Egypt’s New Democrats Ready to Defend Nile

If Egypt and Sudan join the Nile water partnership, the decisions the basin makes will be difficult, and will require new relationships among those who feed Lake Nasser and those who take from it.

In the beginning, Egypt was the Nile. That could now change, as Egypt, Sudan and the countries that supply the Nile’s waters face new politics, economic development, skyrocketing demographics and climate change.  Egypt confronts at least a half a dozen other African countries that have for generations delivered their waters to Egypt’s Nile. What historically appeared to be Egypt’s birthright has now become a privilege they must negotiate with their upstream neighbors. It is a major issue in Egypt’s upcoming elections.

“Some of the political parties are talking about the Nile agreement,” said Dr. Mahmoud Abu-Zeid, “but all of them are talking about water security, which means no disturbance of the historic rights and that countries should not implement projects which would affect our uses of the Nile in Egypt.” And that is what is at stake for Egypt as a newly elected government in Cairo will define its role in a new regional initiative that will decide the future of the Nile and its beneficiaries.

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A view of Cairo and the Nile river in Cairo, Egypt (file photo)
A view of Cairo and the Nile river in Cairo, Egypt (file photo)

The Nile Basin Initiative was begun in 1999. Dr. Abu-Zeid spent a good part of his 12 years as Egypt’s minister of water resources and irrigation trying to save those historic water rights in negotiated agreements with Ethiopia and at least five other African countries. A few months ago, it became clear that upstream neighbors could replace Egypt’s old river-related traditions, with or without Egypt and Sudan. Then, Ethiopia announced construction of a new dam that made Cairo nervous.They call it the Renaissance Dam.

“We saw that the new dam Ethiopia has started to build might affect the historic rights of Egypt,” said Abu-Zeid. Construction of Ethiopia’s $5-million hydro-electric dam on a principal source of Egypt’s Nile began several months ago.

Ethiopia recently agreed to host officials from Egypt and Sudan to prove that the dam, now called the Renaissance Dam, will not be used to irrigate any of the large corporate farms the Ethiopian government has leased to foreign investors in recent years. Though Ethiopia’s funding of the dam’s construction is uncertain, Egypt remains concerned and suspicious.

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“What we have been assured is that this dam is for hydro-electric and that it has no irrigation schemes in it,”  said Abu-Zeid. “On the other hand, we have heard about irrigation schemes in Ethiopia and we’re not sure if any of them are in the Nile Basin.”

Mathematics of the Nile

Population has driven much of the new politics in the Nile Basin. “Water doesn’t increase, but the population does,” said Richard Tutwiler, a research professor at the American University in Cairo and director of school’s Desert Development Center. In the 1950s, when Egypt and Sudan decided how much of the Nile they needed, there were about 22 million Egyptians and 9 million Sudanese and 18  million Ethiopians.

Today, Egypt has a population of 82 million, Sudan has a population of 45 million, and Ethiopia has a population of 85 million. Between these three countries the population has increased four times and in recent years Egypt has succeeded in increasing by 25 percent its inventory of farmlands by irrigating deserts through extensive and expensive canal systems.

Nile River and surrounding countries

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