Al-Ahram Weekly Online   31 December 2009 - 6 January 2010
Issue No. 979
New Decade's special edition
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

No need to panic?

Will Egypt be able to ensure its water security, given the country's increasing demands, asks Reem Leila

Like many other countries, Egypt faces challenges due to its limited water resources, represented mainly by its fixed share of the water of the River Nile and exacerbated by the country's otherwise general aridity. The Nile supplies the country with 98 per cent of its potable water, and Egypt relies on the water storage of Lake Nasser near Aswan to sustain its annual share of Nile water, fixed at 55.5 billion cubic metres annually by agreement with Sudan in 1959.

This agreement also allocated 18.5 billion cubic metres of water to Sudan annually, while assuming that 10 billion cubic metres would be lost in evaporation from Lake Nasser each year based on an average annual in-flow of 84 billion cubic metres.

However, as Ahmed Abul-Wafa, a professor of international law, points out, while the country's actual water resources are fixed at 55.5 billion cubic metres per year, demand for water is now in the order of 65 billion cubic metres. Furthermore, disagreement between Egypt and upper riparian nations over water from the Nile began in the late 1990s, causing Egypt to enter into negotiations to attain an increase in its main quota.

"Egypt requested that an additional 11 billion cubic metres of water be added to its historical quota, but the upstream countries rejected the idea," Abul-Wafa said.

The talks ended with the drafting of the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) in 2000. While this agreement today remains on the drawing board, it aimed to increase the water resources of upstream countries, such as Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, which have accused Egypt of taking advantage of agreements signed in colonial times in order to maximise its water advantages.

These agreements include the 1929 agreement, which the British signed on behalf of what were then British colonies, and the 1959 agreement that Egypt signed with the Sudan without consultation with other upper riparian nations.

The availability of fresh water is a serious concern in many parts of the world, and nearly 40 per cent of the world's population, mainly in developing countries, is already facing serious water shortages. Furthermore, more and more nations are joining this list, such that "nations might be on the verge of water war by the end of this century," according to Diaa El-Qousy, an international expert on water.

A further threat particular to Egypt, El-Qousy argues, is a long-term scheme to divert the course of the Nile in Ethiopia, which is still being worked on by the US Bureau of Land Reclamation. The plans were close to being implemented before the High Dam was built, with Nile water being stored in Lake Tana in Ethiopia. However, since the building of the High Dam, Egypt has received continuous and constant amounts of water. "Egypt has a historical right to conserve the water of the Nile in Lake Nasser, and no other country has the right to violate this right," El-Qousy says.

Nevertheless, he adds, water resources in Egypt are becoming scarce. Surface-water resources originating from the Nile are now fully exploited, while groundwater sources are being brought into full production, and this at a time when Egypt is facing increasing water needs due to a rapidly growing population, increased urbanisation, higher standards of living and an agricultural policy that emphasises expanded production in order to feed a growing population.

The population is currently increasing by more than 1.5 million people a year, and "with a population of 80 million, Egypt is in dire need of revising its water-resource plans in order not to suffer water shortages in the future," El-Qousy says. At the end of 2008, Egypt was consuming nearly 815 cubic metres per person annually, with some neighbouring countries using only some 300 cubic metres, El-Qousy adds.

The annual amount of Nile water coming from rain is 1.65 billion cubic metres, with Nile Basin countries including Egypt and Sudan only consuming 82 million cubic metres per year, which is less than 10 per cent of the total.

According to Abul-Wafa, access to the Nile's water is based upon clear principles, among them being that any country's share should be commensurate with its population size and the extent of its agricultural lands. Moreover, no Nile Basin country should act unilaterally in the area of water policy in a manner that harms its neighbours. However, how such principles should be enforced remains unclear.

"Should political and diplomatic negotiations and international arbitration fail, a situation could arise in which the only remaining option would be the use of military force," said Abul-Wafa, echoing an earlier statement by former UN secretary-general Boutros Boutros-Ghali to the effect that "the next war in our region will be over the waters of the Nile, not politics."

