Edition 15 Volume 8 - July 08, 2024

The Nile basin controversy

The Israel angle -   Yossi Alpher

Forty years ago, Israel would have been pleased. Today, it should be worried.

Two-headed serpent with a sting in the tail -   Xan Rice

The polar positions should have come as no surprise since they reflect a wider division between the sub-Saharan countries and their North African neighbors.

Crisis on the Nile: an Egyptian view -   Abdel Monem Said Aly

The starting point is to differentiate between the Nile basin and the Nile River.

Whose hands on the Nile? -   Wondwosen Michago Seide

The status quo is not only unacceptable, it is counter-productive.

The Israel angle
 Yossi Alpher

Israel has been dragged into the Nile basin controversy by portions of the Egyptian media and political opposition on totally baseless grounds. This might be entertaining, if Israel did not have so many real and serious international problems to deal with. But the Israel angle is nevertheless instructive, if only to note just how profoundly an Israeli pre-peace anti-Egyptian strategy remains imprinted on the psyche of at least some Egyptians.

The current, groundless allegations purport to see an Israeli hand in an alleged conspiracy hatched by Ethiopia and other Nile Basin countries to deny Egypt Nile waters that it currently exploits under international treaty, and use them for their own benefit. The visit by Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman to Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda in September 2024 is cited as proof that Israel is conniving with these countries against Egypt. Lieberman did nothing of the kind in Africa; he promoted bilateral commerce and encouraged an anti-Iran stand that could only please Egypt. He offered Israeli aid to Africa mainly in order for Israel to satisfy the demands of the OECD, of which it recently became a member.

But Lieberman had in the past threatened to respond to Egyptian aggression by attacking the Aswan Dam. He also once insulted President Hosni Mobarak. Hence he is understandably suspect. In fact, Lieberman visited Africa (the first high-level Israeli visit there in 20 years) and, earlier, South America, primarily because he is not a desired guest in most other parts of the world--but that is a different story.

Israel is accused by the opposition press in Egypt of having offered to fund agricultural projects and dam-building in African countries at the sources of the Nile with the objective of either punishing Egypt for taking an anti-Israel stand on nuclear matters or, alternatively, pressuring Egypt to share Nile waters with Israel by means of a pipeline across Sinai to the Negev. These allegations conveniently ignore the fact that Israel and Egypt have moved closer strategically in recent years in view of the perception of a shared threat by Iran, Hamas and Hizballah. And Israel gave up the dream of drinking Nile water some 30 years ago, shortly after President Anwar Sadat himself proposed the idea. Indeed, with half its drinking water soon to be produced by desalination, Israel can offer neighboring Mediterranean and Red Sea coastal countries technologies for exploiting their ample salt water resources to produce potable water.

The real source of the allegations by the Egyptian opposition regarding Israel, Africa and the Nile goes back even more than 30 years, to the 1950s and '60s. Then, Egypt under President Gamal Abdel Nasser led the Arab world in targeting Israel and aggressively projecting Egyptian power. Israel responded with its "Periphery Doctrine" of alliances with Iran, Turkey and Ethiopia to counter threats from Egypt, Syria and Iraq. The doctrine helped persuade the Arab world that it would have to accommodate Israel: witness Sadat's dramatic peace initiative of 1977. Since then, at least as far as Egypt is concerned, Israel's periphery doctrine has been defunct. Not only have countries like Iran and now Turkey turned against Israel; they have turned against Egypt as well. Israel, for obvious reasons, prefers even a cold peace with Cairo to scheming with Ethiopia.

But when the Egyptian opposition press conjures up the periphery doctrine after all these years to support its false allegations of Israeli perfidy, it also, almost accidentally, spotlights a more current and troubling strategic trend. Forty and 50 years ago, Israel sought to outflank a strong and regionally influential Egypt by linking up with non-Arab countries that shared Jerusalem's fear of Arab aggression. Today, with the entire Arab state system ailing and seemingly incapable of standing up to militant Islam, Egypt appears to have lost much of its leadership image virtually everywhere, including Africa.

How else can we explain the readiness of Nile basin states like Ethiopia, Uganda and Congo to draw up an agreement that could conceivably threaten Egypt and Sudan's share of Nile waters, without even consulting Cairo? Forty years ago, Israel would have been pleased. Today, it should be worried.- Published 8/7/2010 © bitterlemons-international.org

Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

Two-headed serpent with a sting in the tail
 Xan Rice

Anyone who has flown above a large river, watching it twist and turn, shiny and smooth, will recognize the cliche of the snake as metaphor.

Perhaps aptly in the case of the Nile, the world's longest river, the serpent has two heads. One is in the highlands of Ethiopia, the other around Lake Victoria in Uganda. Each hungrily drinks in water from the surrounding catchment areas to sustain their bodies as they slither through the parched terrain downstream. By the time the Blue Nile and White Nile merge in Sudan's capital Khartoum, the green land has turned to desert browns that stretch all the way through Egypt, where the river's tail finally reaches the Mediterranean Sea.

