As the world’s longest river, flowing 6,700 kilometres through ten countries in northeastern Africa, the Nile is undisputedly the single most important resource in the area. The water has been the root of centuries of conflict and, for the past decade, the countries that it touches have been negotiating how to share and protect this vital resource while facing challenges such as high levels of poverty, rapid population growth, lack of access to basic services, an energy crisis, and severe economic degradation.

Background

The Nile basin countries opened the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) for signature on May 14, 2010 for a period of one year. Five of the 10 states—Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Kenya—have signed the treaty which would allow them to share the water, ensuring that a fully-informed and basin-wide society develops that leads to resources that are secure, equitably and sustainably developed and managed, and benefit all inhabitants.
Without the CFA there will likely be serious risks such as unsustainable exploitation of Nile resources, inequitable access, increasing regional rivalries, and even potential and actual conflicts. The agreement formalizes the transformation of the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), which was formally launched in February 1999, into a permanent Nile River Basin Commission and facilitates its legal recognition of the member countries as well as regional and international organizations. Once the agreement is effective it is intended to replace the Nile Basin Initiative.

As the agreement was signed, H.E. Asfaw Dingamo, Minister of Water Resources of Ethiopia, said: “Today marks a landmark event, the realization of a goal toward which we all have been working for over a decade now. It marks the long distance we have cooperatively traversed to reach a level of trust and confidence that has enabled us to achieve a historic framework agreement that is fair, benefits all of us, harms none of us, and leaves none of us out.”
Rwanda’s Minister, Ambassador Kamanzi, added: “Signing will boost [the] development of our population.”

Egypt and Sudan won’t sign

But even with the agreement on the table the water-sharing initiative still has not officially come to fruition. While the agreement is expected to be signed by Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Egypt and Sudan are not expected to do so. Thus, on one side are the upstream states that supply virtually all of the Nile’s flow and on the other are Egypt and Sudan whose desert climates make the Nile’s water their lifeblood.

Egypt, who has the largest basin area of the Nile and can veto upstream irrigation projects under a 1929 British-brokered agreement, has refused outright to sign, and Burundi, the DRC and Sudan have not signed either. For the treaty to have weight, six of the Nile countries must sign it. However, while the Nile and its tributaries are vital sources of water throughout the basin, the dependence of basin countries on the river varies dramatically. Egypt and Sudan, for instance, are almost completely dependent on the Nile system. By contrast, the Nile is a minimal resource for the DRC.

Herodotus observed in the 5th century BC that Egypt is a gift of the Nile. Two treaties—one signed in 1929 and one in 1959—gave Egypt the lion’s share of the water and control over it. But those deals, while crucial to one country, also set up an imbalance of resources that has led analysts to look to this river system as the source of water wars.

The new agreement has been called a “death sentence” for Egypt and it is down to Cairo to ensure that it is not left out of a process that could be vital to its future. Following the early signings of the agreement in May, Egypt went on the offensive, hardening its alliance over the issue with Sudan, the second most extensive user of the Nile.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi stressed that his country would not back down from the new agreement and invited Egypt to make concessions. Zenawi said, “Some people in Egypt have old-fashioned ideas based on the assumption that the Nile belongs to Egypt. The circumstances have changed and changed forever. The way forward is not for Egypt to try to stop the unstoppable. The way forward is to seek a win-win solution through diplomatic efforts.”

At home in Egypt there is also criticism of Egyptian leadership, as the country is neglecting its place among its African partners. Political economist Amr el-Chobaki said: “During the past 40 years, the government thought that it was unnecessary to remain engaged in the countries of the south.”

The 1959 agreement allocated the entire average annual flow of the Nile to be shared between Egypt and Sudan at 55.5 and 18.5 billion cubic metres, respectively. However, it ignored the rights to water of the remaining eight countries. So Ethiopia, whose tributaries contribute 80 per cent of the total Nile flow, and Kenya, which credits more than half of its surface water resources to the lake basin, are entitled to none of its resources. Analysts and socio-economic academics are asking: Will the Nile Basin Initiative help these states overcome the unjust and unequal distribution of Nile water resources?

A foggy outlook

Both Burundi and the DRC have remained tight-lipped on whether they intend to sign the agreement before the deadline of May 2011. Sudanese water minister Kamal Ali Mohamed said in June that his country would stop cooperating with the NBI because the agreement raised legal issues. He added, “We are freezing activities regarding the NBI until these issues, these legal implications, are resolved.”

Egypt’s water resources and irrigation minister, Mohamed Nasreddin Allam, said that a meeting to discuss the Nile agreement further would be held in Nairobi between September and November. At press time, no meeting had taken place.

The Nile Basin Discourse (NDB), a regional network of civil society organisations established to facilitate and support civil society engagement in Nile basin cooperation and development processes, urged the following points in a position paper: that since all parties are already committed to Nile cooperation in principle, the negotiations should reflect this positive attitude and commitment; that the issues under negotiation should be opened up to the public, so that all are aware of what is being discussed and can contribute to the process; that it would be beneficial to draw on best practices from other basins’ agreements; and that to achieve a unanimous agreement, all countries should actively seek to overcome their differences and find a formula which is acceptable to all.

The NDB added: “A meaningful, effective and long-term CFA is possible only when all peoples and countries of the Nile Basin are at the centre of it.”