struggle over the nile
Struggle Over the Nile

Controlling the Nile

An Egyptian political analyst reflects on Egypt’s relationship with the Nile.

By Hani Raslan

Some of the Nile’s headwater states, such as Kenya and Tanzania, have areas that suffer from water shortage, so they need to bring in water. Water is needed to generate power for development and industrial projects.

Egypt recognises this, which is why it has offered substantial assistance to clean up streams of the Nile in Uganda – either by providing equipment, expertise or technical support. Egypt has also contributed to digging hundreds of water wells in Kenya and Tanzania.

The Nile’s water is currently governed by two major conventions. The first was signed between Egypt and Britain in 1929. Britain was the colonial power in Sudan and all the Nile headwater states. The second was signed in 1959 between Egypt and Sudan.

The 1929 agreement gives Egypt the right to object to any water project on the Nile that may affect its share of the water or the flow northwards to Egypt. The agreement takes into account the fact that Egypt was almost entirely dependent on the river’s water, unlike other headwater states which have alternative resources such as heavy rainfall or the sources of the Nile which are on the equator, a region of heavy forests and long stretches of the savannah.

The fundamental problem is not about the access to water but about the outflow of water. Countries that began gaining independence since the 1960s claim that since they were colonies, they do not recognise the agreements because the British did not represent their interests and were not their custodian.

Egypt is required to regulate the Nile’s water by giving prior notice because its use within the river basin is governed by international conventions. There should be some kind of co-operation and fair use of the river so that upstream countries do not end up denying downstream states the use of the Nile. Prior notice is part of the international conventions. It means that you should inform me in advance to co-ordinate with me so as not to hurt my welfare.

The second point is that these states refuse to recognise the current quotas, which allow Egypt the use of its share of 55.5 billion cubic litres as stipulated under the 1959 agreement with Sudan.

Water security

The third point is related to water security, where each country has specific needs for water that should be agreed on so as not to fall below the level of water requirements within the conventions because it will hinder development and affect the national security of a particular country.

We can say the upstream countries have the right to the use of the Nile’s water but as it is mentioned in the 1929 convention that gives Egypt the right to be notified in advance about the just use of water, meaning that none of the headwater countries has the right to build a huge dam to hold water from moving downstream.

Politically-speaking, these countries have taken a prior position against Egypt, a position linked to the developments on the African continent. Egypt played a major role in helping African nations gain independence and in building the Organisation of African Unity. But its role declined, mainly after its involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict in the 1970s.

The upstream states felt Egypt was not interested in their issues and had failed to extend a hand in the technical, developmental and educational fields. They saw Egypt as not being concerned about their interests or aspirations, in addition to the external dimension presented by the existence of Israel in the region.

There are still conflicting reports of Israeli presence in the region, which are part security, part economy. There are also reports that Israel is building dams and that it is helping countries such as Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda in the construction of water reservoirs to harm Egypt’s share of Nile’s water.

The first point to clarify is that countries like Rwanda and Burundi are not in need of water at all, and their contribution to the resources of the Nile basin is negligible. The Democratic Republic of Congo has the Congo River that is larger than the Nile, its water revenue is greater than the Nile by several times and it flows into the ocean … meaning its water flows without any interference.

But other headwater countries like Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania contribute to the 16 per cent, or 55.5 billion cubic metres of water, that flow to Egypt – but that is not enough for Egypt. The equatorial region is important to Egypt, though not critically so as yet, because 16 per cent of the water comes from there with the remaining 84 per cent from Ethiopia. It is still significant because the total volume of water in the Nile river basin is 1,600 billion cubic metres. What is stored behind the Aswan High Dam is 84 billion cubic metres, or less than five per cent, and wastage occurs through evaporation in swamps or forest.

Joint initiative

At the same time, Egypt is working on establishing joint projects with the countries in the Nile basin including those contributing to the loss of water, and then forming technical and developmental co-operation which includes the political aspect, thus necessitating the Nile Basin Framework Initiative.

This requires a joint initiative which Egypt had proposed and adopted in 1997, with funding from the World Bank and donors. It has so far carried out 22 joint projects to provide water and generate electricity. The signing of the framework agreement was hindered by reservations expressed by upstream states.

Israel has no ambition over the waters of the Nile because there is a principle in the international conventions regarding the joint initiative. There are two points, the first is that the water should not go outside the Nile basin countries as some of the Arab countries, including Libya, wanted to include the principle of selling water. Libya wanted to take a share of the Nile water although the country is not part of the Nile basin. The principle of transferring water out, either to Israel or some other country, is strictly prohibited.

