Nile Politics in a Post-Meles Era

Conflict and tension between upstream and downstream countries over the use of the Nile River has been going on for years. But changes in leadership in the Nile region could affect the course of the struggle. Egypt, the leader of the downstream bloc, and Ethiopia, the leader of the upstream bloc, both have new heads of state. At a recent meeting between Sudanese President Omar al Bashir and Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi shows, parts of the status quo will remain in place, but other parts may be set to change.

Kenya’s Africa Review reports (Kenya is one of the upstream countries):

In what must be construed as a warning to the other Nile waters sharing countries, both President Bashir and his Egyptian counterpart reaffirmed their countries “identical position” in regards to the water dispute.

Mr Morsy’s spokesperson did not hide the fact that the issue of the Nile Water is “an Egyptian national security issue”. The two countries receive 55 billion ( Egypt) and 18.5 billion ( Sudan) cubic meters of water annually thanks to a series of agreements that date back to 1929 and drawn by Britain when it was the main colonising power over much of the continent.

The upstream countries maintain that these agreements, which also give the two countries veto powers over projects deemed as “harmful’ to their interests, where [sic] signed during the “colonial era, and should be rewritten to allow countries to equally share in the river’s economic potential.”

One of Egypt long standing objectives over the body of water is that it would never consider the calls for a decrease in its annual share, in fact it would actively seek to increase it – already both Egypt and Sudan control approximately 87 per cent of the water resources of the Nile.

Back in 2010 then Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif, following the signing of the the Cooperative Framework Agreement water treaty by Uganda, Rwanda, Ethiopia and Tanzania, flatly stated Egypt’s annual share would not be affected.

That view has pretty much remained unchanged in the eyes of the newly elected government and whilst it also seeks to increase that share, it has been at pains to add that this is “through cooperation and coordination with the Nile Basin countries”, not unilaterally.

In the midst of continuity – Egypt and Sudan against the upstream countries – there is also some change, at least in the diplomatic tone Egypt takes. Africa Review writes that “President Morsy’s government has gone on a charm offensive with its African counterparts,” adding, “What steps Khartoum and Cairo will take is still unclear, but the signs do point to a more conciliatory tone though not to the extent where they will agree nor accept the demands of the other Nile Basin countries unconditionally.”

Read about Morsi’s July visit to Ethiopia here.

How will the death of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who had ruled Ethiopia since 1991, affect Nile politics? Meles’ most ambitious move on the Nile issue as of late was the Grand Renaissance Dam, projected to be one of the largest dams in the world. Construction began in April, and by late May 10% of the dam had been completed, with the project set to finish in 2018. So far, it looks as though the project will remain on track even without Meles there to oversee it. The International Monetary Fund recently suggestion that Ethiopia slow down the project, but the government refused:

Ethiopia’s government won’t reschedule construction of the Grand Renaissance dam, said Communications Minister Bereket Simon, who co-chairs a fundraising committee for the plant.

“It was a well-considered plan and it’s one of the mega projects for which the government commits itself unconditionally,” Bereket said in a phone interview [September 13].

The Grand Renaissance Dam has caused substantial alarm in Egypt, which fears the project may reduce its water supply. Experts project that by 2017, even Egypt’s current share of the waters will be insufficient for its population’s needs. Egypt may attempt, then, to frustrate the Renaissance Dam project by “lobby[ing] foreign donors and international organisations to withhold financing for the dam because of the adverse impacts on its economy.”

The existence of South Sudan adds another complication to the status quo. The National writes,

The 1959 treaty did not foresee an independent South Sudan, and the implications for Juba’s share of Nile waters. Like most post-secession issues between Sudan and South Sudan, the South’s allocation of Nile waters is not agreed. Nor is Khartoum, like Cairo before it, likely to easily give ground to a state upstream. The acrimonious relationship between Juba and Khartoum is unlikely to help.

Tension with Khartoum has not, however, prevented Juba from taking action. As part of its strategy to meet the country’s energy needs, South Sudan has stated that it will build dams on the White Nile and its tributaries. Reuters reports, “One of the most ambitious plans is the construction of a 540-megawatt Bedden dam across the White Nile south of Juba, but the government has not yet provided details of funding for the $1.5 billion, seven-to-eight-year project.” As details on this and other projects emerge, South Sudan’s role in the new politics of Nile water usage will become clearer.

As populations grow, the Nile issue will only become more urgent over time. The new leaders of Egypt and Ethiopia, no matter how friendly the tone of their diplomatic interactions, will face difficult choices in the coming years about how and whether to share the waters.

Nile Politics: South Sudan Plans Dam on Nile Tributary

Even before South Sudan’s independence, countries like Egypt became nervous about how the creation of the tenth Nile Basin state would affect the region’s delicate water politics. Would South Sudan side, as Sudan had (and still does), with Egypt and promote the status quo (which gives a large share of the Nile to Egypt)? Or would the new country join the upstream countries, led by Ethiopia, that are demanding a larger share of the Nile for themselves?

