Monday,23 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1360, (14 - 20 September 2017)
Monday,23 July, 2018
Issue 1360, (14 - 20 September 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Arguing for the right to water

This year’s World Water Week meeting in Stockholm saw Egypt energetically defending its water rights, writes Nader Noureddin

اقرأ باللغة العربية

Countries bring together their scientists to exchange knowledge and expertise and to benefit from the latest scientific findings and discoveries regarding water at international seminars and meetings. They may also deliberate on ways to counter current or potential encroachments on their water rights. In the latter case, they will attempt to present and evaluate the facts of the situation as objectively as possible without trying to fool themselves or others and without suppressing the relevant facts. 

Some governments also solicit the help of internationally reputed or award-winning scientists to defend their country’s positions in disputes over water and to attack the positions of other countries. Such things were seen at this year’s World Water Week 2017 meeting, held in Stockholm from 27 August to 1 September. Egypt took part in this event, represented by a well-selected and appropriately diverse delegation that consisted of specialists in hydraulic engineering, water-resource management, climate change, agriculture, food security and international law. The delegation was headed by Minister of Irrigation Mohamed Abdel-Ati.

When a prominent prize-winning scientist at the meeting said that Egypt was “preventing” Upper Nile countries from building dams on the Nile and that Egypt should “abide by” the principles of the Khartoum Declaration that it had signed and recognise the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) and “refrain from monopolising Nile waters”, Egypt was thus amply prepared to respond. Its delegation was equipped with specialists capable of doing so scientifically and diplomatically.

Egypt does not oppose the construction of dams in the Nile Basin countries. What it opposes is the construction of mega-dams. So, too, does UN water law, which states that up-river dams should be small so as not to harm down-river countries or alter the nature and seasons of riparian water flows or harm already existing facilities. Egypt’s position is thus wholly consistent with international law. Evidence of this is also to be found in the fact that Egypt funded and participated in the construction of the Owen Dam in Uganda and then the Kiira Dam that followed it. It even wanted the first dam to be higher than originally planned so that it could generate more electricity for Uganda.

Egypt also adheres to the provision of UN law on international rivers which says that upper riparian nations must notify down-river nations in advance if they intend to build dams on such rivers. The law contains eight articles on this topic. Advanced notification includes the provision of thorough studies on the environmental, hydraulic and socio-economic impacts of proposed projects. Down-river countries must be given the right to review the studies for a full year and then the right to either accept or reject the project in question. In the event that the project is rejected, the parties may turn to the UN for arbitration.

So where has Egypt gone wrong with regard to its commitment to international water law? It should be born in mind that contrary to international law, the headwater country in question in this case, Ethiopia, which should have born the costs of the necessary feasibility studies in full, in fact asked Egypt and Sudan to share the costs, as though these two countries stood to benefit from the up-river dam. As for the claim that Egypt has not signed off on the UN law on international rivers in order to avoid having to commit to its provisions, none of the other Nile Basin countries have signed it either.

Why blame Egypt alone? The fact that these countries have not signed this law does not preclude a commitment to its principles.

The claim that Egypt has “seized control” of the Nile in order to expand its agricultural land into the desert while preventing the headwater nations from having the same right also does not stand to reason. It is sufficient to compare the area of agricultural land in Egypt with that elsewhere in the Nile Basin.

Egypt has the smallest amount of agricultural land of all the Nile Basin nations. It has only 8.6 million acres of agricultural land, compared to 84 million acres in Ethiopia, of which only four million hectares are under cultivation with biofuels while twice that amount is allocated to cash crops and grain and the rest to coffee and costly organic crops.

Tanzania has 122 million acres of land under cultivation and is the largest producer of biofuels in Africa. Kenya has 80 million acres of agricultural land. The country is half the size of Egypt and the largest tea producer in the world. Uganda, about the quarter the size of Egypt, has 35 million acres of agricultural land, and Sudan has 220 million acres of cultivable land.

In what ways is Egypt “monopolising” water and “depriving” up-river nations of it? How can the country with the smallest amount of agricultural land be the largest consumer of water, especially since agriculture is the main consumer of water?


FALSE VIEWS: The notion that Egypt pumps water out into the desert is also curious.

This claim suggests that other countries are incapable of transporting water similar distances to feed similar agricultural projects. It cites the Peace Canal in Sinai and the Toshka project in Upper Egypt, even though the Peace Canal is actually part of the Nile Basin. If this were not the case, where would this 50,000-acre stretch of silt plain have come from?

