Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
16 - 22 September 1999
Issue No. 447
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Managing turbulent waters

By Fatemah Farag

Tall and square stands the Ministry of Public Works and Water Resources, a conspicuous building on the Nile bank in Imbaba. And on the eighteenth floor sits a man with a great weight on his shoulders. For here is the office of Mahmoud Abu Zied, minister of public works and water resources, and the man ultimately charged with managing Egypt's lifeline, the River Nile. The concerns of the minister begin upstream, as far upstream as Lake Victoria, and follow the Nile till what remains of the great river flows insipidly out to sea.

Despite dealing with such vast geographic distances the minister, it appears, rarely leaves his chair. The chair itself is hidden behind multiple stacks of papers teetering at one end of a conference table, and is seldom abandoned for the comfortable corners of his office. We succeed, though, in prying the reluctant minister from behind his papers to the couch. He is tall, calm and courteous. Once seated, he wastes little time before delving into a range of complex issues with the dexterity and discretion of a true politician.

"As you know, the River Nile is shared by ten countries, Egypt being the most downstream. And those downstream get what is left after everyone else extracts what they want. This means that during the time of flood, countries that cannot use the flood water pass it on downstream. Egypt has suffered a lot from both floods and droughts."

The point is an important one in view of the allegations made by some Nile Basin countries that Egypt desires to draw more than its fair share from the waters of the river.

The Nile (map)
"Historically only Egypt and the Sudan got shares in the water. The other Nile Basin countries did not have any need of the water -- they receive enough rainfall every year to cover agricultural needs."

"Egypt gained a historical right to the Nile, a right confirmed by many agreements. Earlier agreements were signed by Britain and Italy and the Upper Nile countries, the last being signed in 1959 between Egypt and the Sudan. We claim that these historical rights are protected by international law."

Until 1959 Egypt received 48 billion cubic metres of water. After the 1959 agreement Egypt's total share of the Nile waters was increased to 55.5 billion cubic metres while Sudan receives 14.5 billion cubic metres.

How much is this compared to the natural flow of the river?

"Well, this is only six to eight per cent of total rainfall over the Nile Basin. Much of the rest is lost, some through evapotranspiration -- the consumption of plants -- while yet more seeps into the ground creating ground water. The bulk, though, is lost to the sea."

"What we use, then, is very little when compared to the potential. Yet to tap this potential there must be management of the water... in some areas, such as the equatorial lakes, the water losses are huge. The weeds consume more than is lost through natural evaporation."

The facts of water loss have naturally informed Egypt's negotiations with the countries of the Nile Basin, and have resulted in the initiation of such projects as the Gongli Canal. Yet though there is a general consensus over the importance of managing water resources, political problems have hampered the process.

"Egypt and Sudan agreed to construct the Gongli Canal to circumvent swamps in the southern part of the White Nile in order to minimise water loss. The first phase of the project should produce an extra two billion cubic metres for each country. Unfortunately, because of the war [in south Sudan], work is at a standstill."

Perceived conflicts of interest, though, have long overshadowed negotiations between the countries of the Nile Basin, since the sixties at least.

"The Nile Basin countries started to develop and many want to irrigate. However, decisions such as these cannot be made by one country. From now on there must be consultation and mutual agreement," emphasised the minister.

"Consultation between the countries of the Nile Basin began in the early sixties. At the time, the priority was the need to collect data."

So all the countries of the basin decided to work together under the umbrella of the Hydronet project with the exception of Ethiopia, which chose observer status. Statistics then became available, but as Abu Zied pointed out, the actual implementation of projects was bound to be hampered by a lack of funds and experience.

Mahmoud Abu Zied

"We should not be afraid of the future. Of course there is a limit to how much we can make of management efficiency techniques. And the question remains: what will happen after 2017? We have many alternatives, however, such as desalination. There are many other scenarios, but then you do not expect to uncover all of the ministry's secrets the first time round, do you?"

photos: Khaled El-Fiqi


Data collection needs satisfied, joint action developed in the seventies with the Techonile project. "We moved from one phase to another and for 15 years, i.e. from 1975 to 1990/91, we studied various projects. But Ethiopia, Kenya, and Eritrea decided not to participate, largely I think for internal reasons. Of course their observer status meant that they cannot sign any agreements and this has created many question marks."

Pressure in favour of cooperative action when it comes to water resources does not, though, remain simply a regional issue and Abu Zied is keen to put the development of talks between the Nile Basin countries in an international context.

"We need to develop a joint programme and everyone needs to agree. Two years ago the UN voted for a global agreement for cooperation and development of water. When asked to sign, countries started to consider the need of approving any joint programmes. The main issue for downstream countries is that any developments upstream should not impact on rights."

The agreement should be ratified by 60 countries in two years. To date not many countries have signed and Egypt has chosen not to. "Egypt has not signed but this does not mean we are against it. Most articles are general and acceptable while only a few are objectionable. For example, we disagree with the definition of the basin used. The agreement talks only of the channel while we believe it should talk of the basin as a whole so as to cover all resources and not just the water in the river. The agreement also stipulates that countries must avoid actions that incur 'appreciable' harm to others. But what does that mean? It is simply too vague. In principal, though," the minister insists, "the agreement is good. We should share water."

In 1991-92 cooperation between the basin countries resulted in an agreement on a new organisation. "The Nile Initiative has, since 1997, included ministerial meetings and the convening of technical committees. So far we have agreed to 22 overall projects," says Abu Zied.

"The Nile Initiative focuses on overall Nile management and is partially funded by the World Bank and the United Nations Development Programme [UNDP]. One of the projects agreed on is the D3 project whose aim is to finalise a comprehensive agreement between all basin countries. There are legal and technical committees working on this project and hammering out the principles of organisation."