After independence, South Sudan struck a conciliatory tone toward both Egypt and Ethiopia, but two developments will definitely attract Egypt’s attention. First, South Sudan wants to formally join the Nile Basin Initiative, the organization that is attempting to resolve the disputes over the region’s water. This request will surprise no one and indeed it makes eminent sense, but it is a reminder to Egypt that South Sudan will soon have to develop a more detailed Nile policy, one that will inevitably tilt in one direction or another.

Second, South Sudan has announced plans to build a hydropower dam near the city of Wau. Wau sits on the Jur River, a tributary of the Bahr el Ghazal River which is itself a tributary of the White Nile. South Sudan’s dam is not intended, it seems to me, as an act of aggression, but the move will remind neighbors that this new country has pressing energy, infrastructure, and resource needs.

Egypt’s new government, judging by its outreach to Ethiopia, wants a solution to the Nile dispute. As the case of South Sudan shows, there are many moving parts in the equation, but it does seem that the status quo will have to change, and in fact may be changing already.

Nile Politics: A Thaw in Egypt-Ethiopia Relations

On Saturday, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf met in Cairo to discuss Ethiopia’s proposed “Grand Renaissance Dam,” which would use some water from the Blue Nile for hydroelectric power. When it was announced in March, the dam project seemed to exacerbate long-standing tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia concerning usage of the Nile. Egypt, whose future water security outlook is somewhat grim, has long taken a significant portion of the Nile – a portion that upstream countries like Ethiopia feel is too large. In 2010, Ethiopia led a number of upstream countries in signing a treaty that would reduce Egypt’s share of the Nile. Egypt and Sudan opposed the treaty, arguing for the maintenance of the status quo. As of this spring, the conflict looked like a tough nut to crack.

Yet Saturday’s meeting in Cairo appears to be hastening a thaw that began with talks late this spring. Egypt and Ethiopia are moving to work out a new arrangement:

“We have agreed to quickly establish a tripartite team of technical experts to review the impact of the dam that is being built in Ethiopia,” Zenawi told a news conference with Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf. Experts from Sudan will also be part of the team.

“We have agreed to continue to work on the basis of a win-win solution for all countries in the Nile basin,” he added.

[…]

Sharaf said Cairo and Addis Ababa were discussing a “comprehensive development plan” for the two countries.

“We can make the issue of the Grand Renaissance Dam something useful,” he said. “This dam, in conjunction with the other dams, can be a path for development and construction between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt.”

The change in Egypt’s stance likely owes much to the change of regime there. Former President Hosni Mubarak was fairly hawkish on Nile issues, but I imagine that the new government has neither the bandwidth nor the appetite to posture aggressively on the issue. At a time when Egypt’s domestic politics as well as regional politics are shifting (South Sudan’s independence makes the Egypt-Sudan pro-Nile status quo alliance somewhat shakier), Egypt’s new leaders are likely keen to have a workable resolution to the issue.

Ironing out details could prove tricky, and meaningful agreements on core issues hard to reach, but I see these talks and their outcome as a positive step for the region.

Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya have more.

Reports and Releases: Niger Delta; Abyei; Nile Conflict

A few reports and publications came out recently that might interest readers:

If you read one or all of these, let us know what you think!

Ethiopia and Egypt Continue Nile Talks

When I last wrote about the politics of water-sharing among Nile basin countries, Ethiopia (a leading proponent of a greater share for upstream countries) had announced plans to build a dam on the river. This move potentially put them at odds with Egypt (a proponent of the status quo, which involves substantial Egyptian control over the Nile), but both countries seemed somewhat willing to work things out. The change of government in Egypt has created opportunities to rework the existing arrangement, and the two regimes are pursuing talks that may lead to a solution.

VOA:

Ethiopia has agreed to postpone ratification of a treaty on sharing Nile River water until a new Egyptian government takes office to join the negotiations. The delay eases a long-running dispute between upstream countries at the source of the Nile and downstream countries that claim historic rights to the water.

Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has told a visiting Egyptian delegation he will freeze consideration of a treaty that would reverse colonial-era agreements giving Egypt and Sudan rights to 90 percent of the Nile’s water. Six upper riparian states have signed the deal, clearing the way for ratification. But downstream countries Egypt and Sudan have refused.

The article goes on to say that Mubarak’s regime generated considerable ill will on the issue and that Ethiopia, along with fellow upstream power Uganda, are willing to give the new regime time to get its bearings before they ask for a decision regarding the treaty. Still, the upstream countries are making sure the new Egyptian regime understands the importance of the Nile issue.