There, the harsh climate means that the Nile is no longer just a great river, but an essential lifeline to be protected at all costs--a fact recognized politically as far back as the late 1800s, when Egypt, Sudan and their colonial overseer Britain started inking agreements to deny the upstream nations the right to use any of the water or to build any projects on the river. When the winds of independence swept through Africa in the early 1960s, the seven countries negatively affected--besides Uganda and Ethiopia, Burundi, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania and Kenya all contribute to the river's flow--rejected the agreements. Still, with small populations and abundant alternative water sources making the Nile a low priority, they did not push further.

Fifty years on and the importance of the Nile to Sudan and in particular to Egypt, which gets 90 per cent of its water from the river, remains paramount. But in the upstream countries, the river is now also recognized as an extremely crucial resource, in large part due to fast-changing demographics. Ethiopia is already Africa's second most populous nation, but high birth rates mean the population is projected to nearly double to 150 million by 2024. Uganda's population will more than triple to nearly 100 million over the same time.

Decades of underinvestment mean there is great demand for electricity in these countries, and the Nile's strong flow makes it ideal for hydropower. With more mouths to fill, food supply is going to become an ever more critical issue for governments--particularly with rainfall patterns becoming increasingly unpredictable--making large-scale irrigation projects attractive to countries such as Ethiopia. The colonial-era treaties that in theory prevent this from happening are no longer seen in government offices in Addis Ababa and Kampala as merely an affront but as a dangerous hindrance to development.

To address these concerns, the seven upstream countries plus Egypt and Sudan established the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) to work toward a fairer water-sharing arrangement and address environmental threats to the river. But with a final deal on the table earlier this year, Egypt and Sudan refused to sign, insisting that their colonial-era rights be protected. And so, for the first time in the history of hydro-politics on the Nile, the serpent's heads bared their fangs at the tail.

In May, Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and Rwanda signed a new framework deal on cooperation over the Nile, with Burundi and Congo expected to join. The decision stunned Egypt and Sudan. At the NBI meeting in late June, Sudan froze its membership. Egypt's water minister said the new deal "cannot be forced on us" and accused the upstream countries of misusing "our Nile".

In reality, the polar positions should have come as no surprise since they reflect a wider division between the sub-Saharan countries and their North African neighbors. Relationships among the East African countries are good, with the East African Common Market, allowing free movement of labor, goods and capital coming into full operation on July 1. Though outside the economic bloc, Ethiopia enjoys decent ties with East Africa, and is strengthening ties with Kenya by seeking to sell it power and improving trade and transport links.

By contrast, the links between Sudan and Egypt and their non-Arab southern neighbors are relatively weak. Egypt in particular appears to have grown apart from sub-Saharan Africa in recent decades, which will only serve to increase mistrust of the parties' intentions over the river. Meanwhile, Sudan faces breakup next year with an independence referendum that could see South Sudan align closer to its southern neighbors than to Khartoum.

In Egypt, where any talk of the Nile automatically becomes a political issue, the reaction to the upstream countries' move on a new deal has been furious. In East Africa, even before the split, the talk has been less inflammatory. But speaking in private, government officials in East Africa are genuinely angry at the refusal of Sudan and Egypt to sign a new deal that would, they say, protect the two countries' rights to the bulk, but not all, of the river's flow.

Still, despite all the rhetoric, diplomacy seems the only way forward and the heads and the tail have not stopped talking. Within a fortnight of Kenya signing the new Nile agreement in May, Prime Minister Raila Odinga and senior water officials traveled to Cairo for talks. A few weeks later, Egypt's water minister was in Uganda on an official visit.- Published 8/7/2010 © bitterlemons-international.org

Xan Rice is East Africa correspondent for The Guardian newspaper.

Crisis on the Nile: an Egyptian view
 Abdel Monem Said Aly

It was one sole paragraph in one article of a multi-article agreement that triggered a semi-crisis situation among the Nile basin states. Paragraph B, article 14 turned a promise of regional cooperation into tension and a threat to the national security of some states. It called for the right of all Nile basin states to erect projects on the Nile. Those who know international relations know that crises and wars can emerge from much less than a single paragraph.

This story finds its origins in colonial times. It was in 1902 and 1929 when Britain, the custodian of Egypt and Sudan, negotiated and signed agreements with Ethiopia to give both Arab countries historic rights to the waters of the Nile. In 1959, Cairo signed an agreement with Khartoum that guarantees Egypt 55 billion cubic meters while giving Sudan 18 billion annually. In fact, Sudan has never used the amount assigned to it, while Egypt has "borrowed" what it needed or stored it behind its dams, particularly the Aswan Dam after 1970.