However, Ibrahim Nasreddin of Cairo University's Institute for African Studies disagrees with Abul-Wafa and sees such predictions as unnecessarily alarmist. "The Nile can provide water for all the countries that depend on it, and the rhetoric surrounding the issue has been manufactured by other countries to achieve political goals," he says.

"These countries want Egypt to step back from the conflict taking place between Somalia and Eritrea, and they want to pressure Cairo into withholding support for southern Sudanese groups," Nasreddin adds. At the same time, he continues, "what we use is very little when compared to what there is. Yet, in order to tap this potential there must be far better management of the water, particularly around the equatorial lakes, where water losses are huge. Plants consume more than is lost through natural evaporation," he points out.

Projects such as the Gongli Canal have been designed to combat such water losses, but while there is a general consensus over the importance of better management of water resources, political problems have hampered the process. According to El-Qousy, Egypt and Sudan originally agreed to construct the Gongli Canal to circumvent swamps in the southern part of the White Nile, with the first phase of the project planned to produce an extra two billion cubic metres for each country.

"Unfortunately, because of the war in southern Sudan work is at a standstill, though there have been reports that it will resume shortly. I hope this is true," El-Qousy says.

Water experts point out that the source countries can do little to reduce Egypt's share of the Nile's water. "If they could, they would have done it a long time ago," Nasreddin says. "The River Nile flows towards the north. The depth of the Nile's route in source countries, especially in Ethiopia, is 500 metres. It would be impossible to build anything similar to the High Dam in only 10 months, yet that is what would have to happen if the construction were not to be washed away by the annual flood. At the same time, if they attempted to prevent water flow, the water held back would flood the surrounding land."

Nevertheless, there have been efforts to funnel off the waters of the River Nile, something which Nasreddin likens to attempts by the US to revive the idea of transferring water storage from Lake Nasser to one of Africa's Great Lakes, where the water would form a giant reservoir to be sold to whichever country wanted it. Pipelines would be used to transport water in a way similar to that used for petroleum.

For its part, the Egyptian government has long recognised upstream development of the Nile waters as a potential national security threat, and it has stated its readiness to fight if necessary to preserve its access to fresh water. Fortunately, as the Nile Basin's governments have come to understand the importance of the population-water relationship, advance planning and diplomacy will probably win out over saber- rattling and conflict.

Egypt's main objective in water planning has long been to harness the naturally fluctuating waters of the Nile, making them available for domestic and productive purposes. In order to fulfil this objective, seasonal and annual storage methods have been used, as well as flood control. Such goals were achieved in the 1960s following the inauguration of the Aswan High Dam.

Today, according to Nasreddin and El-Qousy, Egypt has the upper hand as far as disputes over the water of the River Nile are concerned. "Egypt should stop worrying about the amount of water it gets. Instead, it should be more concerned about how to benefit more from the current amount," both experts agree.

"None of the Nile Basin countries can pressure Egypt into doing anything against its will or welfare," Nasreddin says. "The Nile Basin countries are developing, and of course they want to irrigate their lands. But decisions over what is to be done cannot be made by one country. There must be consultation and mutual agreement."

He also points out that Egypt will eventually need to increase its quota. "A mushrooming population has seen Egypt's per capita share of potable water fall to as little as 760 cubic metres, compared to 2,000 cubic metres in the Nile's source countries. Officials must start talking, and the details will come later. They should focus on joint projects similar to the Gongli Canal. The most important principle is that the Nile should be for all countries to benefit from," he said.

Nevertheless, Nasreddin also worries that international pressure on source countries to consider water as an asset like oil that can be bought and sold will act to skew the current equation.

There have been suggestions that Egypt should buy its annual share of Nile water for LE27 billion and Sudan buy its share for LE14 billion, he said. "The government has refused such demands, but it could be pressured by the World Bank threatening to reduce its grants to Egypt," Nasreddin says.

It is for this reason that Nasreddin argues that the government should drop schemes to charge farmers for the water they use. "To implement any of these schemes would give a green light to countries seeking to charge Egypt itself for water," he says.

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