Over the past 70 years, Egypt has lost more than 2.5 million acres of Nile Valley land due to urban expansion. Land reclamation is essential in order to compensate for this, at least in part, though efforts to do so thus far have only compensated for about a third of the loss. To accuse Egypt of “pumping water into the desert” is a gross distortion of the facts and an attempt to suggest that Egypt is engaged in massive agricultural expansion at the expense of nations that are poorer agriculturally and in terms of water resources.

In fact, Egypt is the only country in the region whose population is packed onto only seven per cent of its total land area. This area accommodates 96 per cent of the population, and half of this area is taken up by agriculture. The other Nile Basin countries have most of their territories to live on.

In addition, Egypt, despite its current share of Nile waters, still imports 60 per cent of its food needs at a cost of more than $10 billion a year. It has the largest food deficit, not just among the Nile Basin countries, but in the whole of Africa. Imagine what would happen to a country with the history, strategic location and demographics of Egypt if its share of water were to be cut back. Imagine the food supply gap. Imagine the shrinkage of the space in which Egyptian people could live.

Critics will inevitably point to the need for Egyptians to use their water resources more effectively and to reduce the waste of them. Yet, Egypt falls within international averages for water loss through open irrigation networks, which account for 25 to 35 per cent of the amounts of water it receives. It should be considered how much it would cost to line more than 30,000km of irrigation canals with cement, to convert large stretches of canals to pipes, or to cover them in order to reduce water loss due to evaporation.

Would international aid organisations come up with the necessary grants to help cover these costs? Is it right for an $8 billion dam in Ethiopia to cost Egypt $40 billion in order for it to adjust to the consequences?

Desalinisation is sometimes presented as part of this adjustment. But desalination is very costly, and while some wealthy countries can afford it, it is not obvious that this is the case for poorer ones such as Egypt. Should Egypt be expected to pay some LE60 billion to produce five billion m3 of desalinated water a year, without even factoring in the construction costs and the enormous electricity consumption needed to produce such a relatively small amount of water? Is the poor Egyptian farmer to pay the thousands of dollars it would cost every five years or so to convert to drip irrigation and to maintain these networks? Or will international organisations volunteer to foot the bill?

Consider, too, the impact of these processes on the cost of food in Egypt and on the UN principle regarding the right of access to food, a principle the formulators of which surely cannot have been thinking of in placing the rich before the poor. It was very strange to hear speakers at the World Water Week sessions calling for water pricing, since this would have a major impact on food costs. Something insidious is at work here. If down-river countries sell water to their farmers as a means to regulate water consumption, then up-river countries could claim the equal right to demand a price for the water that leaves their territory.

In other words, international rivers would be privatised. They would be owned by the headwater states, which could control who could purchase the water and for how much. Moral and ethical questions abound. Why should a country at the source of a river be better qualified to make use of that river’s water than a country at its mouth? What effect will the decline in irrigation water have at a time of global warming and higher rates of water loss due to evaporation (which will in turn require greater amounts of water for irrigation)? What effects will global warming itself have on the quality of the soil, given higher rates of salinisation and soil erosion?

Even the discussions of climate change and global warming at the Water Week ignored the impact of mega-dams. Discussions focused on water decreases and greater evaporation in certain countries, notably Iraq, Syria, Egypt and other North African countries. But Turkey’s Ataturk Dam alone holds back 25 billion m3 of water from Syria and Iraq. It is little wonder that the quality of the soil in those countries has deteriorated and its agricultural productivity has declined. Why ignore the impact of the Turkish dam and speak only about the effects of climate change?

Much the same applies to the Egyptian Delta. The soil in the Delta is becoming increasingly saline as seawater seeps into the area causing the soil’s productivity to decline. How can we discuss this solely in terms of climate change, ignoring the impact of water shortages due to mega-dams and in spite of their violations of international law?

Some of the most apt slogans used at World Water Week were “make water your whole concern” and “think before you waste water.” Water is necessary for life itself, and there is now a greater need than ever to recycle and to reuse water. We need to explore new ways of doing this with an eye to reducing our dependency on support from abroad.

At the same time, we must not leave international forums to others. Egypt must continue to participate in all international conferences in order to present its true views, to explain its rights and to challenge the injustices inflicted on it by others.

The writer is a professor at the Faculty of Agriculture at Cairo University.

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