Egypt has repeatedly announced that it will not go to war with Nile basin countries until its announcement has become a consistent and stable principle. It is a red line issue in the sense that Egypt is keen on maintaining its interests and will not forfeit them, but it has also specified its path to maintain those interests through trade co-operation agreements and the exchange of technical or economic development by all available means in this context.

This is a complicated issue and should not be simply dealt with as Israel cannot build dams … Israel enticed these countries by promising to help fund the construction of dams and technical planning. At the moment, however, donor countries or [a] group of donors that are funding projects in the joint initiative led by the World Bank have announced that any project in this region should not be financed unless there is a general agreement that includes all members of the upstream and downstream Nile basin countries. This is not a guarantee for Egypt but it can currently uphold the Egyptian position as these states can study projects and get funding from elsewhere, for example from China.

Furthermore, it rains heavily in Ethiopia, which is the main source of Egypt’s share of the Nile’s water. Some regions in Ethiopia suffer from extreme poverty, so Ethiopia has the right to set up some ponds to hold some water for the purpose of agriculture. But technically speaking, Ethiopia lies on a highland and cannot build huge dams which will have a negative impact on Egypt as the dams will be destroyed by a large volume of water.

Ties with Sudan

For the upstream countries, the projects are based on the idea of drilling streams to enlarge the swamps because when the wetlands dry up, water flow is impeded and it will spread horizontally, which in turn results in loss of water due to evaporation and the spread of aquatic plants. The projects are based on digging a stream in the marshes to help the water flow forward and replenish the wetlands for the purposes of agriculture or irrigation.

Some regions build dams to generate electricity for industrial and other uses, but the water that is not retained will flow forward. The projects are carefully studied to meet the requirements of these countries and also to help provide additional water. Egypt, which has already entered into water poverty, needs to have two strategies. One is to seek to ration water and the second is to find additional sources of water either through the Nile or through the desalination of sea water.

South Sudan is about to be an independent state and Sudan’s water share will be divided between the southern and northern states. South Sudan will not have a significant need for water as it is near the equator, and has the rich savannah and long tropical belt of forests. As a result, its agriculture mainly depends on rainfall rather than irrigation and there will be no need for river water. But this new state will also be a hub for some proposed projects under the Nile Basin Framework Initiative, including the Dongali channel project. Egypt currently funds the digging on condition that it shares the revenue equally with Sudan.

The Dongali project was suspended for technical and administrative reasons. Salva Kiir, the leader of South Sudan, announced that the government has no objection to reviving the project, and blamed the government in Khartoum for impeding the implementation of the project. The new state … might cooperate or not cooperate.

The second point is the political situation in terms of how the new state will view the stance of the upstream and downstream countries, and whether it will co-operate with only northern Sudan and Egypt. All government officials in South Sudan stress the principle of co-operation with Egypt but this is probably said before independence for tactical purposes and might be true, or not.

Egypt has extended a helping hand to South Sudan and has never been involved in the civil war between the North and the South. Egypt has helped southern Sudan in various ways. At the moment, it supplies power for five cities in South Sudan. The University of Alexandria has been offering grants to 300 students from the south for technical training in various fields. So the basis for co-operation is always there.

Sticking points

Problems still exist because the framework agreement has not been signed yet. There is always a risk that upstream countries might resort to proceeding without Sudan and Egypt. So far there have not been any positive signs of progress or breakthrough on the points of disagreement. Egypt and some neutral or objective views say that we do not need to sign the agreement right away.

What is more important is what happens on the ground because there are no major dam projects currently affecting Egypt’s interests. But it seems the upstream countries are considering proceeding with the agreement, which to them is an obstacle in obtaining urgent funding for projects under the framework. Egypt, too, will use all political and diplomatic means to convince these countries not to take positions against its interests.

I do not expect that Egypt will enter a war because this is in fact not in its interest at all. A war can only happen if there are major projects that prevent water flow to Egypt and lead to a reduction in the amount of water reaching it. Technical studies, funding and the start of construction will be a hindrance to Egypt. Options might be open but I do not think the upstream countries will resort to war because they are newly emerging nations which do not have a national identity, and are faced with political, economic and internal security crises. They are not in a position to threaten Egypt’s interests in the foreseeable future.

It is not Egypt’s powerful military … but about its overall clout. There are many ways to reach the pre-war level. Egypt has a long experience in this regard, with great historic presence on the African continent and knows how to act.

It is true that Egypt’s presence has subsided over the last 40 years but we must bear in mind that the country is the centre of civilisation in Africa; it is the Mother Land of Africa because the first civilisation emerged from Egypt. We have a cohesive and strong country with deep roots and traditions … we have a very solid identity … we have a unified vision toward our external interests in the face of small and troubled countries that may be vulnerable for various reasons. But we should not talk from this perspective because we are brethren in one basin and each one must look for co-operation, not conflict.