News / Middle East

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.

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

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.

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 billion 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.

“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.

The other important numbers facing Egypt and its upstream neighbors are the average annual flows into Lake Nasser. The total is 85 billion cubic meters per year.  Egypt uses approximately 55.5 billion cubic meters, and some say that in years of high rainfall, Egypt has used more than their share. Sudan (prior to South Sudan's independence) typically used 18.5 billion cubic meters. The remaining 10 billion evaporates on the way to or in Lake Nasser.  The basin members upstream have already taken their share before it reaches Lake Nasser but population, economic development and climate change are affecting all members of the basin.

Nile River

Ethiopia takes high ground

Ethiopia’s ability to determine any of these events is a new achievement after years of being ignored by Egypt’s and Sudan’s Nile-based development.

A Sudanese farmer prepares his land for irrigation on the banks of the river Nile in Khartoum (file photo).
A Sudanese farmer prepares his land for irrigation on the banks of the river Nile in Khartoum (file photo).

In 1959, Egypt and Sudan met and agreed on how to share the waters of the Nile as it flowed through their largely arid lands on the way to the Mediterranean. It was a renewal of river rights they had enjoyed since the British signed an agreement with the two countries in 1929.  Ethiopia, which provides an estimated 85 percent of the flow into Lake Nasser from the Abay and other watersheds to the south, was not invited.  Emperor Haile Selassie wrote a letter of protest, to no avail.

After the 1979 Camp David agreement returning the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt, President Anwar Sadat announced the launch of the Salaam Canal which would divert Nile waters to the Peninsula by siphoning the waters beneath the Suez Canal. Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, then the ruler of Ethiopia, protested to the United Nations, to no avail.

“There was a lot of antagonism between these two countries, Egypt and Ethiopia, and this has been going on since Sadat,” said Steven McCaffrey, a law professor at Pacific University in Sacramento.  McCaffrey served for three years as a legal advisor on the creation of a cooperative agreement for three years and advised the Nile Basin council of ministers for one year.   

Egypt played a major role in the decade of Nile talks that were sponsored by the World Bank and other donors. The nine basin members discussed and drafted a Nile Basin Initiative to manage the entire resources of the Nile with greater equity and efficiency. If these efforts succeed, the new agreement could end - or at least minimize - decades of enmity.

But upstream neighbors have so far not agreed to Egypt’s demand that no upstream nation can use water that would reduce their annual 55.5 billion cubic meters or to permit Egypt to maintain the right to veto or even have prior review of upstream proposals.  

Balancing powers on the Nile

An observer of these Nile negotiations said, ”Fifty years later, the stakes are very high. Ethiopia felt this is now their time in the sun. And they were seen by Egypt as a threat.”

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, first from left, and his delegation attend a meeting with Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf, not pictured, in Cairo, Egypt, September 17, 2011 to discuss Ethiopia's planned Nile River dams.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, first from left, and his delegation attend a meeting with Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf, not pictured, in Cairo, Egypt, September 17, 2011 to discuss Ethiopia's planned Nile River dams.

The party in power for the past 20 years in Ethiopia is the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Party, headed for almost all of that time by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.  They struggled to find an economic policy to, as some in the party’s leader like to say, bring Ethiopia “out of backwardness and poverty.”  

“They promised a lot of development but were faced with drought and degraded watersheds,” said the observer of the negotiations. Ethiopia became more determined to push massive development of roads, bridges and dams with the considerable assistance of Chinese loans and expertise. With a series of new hydro-electric dams coming online, Ethiopia wants to become this corner of Africa’s hydro-electric power center.

Some, who have watched the Nile’s political changes, believe that Meles altered the contentious tone of Egypt-Ethiopia relations a few months ago by telling a delegation from Cairo’s transitional government that ratification of the agreement by the upstream signers can wait until Egypt, coming out of a revolution and regime change, could study the proposals and inspect the Renaissance Dam plans.

“I think that was a very statesman-like position that Meles took,” said Tutwiler, director of the Desert Development Center in Cairo.   

The former Egyptian negotiator, Abu-Zeid, is now president of the Arab Water Council in Cairo. He remains confident that Egypt will not be harmed by plans that will have to be approved by a consensus or a simple majority of the Nile Basin partners.

“There is enough water for everybody,” said Abu-Zeid. “The Nile is so big that everybody can get his share. We should not worry about the availability of resources.  We should worry about how to develop joint programs for the benefit of everybody.”

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.

1 Oct - cost of the Renaissance Dam corrected from $5 million to $5 billion

الديمقراطيون جديدة في مصر مستعدون للدفاع عن نهر النيل في البداية ، وكانت مصر النيل. ويمكن أن يتغير الآن. مصر والسودان ودولا أخرى باستخدام مياه نهر النيل مواجهة السياسة الجديدة، والتنمية الاقتصادية والديموغرافية الجديدة ، وتغير المناخ.
Follow our Middle East reports on Twitter
and discuss them on our Facebook page.

