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

Video Afghan Refugees Complain of Harassment in Pakistan

Afghan officials and human rights organizations assert that Pakistani authorities are using deadly attack at school in Peshawar as pretext to push out Afghan refugees More

At Boston Bombing Hearing, Sides Spar Over Boat

At final pre-trial hearing, lawyers for suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, prosecutors disagree on whether vessel where he hid from police can be shown to jurors More

Iran Judiciary 'Picks' Lawyer for Detained WP Reporter

Masoud Shafii has been attempting to secure official recognition as Rezaian’s attorney, but is not allowed to see his client in prison 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.
US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Casei
X
Katherine Gypson
February 25, 2015 11:30 PM
The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Case

The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Hurt Nascent Illinois Hydraulic Fracturing Industry

Falling oil prices are helping consumers purchase cheaper petroleum at the pump. But that’s made hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” less economically viable for the companies in the United States invested in the process. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports on one Midwestern town that was hoping to change its fortunes by cashing in on the next big U.S. oil boom.
Video

Video Fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan Fuels Mass Displacement

Heavy fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan state is causing hundreds of thousands to flee into uncertain conditions. Local aid organizations estimate as many as 400,000 civilians have been internally displaced since the conflict began more than three years ago, while another 250,000 have fled across the border to refugee camps in South Sudan. VOA's Adam Bailes reports.
Video

Video Lao Dam Project Runs Into Opposition

A Lao dam project on a section of the Mekong River is drawing opposition from local fishermen, international environmental groups and neighboring countries. VOA's Say Mony visited the region to investigate the concerns. Colin Lovett narrates.
Video

Video A Filmmaker Discovers Her Biracial Identity in "Little White Lie

Lacey Schwartz grew up in an upper middle-class Jewish family, in a town in upstate New York where almost everyone she knew was white. She assumed that she was, as well. Her recent documentary, Little White Lie, tells the story of how she uncovered the secret of her true racial background. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more on the film.
Video

Video Deep Under Antarctic Ice Sheet, Life!

With the end of summer in the Southern hemisphere, the Antarctic research season is over. Scientists from Northern Illinois University are back in their laboratory after a 3-month expedition on the Ross Ice Shelf, the world’s largest floating ice sheet. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, they hope to find clues to explain the dynamics of the rapidly melting ice and its impact on sea level rise.
Video

Video US-Cuba Normalization Talks Resume Friday

Negotiations aimed at normalizing diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba resume Friday. On the table: lifting a half-century trade embargo and easing banking and travel restrictions. There's opposition in Congress, but some analysts say there may be sufficient political and economic incentives in both nations for a potential breakthrough this year. VOA's Mil Arcega reports.
Video

Video Pakistan's Deadline For SIM Registration Has Cellphone Users Scrambling

Pakistani cell phone users have until midnight Thursday to register their SIM cards, or their service will be cut off. While some privacy experts worry about government intrusion, many Pakistanis are just worried about keeping their phone lines open. VOA Deewa reporter Arshad Muhmand has more from Peshawar.
Video

Video Myanmar Warns Factory Workers to End Strikes

Outside Myanmar's main city Yangon, thousands of workers walked off their jobs earlier this month demanding a doubling of their wages, pay raises after a year and input from labor unions on industrial regulations. Since Friday, the standoff has grown more tense as police moved in to disrupt the sit-ins, resulting in clashes that injured people from both sides. VOA correspondent Steve Herman visited industrial zones which have become a focus of Myanmar's fledgling workers rights movement.
Video

Video Oscar Winners Do More Than Thank the Academy

The Academy Awards presentation is Hollywood’s night to reward the best movies from the previous year. It’s typically a lot of glitter, a lot of thank you’s, a lot of speeches. But many of this year’s speeches carried messages beyond the thank you's. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti takes a look.

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More