could be escalated into a legal dispute to be later settled by international arbitration. "This case could take many years for international courts to settle," he said.

While politicians and some pundits believe the dispute could reach international arbitration, water experts believe scientists could play a role in reaching an agreement between the basin countries. "The Arab Water Council can offer advice to the Nile Basin countries on how to reach an agreement," said Chairman of the Arab Water Council and former minister of irrigation and water resources Mahmoud Abu Zeid.

"We have a plethora of high calibre scientists and consultants capable of offering solutions to this dispute," Abu Zeid pointed out, adding that none of the concerned countries had asked for this kind of advice.

But what made a seemingly attainable agreement between the upstream and downstream countries descend into a bitter dispute?

"For years [Egyptian] ministers of irrigation denied the existence of any problems with Nile Basin countries and real efforts to reach solutions were not made," wrote veteran columnist Salama Ahmed Salama. "[Egypt] depended on its traditional influence in Africa which is eroding at a time when Israel and other foreign powers are entering the [African] stage in search of wealth," he added.

"It could be attributed to the way of negotiations the Egyptian negotiator adopts, either on the technical, diplomatic or developmental side," said Abu Taleb. "It could also be attributed to the absence of pressure and enticement cards that could be used by Egypt. And it could also be a result of international and regional conspiracies aimed at affecting Egypt's political power in Africa and the Middle East.

"Or it could be the result of an ineffective Egyptian role in African affairs in general and in the Nile Basin countries in particular," Abu Taleb added.

Most pundits believe it's all of the above.

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