You May Like

How to Safeguard Your Mobile Privacy

As the digital world becomes more mobile, so too do concerns about eroding privacy and increased hacking More

'Desert Dancer' Chronicles Iranian Underground Dance Troupe

Film by Richard Raymond is based on true story of Afshin Ghaffarian and his friends More

Researcher: Obesity Poses Complex Problem

Professor at Symposium on Obesity, Diabetes and Metabolic Syndrome says problem involves more than calorie intake, warns of worldwide health impact More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Scientists Say Plankton More Important Than Previously Thoughti
X
George Putic
May 26, 2015 9:26 PM
Tiny ocean creatures called plankton are mostly thought of as food for whales and other large marine animals, but a four-year global study discovered, among other things, that plankton are a major source of oxygen on our planet. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Scientists Say Plankton More Important Than Previously Thought

Tiny ocean creatures called plankton are mostly thought of as food for whales and other large marine animals, but a four-year global study discovered, among other things, that plankton are a major source of oxygen on our planet. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Kenyans Lament Losing Sons to al-Shabab

There is agony, fear and lost hope in the Kenyan town of Isiolo, a key target of a new al-Shabab recruitment drive. VOA's Mohammed Yusuf visits Isiolo to speak with families and at least one man who says he was a recruiter.
Video

Video US-led Coalition Gives Some Weapons to Iraqi Troops

In a video released Tuesday from the Iraqi Ministry of Defense, Iraqi forces and U.S.-led coalition troops survey a cache of weapons supplied to help Iraq liberate Mosul from Islamic State group. According to a statement provided with the video, the ministry and the U.S.-led coaltion troops have started ''supplying the 16th army division with medium and light weapons in preparation to liberate Mosul and nearby areas from Da'esh (Arabic acronym for Islamic State group).''
Video

Video Amnesty International: 'Overwhelming Evidence' of War Crimes in Ukraine

Human rights group Amnesty International says there is overwhelming evidence of ongoing war crimes in Ukraine, despite a tentative cease-fire with pro-Russian rebels. Researchers interviewed more than 30 prisoners from both sides of the conflict and all but one said they were tortured. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Washington Parade Honors Those Killed Serving in US Military

Every year, on the last Monday in the month of May, millions of Americans honor the memories of those killed while serving in the armed forces. Memorial Day is a tradition that dates back to the 19th Century. While many people celebrate the federal holiday with a barbecue and a day off from work, for those who’ve served in the military, it’s a special day to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Arash Arabasadi reports for VOA from Washington.
Video

Video Kenya’s Capital Sees Rise in Shisha Parlors

In Kenya, the smoking of shisha, a type of flavored tobacco, is the latest craze. Patrons are flocking to shisha parlors to smoke and socialize. But the practice can be addictive and harmful, though many dabblers may not realize the dangers, according to a new review. Lenny Ruvaga has more on the story for VOA from Nairobi, Kenya.
Video

Video Rolling Thunder Run Reveals Changed Attitudes Towards Vietnam War

For many US war veterans, the Memorial Day holiday is an opportunity to look back at a divisive conflict in the nation’s history and to remember those who did not make it home.
Video

Video Female American Soldiers: Healing Through Filmmaking

According to the United States Defense Department, there are more than 200-thousand women serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.  Like their male counterparts, females have experiences that can be very traumatic.  VOA's Bernard Shusman tells us about a program that is helping some American women in the military heal through filmmaking.
Video

Video Iowa Family's Sacrifice Shaped US Military Service for Generations

Few places in America have experienced war like Waterloo. This small town in the Midwest state of Iowa became famous during World War II not for what it accomplished, but what it lost. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the legacy of one family’s sacrifice is still a reminder today of the real cost of war for all families on the homefront.
Video

Video On Film: How Dance Defies Iran's Political Oppression

'Desert Dancer' by filmmaker Richard Raymond is based on the true story of a group of young Iranians, who form an underground dance troupe in the Islamic Republic of Iran. This is the latest in a genre of films that focus on dance as a form of freedom of expression against political oppression and social injustice. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Turkey's Ruling Party Trying to Lure Voters in Opposition Stronghold

Turkey’s AK (Justice and Development) Party is seeking a fourth successive general election victory, with the goal of securing two-thirds of the seats in Parliament to rewrite the constitution and change the country's parliamentary system into a presidential one. To achieve that, the party will need to win seats in opposition strongholds like the western city of Izmir. Dorian Jones reports.
Video

Video Millions Flock to Ethiopia Polls

Millions of Ethiopians cast their votes Sunday in the first national election since the 2012 death of longtime leader Meles Zenawi. Mr. Meles' party, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, is almost certain of victory again. VOA's Anita Powell reports from Addis Ababa.

VOA Blogs