The Nile is the world’s longest river. It is shared between Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan, Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (See map below). Except for South Sudan, all of the above countries are members of the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) – a cooperative partnership formed in 1999. Six upstream members of the NBI signed a “Cooperative Framework Agreement” that includes Articles addressing issues such as water allocation. One can imagine that such a framework is needed to assist water management efforts between so many nations. It serves as an important mechanism to address water issues due to increasing development, demand and scarcity.
The NBI members have not resolved their primary dispute, however. Before the Cooperative Framework Agreement was authored, colonial water agreements benefited Egypt and Sudan with large water allocations. Now, both nations object to Article 14 of the Cooperative Framework Agreement as it alters their historic share, and have therefore not signed it.
84% of the Nile water originates in Ethiopia before it reaches Sudan and Egypt. As Egypt receives the largest share of water from the Nile, it has locked horns with Ethiopia when the latter demanded a higher share in the past . Based on such knowledge, scholars have speculated increased regional tensions. On World Water Day this year, United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton unveiled an unclassified State Department report titled “Global Water Security: Intelligence Community Assessment”. This report warns of impending consequences of water scarcity in the Nile basin such as increased regional tensions over water use, degraded food security, and reduced resiliency to floods and droughts by the year 2040. Even though these predictions rely on the best data, it is reasonable to assume that inherent uncertainties exist when predicting the future.
At the World Water Forum, I got a glimpse of Egypt and Ethiopia’s evolving relationship. I attended a panel organized by NIRAS, a Nordic consulting company and hosted at the Finnish Pavilion titled “Modalities of Water Resource Monitoring and Information Sharing in order to Optimize Benefits Generated in the Eastern Nile”. It became clear to me that cooperation promoted through benefit sharing and integration will alleviate many of their problems over the long run.
And here is why – the Panel included Nile Basin Initiative’s Dr. Ahmed Khalid, who remarked that the NBI is now strong enough as an institution to manage challenges in the Nile Basin. As a sign of progress in the region, Dr. Khalid highlighted fast-tracked dams and interconnections projects between Ethiopia and Sudan. He emphasized that benefit sharing led to the joint identification, preparation, and implementation of projects. The panelist from Ethiopia’s Ministry of Water and Energy, Mr. Fekahmed Negash, recognized pollution and environmental degradation of the Highlands as serious problems but was quick to point out the various opportunities that exist to reduce pollution, reduce evaporation from dams downstream, and to increase efficiency of irrigation systems. He praised technological improvements to collect data. On cooperation, he said that a better relationship exists at the highest political level between the NBI countries, particularly on the issue of building The Great Renaissance Dam.
The panelist from Egypt’s Ministry of Irrigation and Water, Mr. Mohamed Abdul, talked about Egypt’s groundwater resources being degraded, and the lack of rainfall in Egypt that increased Egypt’s reliance on the Nile as a source of water. On relations with other nations, Mr. Abdul stressed the importance to boost upstream-downstream water and economic cooperation in the Nile Basin.
By focusing their rhetoric on economic cooperation and capacity building, the panelists shed light on the changing discourse within the Nile Basin. New partnerships are evolving as Ethiopia is reportedly reaching out to Sudan to jointly own the Great Renaissance Dam. Civil society represented by the Nile Basin Discourse is developing an instrumental role as it deepens public voice and participation to foster cooperation between nations. Technology solutions are emerging. The Egyptian Gazette noted that Egypt’s scientists have developed cheap new technology dependent on solar cells to reduce the cost of water desalination from LE10 to LE4 per cubic meter. Such strides in technology and active cooperation will maintain stability in the region over the long run and untangle up the blue.