Abu Zied believes that the structure of today's negotiations represents a breakthrough. "One positive development is that there will be two levels for talks, one covering the overall basin and umbrella concerns such as environmental protection, and a second dealing with auxiliary programmes. Countries with major stakes in the Blue Nile, from which Egypt gets 85 per cent of its water, can therefore work together and reach agreements as a separate group."

Yet despite the framework for agreements on projects there are no projects yet on the ground. "Which is why," explains the minister, "our national policy does not take these developments into account. You will note that our water policy, which extends up to the year 2017, does not mention them and is based upon the resources we have now."

The omission is probably a reflection of the obstacles that continue to plague cooperation between the countries of the Nile Basin. Abu Zied notes that one key issue hampering understanding between Egypt and other countries is a "lack of technical experience on the part of other countries. To make them understand that it is possible to have water for everyone has taken us many years."

And the misinformation continues. "When we started the Salam Canal project," explains Abu Zied, "we were asked how we intended to take Nile water outside the basin. There was even talk that Egypt was going to sell water to Israel. It took time to explain that there used to be a branch of the river in Sinai in ancient times, and that technically we were not taking water out of the basin."

As far as exceeding any quota, the minister is adamant.

"How can a downstream country be taking more that it should. You take what you get. We have Sudanese technicians in Egypt and Egyptian ones in the Sudan and they do their measurements and we all know who is getting what. We are not exceeding our quota and we have always respected our quota."

Egypt will, though, eventually need to increase that quota. "Of course we will have to ask for more water. But the potential is so great that we all stand to gain. We are still talking and the details will come later. We are focusing on projects such as Gongli and details such as these are the responsibility of the technicians and will be the focus of our upcoming negotiations. The most important principal, though, is that the Nile is for all countries. This understanding has relieved the Upper Nile countries and definitely today there is a new attitude emerging."

In the meantime water use must become more efficient within our borders. "We are already working on increasing the efficiency of water use but there is still space for improvement."

Although Abu Zied downplays water losses within Egypt he is keen to stress the importance of recycling water. "The losses are either to the sea or the ground and are close to 11 billion cubic metres. We recycle, so we use water twice and it can be used three times. Of course the second time round the water becomes highly saline and we are working on improving its quality and upgrading environmental aspects. When we talk of using the water efficiently we are also talking about new irrigation systems and improving canals etc."

The maximisation of efficiency is central, "because as we industrialise a shift happens in water use. When water is used more efficiently in agriculture, which accounts for 85 per cent of our water usage, we should have no problem in meeting both agricultural and industrial needs."

Meetings are regularly held between the ministries of water resources and agriculture to evaluate and coordinate policy. This includes indicative cropping, for example. "After agriculture became free of state planning a few years ago we came to an agreement with the Ministry of Agriculture that the only high water produce that would be grown would be sugar cane and rice and the areas designated for these crops were decided upon."

There are two technical committees which include members from both ministries. The first reviews and approves land reclamation projects, "keeping in mind that there is a national land reclamation programme already approved by the State", while the second convenes weekly in each governorate to review the situation on the local level. "I receive the minutes of these meetings every week and follow them personally," added Abu Zied.

Concerning pollution, the minister again highlights the importance of inter-ministerial cooperation. "We have set a priority list with the Ministry of Environment which began with industrial waste released directly into the Nile and we have succeeded in tackling 97 per cent of the items included on that list. Agricultural drainage and industrial waste released into the Nile via drainage canals is next on the agenda, though we must take one issue at a time."

Throughout our discussion, Abu Zied constantly underlines the importance of public awareness. "Rationalisation can be achieved when you convince people of its importance. There are concrete examples to prove the point. In certain areas where irrigation was streamlined people continued to use the same quantity of water even though it was no longer necessary. We realised we had neglected a very important component of the development process and now we have a comprehensive programme aimed at increasing awareness in place."

Abu Zied emphasised that rationalisation would not be achieved in Egypt by putting a price on water. "It is government policy not to put a price on water," he said, pointing out, however, that people were paying for improvement programmes. "People pay for a service. For drainage they have paid since the sixties and for new irrigation since 1975. They pay the total cost in instalments. This of course is not applicable in the case of the main canal which is subsidised by the government."

Government policy till the year 2017, according to its current architect, comprises a three pronged approach: an efficiency enhancement programme; a pollution reduction programme and continuing negotiations with the countries of the Upper Nile.

The minister remains relaxed that all that should be done is being done, and is perfectly happy to answer critics of national water policy such as Rushdi Said, who argue that industry and urban development should be moved to the desert, clearing the delta for agriculture.

"Rushdi is a colleague and friend and I have debated his theories with him at length. They are impractical however, and he has been away for a long time. His arguments remind me of the time I returned from the US in the sixties. I joined a committee studying the effects of the High Dam. A very prominent scholar, Ali Fathi, spent most of his time criticising the dam and calling for its removal! Yet the dam has proved essential to the development of Egypt."

And he is more than willing to argue the benefits of controversial policy, such as Toshka. "The Wafd and the Shaab [opposition papers] both brought up many criticisms and they came to this office and I sat with them for days debating their questions. In the end we convinced them of many of our arguments. As President Mubarak has said, differences of ideas are appreciated."

"We should not be afraid of the future. Of course there is a limit to how much we can make of management efficiency techniques. And the question remains: what will happen after 2017? We have many alternatives, however, such as desalination. There are many other scenarios, but then you do not expect to uncover all of the ministry's secrets the first time round, do you?"

As we take our leave, Abu Zied is already returning to his conference table. And as we look back we find that he has already disappeared behind his pile of papers.

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