Escalation or cooperation
Nile Basin states must choose between cooperation or conflict, says Salah Khalil
There is a 60-day grace period to sign the new Nile Basin agreement -- but not to negotiate any differences though the deal deepens disputes and further polarises Nile riparian states. The extraordinary meeting of the ministerial council of Nile Basin countries in Nairobi on 27 January has raised a series of queries.
To start with, ministers of Nile source countries were scheduled to meet in the Kenyan capital Nairobi, but suddenly Egypt and Sudan announced that their ministers of water resources will not attend the gathering. It was an attempt by Egypt and Sudan to convince riparian states to adopt their position; namely, that in order for everyone to benefit from the agreement it must include all basin states to make it successful, beneficial and serve the people of these countries. Ethiopia, however, linked any discussions with Egypt to current political conditions in Egypt and until the election of a president in Egypt.
While Cairo and Khartoum seek to create an umbrella for dialogue to reach a middle ground to support the proposal of the two downstream countries, upstream states are exerting political pressure and manoeuvring in order to ratify the agreement without Egypt and Sudan. Other Nile riparian states asked for a delay to allow Egypt and Sudan an opportunity to revise pending articles within the institutional and legal framework of the new agreement.
Reluctantly, this time Egypt and Sudan did not ask that the meeting be postponed but decided not to attend altogether. Ministers from source states forged ahead with the meeting on schedule without Egypt and Sudan. They decided to sign a new agreement since Ethiopia joined the Great Lakes grouping that includes Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Kenya's minister of water resources, in her capacity as the current chairman of the Council of Water Resource Ministers of Riparian States, explained that a 60-day grace period was granted to Egypt, Sudan and Congo to resolve issues of dispute and sign the agreement. Politically, this means putting pressure on Egypt and Sudan to make concessions for the benefit of these countries, and allows for more time to influence international donors and the World Bank to change their position on the need for consensus before funding projects in upstream countries.
The ministerial meetings of riparian states decided on two resolutions. First, those gathered agreed to ratify the Nile Basin Cooperation Framework Agreement (CFA) in order for it to be implemented, and accordingly create the Nile Basin Commission. They also agreed to exchange information on progress in the ratification process. This decision basically means that these states have decided to cancel the previous decision to postpone ratifying the agreement to give Egypt more time after the 25 January Revolution.
In fact, the decision to postpone was taken after a visit by a people's delegation from Egypt to Ethiopia in April 2011. This was followed the next month by a visit by then Egyptian prime minister Essam Sharaf to Ethiopia.
This said, it is clear that if the six countries ratify the agreement, it will become effective without Egypt and Sudan which will create a complicated legal situation for the Nile Basin Initiative and its programmes in the absence of Egypt and Sudan. It will also deepen disputes and further polarise Nile Basin states.
Egypt and Sudan reject the CFA because it does not include a clear reference to current uses and rights, and does not include texts about early notification of planned projects along the Nile. At the same time, the agreement can be amended with a simple majority whether it includes Egypt and Sudan or not. These are the three contentious points which Egypt and Sudan raised and wanted to be addressed before they sign and ratify the agreement.
Second, for their part the ministers decided to continue talks with the three countries that have not yet signed, namely Egypt, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, with the aim of convincing them to sign the agreement. These talks should end in the next 60 days. This decision gives these states a last chance to join the treaty before it goes into effect once the six signatories ratify it. But what is evident is that the resolution calls for talks with these countries to join the agreement, not negotiate points of contention.
The balance of power among Nile Basin states has greatly shifted. Over the past three years, source countries have risen as a strong bloc in confronting the Egyptian-Sudanese alliance that was created by the 1959 Nile Water Treaty. Some source countries decided to move forward with their projects along the Nile, such as Ethiopia, which began building the centennial dam without Egypt's or Sudan's knowledge. Other causes of this shift are the Egyptian revolution, the ouster of Mubarak's regime, and recent elections in Egypt that created a new political situation that undoubtedly influenced developments in the Nile Basin. This change also explains Burundi signing the CFA in February 2011, and Ethiopia's decision to begin constructing the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in March 2011.
Egypt and Sudan's alliance on Nile issues and their coordinated position since 1959 regarding demands by other Nile riparian states and the CFA, their refusal to participate in the recent Nairobi meeting, and Nairobi declaration issued by source countries after the meeting poses the question whether Nile Basin states can resolve their differences on the political, naturally not the technical, level about the CFA in the next 60 days as proposed by the Nairobi declaration, and turn over a new leaf of genuine cooperation and goodwill. Or is it too late and will these disputes be further compounded by complications, escalation and crisis?
Only the next few weeks will tell, as Nile riparian states continue to haggle.
It is noteworthy that finding a framework for collective cooperation on water among Nile Basin states had always been a goal of riparian states through a series of initiatives, ideas and international intervention. Meanwhile, the outlook, strategy and mechanisms remain captive to diverging visions and domestic motives of basin states on the one hand, and regional environmental restrictions on the other. They were also influenced by regional and international variables.
But will Egypt join the agreement as it is now and can it pursue the legal procedures against what it views as unjust articles within the pact? Or will Egypt reject the pact all together and hence bargaining with riparian countries later on from a weak stance?