Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 March 2011
Issue No. 1037
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

One more headache

Burundi has become the sixth African country to sign the Nile Basin Initiative, thus risking Egypt's share of the Nile waters, Reem Leila reports

The agreement known as the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) was signed on Monday, making Burundi the sixth Nile Basin country to sign the accord. The pact calls for Nile Basin countries to modify the old pact and re-allocate the shares of water from the River Nile. But more important, it will markedly reduce the amount of water Egypt will receive from the Nile.

The initiative is opposed by Egypt and Sudan who receive the lion's share of Nile waters.

The NBI was signed last year by Ethiopia, Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya. Congo promised to sign but has not so far. Burundi's step, which comes in the wake of the revolt which toppled the government, paved the way for the agreement to be ratified.

Hani Raslan, head of the Studies Programme of the Sudan and Nile Basin countries at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies said that now that six Nile countries have signed the accord, the countries concerned can move forward with ratification of the deal.

"Egypt could lose at least seven billion cubic metres of its share of Nile water when the ratifying countries start implementing their development project at the beginning of 2012," said Raslan.

For decades, Egypt held veto rights over all upstream projects, following powers granted by a 1929 colonial-era treaty with Britain. Egypt's subsequent 1959 deal with Sudan gave the two downstream countries more than 90 per cent control of Nile waters.

Egypt and Sudan have argued their water supply would be dangerously reduced if upstream countries are able to divert the river flow without multilateral consultation. While the upstream nations refused to reopen negotiations, as Egypt requested, NBI had scheduled an extraordinary meeting in January to help ease Egypt's concerns about the pact.

That meeting, according to Raslan, was cancelled due to the uprising in Egypt, but is slated to take place in Nairobi later this month.

Eritrea and south Sudan were allowed to observe the protracted Nile Basin process, but were not recognised as negotiating parties. "Egypt must adopt a new strategy and policy when dealing with this sensitive issue especially in this critical time," Raslan said.

The 6,700km long River Nile is a confluence of the White Nile, whose source is Lake Victoria in east Africa, and the Blue Nile that springs from the Ethiopian highlands. Egypt's 80 million inhabitants draw about 90 per cent of their water needs from the Nile. Cairo maintains that, even by the favourable terms of current agreements, its water needs cannot be met by the Nile alone after 2017.

Diaa El-Qousi, an international water expert, disagrees, saying Egypt's 55.5 billion cubic metres is untouchable.

Egypt previously agreed on constructing four dams in Ethiopia. "This means that these dams will not affect Egypt's share of water. However, the nature of these dams must be identified first in order to determine whether they will affect Egypt's share of water," said El-Qousi.

According to El-Qousi, the signing of the accord is open until 15 May, so Egypt can re-evaluate its situation. With Sudan having split into north and south, the Nile Basin countries benefiting from the Nile waters are now 10 instead of nine. "Accordingly, the two-thirds which is essential to implement the accord became inapplicable," El-Qousi stated.

Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik has asked the interim government and both ministers of foreign affairs and irrigation and water resources to check the authenticity of the signing of Burundi.

Magdi Radi, spokesman for the Egyptian Cabinet, said that Egypt will not halt negotiations with the Nile Basin countries in order to achieve a balanced agreement.

However, an official source told local newspapers, "Burundi took advantage of the political turmoil in Egypt and the instability in the region and has signed the agreement. Egypt expressed fear over the signing of the rest of the countries like Burundi in the current circumstances in Egypt."

At the end of last year, Burundi vowed not to act in a manner that would harm Egypt's interests.

Assistant Foreign Minister for African Affairs Mona Omar said the new accord is non-binding to Egypt because it is not a party, even if it is ratified by the parliaments of these countries and enters the implementation phase. Omar said talks must take place in Egypt between ministries and agencies concerned to discuss steps that could be taken by Egypt and to deal with new developments. Omar said Egypt has not halted its talks with countries that signed the agreement from the outset, including Uganda, Ethiopia and Tanzania.

Tensions in the Nile Basin between upstream and downstream countries have long been a key diplomatic issue of Cairo which has been criticised for not paying enough diplomatic attention to African countries. Under the Framework Agreement, Ethiopia intends to build dams and export power to neighbouring countries and implement other irrigation projects.

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