The other Nile basin states have questioned the legality of these three agreements, arguing that what was signed in colonial times was invalidated by independence. The Egyptians and Sudanese have responded that Ethiopia was an independent country at the time of the 1929 agreement. They argue that one of the foundations of the Organization of African Unity (now the African Union) is that agreements signed during colonial times remain sacrosanct, and that international law acknowledges not only historic rights to river waters but also does not permit any country at a river's source to affect the flow of waters to other riparian countries.

Legal debates aside, Cairo has taken a different approach. The starting point is to differentiate between the Nile basin and the Nile River. Regarding the former, rainfall is approximately 1,660 billion cubic meters annually, 85 percent of which is on the Ethiopian high plateau. The remaining rainfall is recorded at the African great lakes and Nile basin states including Congo, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, Central Africa, Kenya, Rwanda and Burundi. What reaches the Nile River is about 100 billion cubic meters, some of which flows into the Mediterranean.

What is needed, Cairo has argued, is the creation of projects that use the vast remaining quantity of water to support development in all the participating countries. The Nile Basin Initiative was born as a partnership among the Nile riparian states that "seeks to develop the river in a cooperative manner, share substantial socioeconomic benefits, and promote regional peace and security". It was formally launched in February 1999 by the water ministers of ten countries:Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. (Eritrea is not a Nile basin state but is participating because of its past relations with Ethiopia).

For the next decade, these countries strove to establish a framework of cooperation involving a wide range of possibilities for projects that allow the generation of electricity and the collection of large quantities of water wasted in the Nile marshes. A regional commission was planned to lead the process of cooperation in a variety of fields. However, differences remained over recognition of past agreements and "historic rights". With negotiations on these issues still ongoing, on May 14, 2024 four countries, Uganda, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Tanzania, opened an Agreement on the Nile River Basin Cooperative Framework for signature for a period of one year until May 13, 2024. The event took place at Lake Victoria Hotel, Entebbe, under the auspices of the government of Uganda. The four founding countries signed immediately and were joined shortly thereafter by Kenya.

In a way, the initiation of this agreement was the flashpoint that announced the birth of a "crisis". As the agreement recognized neither historic rights nor past agreements, and paragraph B, article 14 gives the Nile basin states unrestricted rights to erect projects on the Nile as they see fit, it was natural that Egypt and Sudan viewed the agreement as possibly affecting negatively the flow of waters to their respective countries, hence threatening their vital national interests. Accordingly, they called for recognition of historic rights and for unanimity over any new project on the Nile. The signing states saw this position as "unjust" in view of the difference in the degree of development of their countries as compared with Egypt. The media played its part in turning negotiating positions into national crises.

Cool heads, however, prevailed. The leaders of the signing states clarified that they had no intention to harm the vital interests of other countries, particularly Egypt and Sudan. This made it possible for the latter to present their case and declare their readiness to assist in the development of the other basin states. Both sides announced their intention to continue negotiations. The crisis went into abatement.

But resolution of contradictions remains a target. Luckily, there is no imminent project that might put the process to a test. For the present, there is plenty of water for all. For the future, in the Egyptian view, there is enough as well--provided that all the Nile basin countries choose the right kind of projects that help all sides to develop.- Published 8/7/2010 © bitterlemons-international.org

Abdel Monem Said Aly is director of Al Ahram Center for Political & Strategic Studies in Cairo.

Whose hands on the Nile?
 Wondwosen Michago Seide

Since the signing of the new Nile water agreement in May 2024, the Nile basin controversy has resurfaced at the top of the national security agenda of all ten riparian countries, particularly Egypt and Ethiopia. In the current era of climate change, desertification and population pressure coupled with the lack of an all-inclusive water agreement, it is perhaps not a surprise that the media is currently obsessed with signs of water war and conflict.

The Nile Cooperative Framework Agreement negotiations have been through several grueling and meandering phases including the formation of a Panel of Experts, a Transitional Committee, a Negotiations Committee and joint negotiations. Agreement has been reached on the majority of the articles, but the thorniest one is Article 14 (b) which states that: "The Nile Basin States therefore agree, in a spirit of cooperation, to work together to ensure that all states achieve and sustain water security and not to significantly affect the water security of any other Nile Basin States (proposed by the Upper riparian countries) not to adversely affect water security and the current use and rights of any other Nile Basin States (proposed by lower riparian countries)".

The differences that remain are between those who support the status quo and those who don't. Apparently, the lower riparian countries insist on clinging to the 1929 Anglo-Sudan and Egyptian agreement and the bilateral 1959 Egypt-Sudan "Agreement for the Full Utilization of the Nile Waters".

