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

US Imposes Sanctions on Alleged Honduran Drug Gang

Treasury department alleges Los Valles group is responsible for smuggling tens of thousands of kilograms of cocaine into US each month More

At 91, Marvel Creator Stan Lee Continues to Expand his Universe

Company's chief emeritus hopes to interest new generation of children in superheroes of all shapes and sizes by publishing content across multiple media platforms More

Photogallery New Drug Protects Against Virus in Ebola Family

Study by researchers at University of Texas Medical Branch, Tekmira Pharmaceuticals is first looking at drug's effectiveness after onset of symptoms 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.
African Media Tries to Educate Public About Ebolai
X
George Putic
August 20, 2014 8:57 PM
While the Ebola epidemic continues to claim lives in West Africa, information technology specialists, together with radio and TV reporters, are battling misinformation and prejudice about the disease - using social media to educate the public about the deadly virus. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video African Media Tries to Educate Public About Ebola

While the Ebola epidemic continues to claim lives in West Africa, information technology specialists, together with radio and TV reporters, are battling misinformation and prejudice about the disease - using social media to educate the public about the deadly virus. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Ferguson Calls For Justice as Anger, Violence Grips Community

Violence, anger and frustration continue to grip the small St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri. Protests broke out after a white police officer fatally shot an unarmed black teenager on August 9. The case has sparked outrage around the nation and prompted the White House to send U.S. Attorney Eric Holder to the small community of just over 20,000 people. VOA’s Mary Alice Salinas has more from Ferguson.
Video

Video Beheading Of US Journalist Breeds Outrage

U.S. and British authorities have launched an investigation into an Islamic State video showing the beheading of kidnapped American journalist James Foley by a militant with a British accent. The extremist group, which posted the video on the Internet Tuesday, said the murder was revenge for U.S. airstrikes on militant positions in Iraq - and has threatened to execute another American journalist it is holding. Henry Ridgwell has more from London.
Video

Video Family Robots - The Next Big Thing?

Robots that can help us with daily chores like cooking and cleaning are a long way off, but automatons that serve as family companions may be much closer. Researchers in the United States, France, Japan and other countries are racing to build robots that can entertain and perform some simpler tasks for us. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video In Ukraine, Fear and Distrust Remain Where Fighting has Stopped

As the Ukrainian military reclaims control of eastern cities from pro-Russian separatists, residents are getting a chance to rebuild their lives. VOA's Gabe Joselow reports from the town of Kramatorsk in Donetsk province, where a sense of fear is still in the air, and distrust of the government in Kyiv still runs deep.
Video

Video Five Patients Given Experimental Ebola Drug Said to Be Improving

The World Health Organization has approved the use of experimental treatments for Ebola patients in West Africa. The Ebola outbreak there is unprecedented, the disease deadly. The number of people who have died from Ebola has surpassed 1,200. VOA's Carol Pearson reports on the ethical considerations of allowing experimental drugs to be used.
Video

Video China Targets Overseas Assets of Corrupt Officials

As China presses forward with its anti-graft effort, authorities are targeting corrupt officials who have sent family members and assets overseas. The efforts have stirred up a debate at home on exactly how many officials take that route and how likely it is they will be caught. Rebecca Valli has this report.
Video

Video Leading The Fight Against Islamic State, Kurds Question Iraqi Future

Western countries including the United States have begun arming the Kurdish Peshmerga forces in northern Iraq to aid their battle against extremist Sunni militants from the Islamic State. But there are concerns that a heavily-armed Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG, might seek to declare independence and cause the break-up of the Iraqi state. As Henry Ridgwell reports from London, the KRG says it will only seek greater autonomy from Baghdad.
Video

Video In Rural Kenya, Pressure Builds Against Female Circumcision

In some Kenyan communities, female genital mutilation remains a rite of passage. But activists are pushing back, with education for girls and with threats of punishment those who perform the circumcision. Mohammed Yusuf looks at the practice in the rural eastern community of Tharaka-Nithi.

AppleAndroid