Ezega, a source I am not very familiar with, has more.

Nile Politics Continue as Ethiopia Plans Dam Construction

Egypt’s domestic situation has changed tremendously in the last few months, but long-standing regional tensions over water-sharing from the Nile River have remained. Last spring, an agreement on water-sharing pitted Egypt and Sudan (who refused to sign) against countries upstream such as Ethiopia, Uganda, and Tanzania. This deal aims to substantially reduce Egyptian control over the river. Egypt’s new government, whoever takes charge, faces challenges on the Nile issue, especially from Ethiopia, the most outspoken of the upstream governments. The controversy will also test the new country of South Sudan, which is expected to side with the other upstream countries.

In late March, Ethiopia “said it planned to build a huge dam on the Nile despite a long-running row with Egypt over use of the river and concern the dispute may spark a war.” This dam, near the Sudan border, would generate “15,000 megawatts (MW) of power within 10 years, part of a plan to spend $12 billion over 25 years to improve the country’s power-generating capability.”

Ethiopia’s government has taken an alternately aggressive and conciliatory tone toward Egypt regarding the dam project:

Speaking to the opening session of an international hydropower conference [in late March], [Ethiopian Prime Minister] Meles [Zenawi] vowed the $4.8-billion project would go ahead, even if impoverished Ethiopia has to pay the tab itself.

“We are so convinced of the justice of our cause, so sure of the strength of our arguments, so convinced of the role of our hydropower projects in eliminating poverty in our country that we will use every ounce of our strength, every dime of money that we can save to complete our program,” Meles said.

[…]

[But] in comments to reporters after his speech, the Ethiopian leader held out hope that the post-Mubarak administration in Cairo might soften Egypt’s longstanding opposition to upstream use of Nile water.

“I am still hopeful that the current government in Egypt will recognize that this project has nothing but benefits to Egypt,” said Meles. “Nothing. I believe the Sudanese understand this has nothing but benefits to them.”

Meles said a change of heart by Cairo’s new leaders could open the way for cooperative agreements, including a deal that would give Egypt partial ownership of the dam.

“If there is a reconsideration, there will be time to consider many issues, including possibly joint ownership of the project itself. We are open to such ideas,” said Meles.

Egypt seems at least somewhat willing to negotiate:

In what seems to be a possible solution to the Nile water quotas dispute between Egypt and upstream Nile Basin countries, Water Resources Minister Hussein al-Atfy has announced an initiative by the African countries to renegotiate the Nile Basin Framework Agreement.

He said the initiative aims at allowing all people of Nile Basin countries to benefit from the water, and added that international arbitration would be Cairo’s last resort in dealing with this issue.

Reaching agreement on the future usage of the Nile will be crucial for preserving peace between the Nile countries and ensuring that millions of people have access to water and power. All of the major players have indicated their willingness to reach a solution – now it remains to be seen if there is a solution that can satisfy everyone. If no solution appears, it seems Ethiopia may force the issue.

For one Ethiopian perspective on the dam project, see this article.

Tipping Point in Nile Controversy?

Disagreements between countries in the Nile basin grew throughout the spring as Egypt and Sudan refused to join their southern neighbors in a new water-sharing agreement. As things stand now, the negotiations over the agreement could go in several different directions.

The nations that signed the agreement in May – Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Kenya – will not back down. But they will need help to bring the agreement into being.

The five signatories have given the other Nile Basin countries – Egypt, Sudan, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo – one year to join the pact.

The new deal would need at least six signatories to come into force.

Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have not signed the deal yet and have so far been tight-lipped about whether they plan to or not.

Egypt and Sudan are still saying no to the deal:

Responding to the [latest] developments, Kamal Ali Mohamed, Sudan’s water minister, said his country would now stop co-operating with the NBI because the agreement raised legal issues.

“We are freezing activities regarding the NBI until these issues, these legal implications, are resolved,” he said.

Mohamed’s statement drew expected criticism from Asfaw, who said the Sudanese had not revealed their intention to freeze co-operation during the two-day meeting.

Separately, Mohamed Nasreddin Allam, Egypt’s water resources and irrigation minister, told the Reuters news agency that a meeting to discuss the Nile agreement would be held in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, some time between September and November.

“The deal can not be forced upon us. It will only be an obligation for those countries, not Egypt’s,” he said.

“Ask the Egyptians to leave their culture and go and live in the desert because [you] need to take this water and to add it to other countries? No.

“Egypt has no source of water other than that coming from upstream countries. The upstream countries have many sources and aren’t managing our Nile properly. That’s what we are asking for.”

AFP has more.

I cannot say how this will play out. It may take some time. Still, I wonder whether the momentum does not run against Egypt and Sudan. They have greater control over the Nile, from what I understand, but they are outnumbered. I guess a lot could come down to how Burundi and the DRC move.