May 2024, however, heralded a new era as far as the hydro-political history of the Nile basin is concerned. Five riparian countries signed the CFA at Entebbe in Uganda. The CFA will transfer the current provisional Nile Basin Initiative into a permanent and legal Nile Basin Commission (NBC). One thing that should be clear from the beginning is that the Entebbe agreement does not deal with volumetric water allocation. It will simply establish the NBC, upon the signing of six states, which will work on the different basin-wide programs and projects to ensure the water security of all riparian states.

In past controversies, Egypt employed a strategy of blocking financial support, diplomatic leverage, outright threats and (alleged) proxy-war to deter any water construction over the Nile. For instance, Egypt, with the support of the Sudanese, managed to torpedo the implementation of several water resources projects in Ethiopia. Threatening the upper riparian countries, particularly Ethiopia, was the order of the day. Today, however, Cairo seems more diplomatic even after the Entebbe agreement. Although Egypt's State Minister for Legal Affairs Mufid Shehab labeled the new agreement a "mistake" that needs to be rectified, analysts have noted that Egypt no longer holds the same power it did in the 1980s.

It seems that Egypt is instead trying to provide a "carrot", after seeing the upper riparian countries unite against the 1929 and 1959 agreements. Egypt's economic- and investment-related ministers have been busy shuttling to upstream states. They even went so far as to establish an Ethio-Egyptian commerce partnership. In spite of these attempts, the five upper riparian countries went ahead and signed the new water pact, which put an end to the "historic rights" of Egypt to the waters of the Nile. In the eyes of the upper riparian states, the status quo is unacceptable in the face of climate change, which requires doing things differently. As it stands now, the status quo is irreversibly over.

The upper riparian countries, particularly Ethiopia, are neither deterred by the "stick" nor interested in the "carrot". Ethiopia's prime minister, Meles Zenawi, is now, as one reputable newspaper labeled him, a "donors' darling". He is becoming the "voice of Africa" in the G-8, G-20, Climate Change and other international development fora. Besides, Ethiopia's role in the war on terror is appreciated in the US and the West, and Ethiopia is a linchpin in the Horn of Africa. All these factors are increasing the bargaining power of Ethiopia over Nile issues.

But there are also important external factors. Israel has always been a party to the Nile issue. It is virtually an eleventh riparian state. No description of any Nile water conflict, however brief, should fail to bring Israel into the picture. After the signing of the Camp David accord, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat proposed the idea of transferring Nile waters to Israel as a sign of "peace making". The proposal did not materialize although no one is sure that it is a closed chapter either. It seems that the ongoing Red Sea-Dead Sea conduit project has replaced the idea of bringing the Nile to Jerusalem. Nevertheless, Israel will always want to maintain a good relationship with Ethiopia so as to use the Nile River as a "bargaining chip" in its dealings with Egypt. Although it is difficult to substantiate, it has been reported that hundreds of Israeli water engineers have visited Ethiopia in the past decades. Indeed, Nile politics was always Middle Easternized.

From further afield, China comes to Africa with no preconditions but many promises, including dam building. It's no wonder then to see that Nile basin countries are falling in love with China. It may not be true love, but it is pretty clear that it is a marriage of convenience. Whenever there is any bid, China is there. Building dams is becoming a lucrative business for big Chinese companies. Besides, dams are monumental representations of the strong relationship between China and the riparian countries. Indeed, China is currently re-writing the hydrological map of the Nile Basin. The Nile issue has not only been Middle Easternized, it is now being Chinaized.

At present it seems that the riparian countries are at square one. This author is of the opinion that there is a need for an Egyptian Obama with the audacity to acknowledge that the winds are changing. The status quo is not only unacceptable, it is counter-productive to everyone, especially in view of looming climate change. It is time to acknowledge that the monopoly of and veto power over the Nile River is no longer acceptable and will not lead to sustainable trans-boundary water governance. It is also time to re-visit Herodotus' saying that "Egypt is a gift of the Nile". For one thing, Herodotus did not know exactly where the Nile originated. Secondly, he said this over 2,000 years ago and it should not be allowed to remain a mantra today.

On the other hand, upstream states should also acknowledge that the Nile is the sole source of life for Egypt and that they must not cause any appreciable harm to Egyptians. In addition, the upper riparian countries need to provide a "face-saving formula" for Egypt and Sudan in order to escape the current deadlock. The two countries need a mechanism that can convince their citizens that it is time to share the Nile waters with their upstream brothers and sisters. There is also a need to de-securitize the Nile by noting that water is a human rights and human security issue. The people of the Nile Basin must own the Nile. Their hands must be on it.- Published 8/7/2010 © bitterlemons-international.org

Wondwosen Michago Seide, an Oxonian, works for the Addis Ababa branch of the Institute for Security Studies, an African think tank. He is a former researcher for the Ethiopian Nile Basin Dialogue Forum.

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