by Desalegn Sisay, Djamel
An Extraordinary Nile Council of Ministers’ Meeting that saw the gathering of all ten Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) member countries last week at Sharm El-Cheikh, in Egypt, failed to produce an agreement over the sharing of the Nile’s resources. Egypt, supported by Sudan, refused to give its stamp of approval to a Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) that seeks to develop the Nile river in a cooperative manner and share its resources equally without causing significant harm to other riparian countries. The meeting which assembled both Upper riparian countries (Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea and Burundi) and lower riparian countries (Egypt, Sudan) revealed the deep fissure that separates the two groups. An agreement signed in 1929 with Great Britain on behalf of its East African colonies, and another in 1959 between Egypt and Sudan allowed Egypt alone to use 55.5 billion cubic meters (87% of the Nile’s flow) and Sudan 18.5 cubic meters of water each year.
The CFA, which was finalized during a previous meeting in 2009, in Kinshasa, DRC, questions the near monopoly Egypt and Sudan hold over the Nile river. Mohamed Allam, Irrigation Minister of Egypt, had announced, ahead of the Sharm El-Cheikh meeting that his country intended to hold on to every drop of its annual 55.5 billion cubic meter water quota, which represents half of the Nile’s water resource. Among other things, Cairo claims a veto power over all new irrigation projects in NBI member countries, without which, it claims, its “historical right” over the Nile will be undermined.
Ethiopia, which contributes to 85 per cent of Egypt’s Nile resource and plays a significant role in the negotiations, while enjoying a highly strategic position among the upper riparian countries as a key member, came under scrutiny when the Eastern African country signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), late last year, to establish an Ethiopia-Egypt Council of Commerce with the aim of strengthening economic ties between the two countries. Observers argued that a future shift by Ethiopia on the Nile negotiations was imminent after the Ethiopian Prime Minister indicated, at the signing of the MoU, that the two countries will develop the Nile Basin jointly through the Nile Basin Initiative.
Hani Raslan, who heads the department for Sudan and Nile Basin countries at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo believes that “after Egypt’s offer of financial assistance and investment, Ethiopia has noticeably moderated its position on water sharing (…) Addis Ababa has even begun to play the role of mediator between Egypt and Sudan and upstream states like Congo, Kenya and Tanzania.”
But, Ethiopia’s Water Resource Minister, Asfaw Dingano, reacting to the impasse told journalists on Friday, April 16, that the seven upper riparian countries will go ahead with the signing of the CFA, set to begin May 14 and remain open for a year, with or without the agreement of Egypt and Sudan. With nearly forty articles established to date within the framework of the Nile Basin Initiative, Egypt and Sudan oppose any agreement that modifies their water quota. According to Asfaw, Egypt, seconded by Sudan, rejected the agreement after citing two articles as being particularly problematic, although they had come to a consensus on the subject during the group’s previous meeting.
According to Hani Raslan, “Egypt has the right to maintain its current share of Nile water under international law.” He further argued in a recent interview on RNW, a Dutch radio, that the upper riparian countries should not reproach Egypt’s position, as the country depends on the Nile for 95 per cent of its water needs, whereas the “upstream countries depend on the river for as little as 5 percent of their water needs.”
Egypt, which has since the last decade been qualified as a water-scarce country, and Sudan have been consistent in their opposition to all deals that seek to renegotiate the several decades old treaties that give them a lion’s share of the Nile River’s water resource.