Monday, April 19, 2010

Nile Water Sharing Agreement Talks Collapse

The stream of articles on the Nile Basin Initiative has been negative, pessimistic and even somewhat abrogating. The saving grace of this faultfinding exercise is that it draws attention to the prerogative of the Nile Basin countries to tackle seriously the mounting challenges the mighty river they share hurls at them and the opportunities it presents. The extraordinary Nile Council of Ministers (NileCom) Conference in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh is no exception.

Unfortunately, matters took an ugly turn at Sharm El-Sheikh with participants failing to reach agreement. The gloves came off, Egypt insisting on veto powers over any new irrigation projects undertaken by the other nine riparian nations. After a marathon 15 hours of deliberations, the only agreement that was reached was on minutiae in order to avoid the pitfalls of the past.

Cornerstone of Nile Basin Cooperation
And so it is with the region's embryonic 1959 Nile agreement between Sudan and Egypt, which remains to this day the cornerstone of the Nile Basin cooperation projects, much to the consternation of some upstream nations. Egypt and Sudan insisted on safeguarding what they see as their national interests with the seven upstream countries threatening to go it alone. 'The Nile Cooperative Framework Agreement must clearly acknowledge Egypt and Sudan's historic share of Nile water,' Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation Mohamed Nasr El-Din Allam reiterated in Sharm El-Sheikh, in reference to the 1959 agreement.

The core problem is the perceived 'unjust and unequal distribution of Nile water resources' by upstream riparian nations and the reluctance of downstream ones -- Egypt and Sudan -- to concede concessions. Sudanese Irrigation Minister Kamal Ali appealed for calm, urging the upstream countries to continue negotiations to secure a comprehensive cooperation agreement. Egypt backed him. But there are changes afoot.

Political and Economic Realities
Globalization opens the door to fresh political and economic realities. The most momentous and consequential of such groundbreaking events, is the rapprochement in recent months between Egypt and Ethiopia, the country that supplies 85 per cent of Egypt's water. Egypt, the primary user of Nile water, traditionally felt its interests threatened by Ethiopia's ambitions to construct dams to generate hydroelectric power. Yet there are tremendous transformations in the offing. Egypt no longer has an agriculture dependent economy, and Ethiopia has to date an inadequate hydraulic power and enormous hydroelectric potential.

It is against this backdrop that the Egypt-Ethiopia Council of Commerce was established on 30 December 2009, which turned the bilateral Egyptian-Ethiopian relation from 'distrust to a friendly cooperation,' as Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zennawi so succinctly put it. Of the four major tributaries of the Nile, three originate in Ethiopia -- the Blue Nile (or Abbai), Sobat and Atbara. Be that as it may, Nile Basin nations need to start talking more about employment, food security, agricultural and manufacturing industries and stop obsessing about water and tributaries.

Yet, those habits persist. The challenge is to make this week's Sharm El-Sheikh conference qualitatively different. Ethiopia in particular and other upstream nations are resentful of the lack of the financial support by international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank for their Nile projects. They are also peeved that Western donor nations have supplied Egypt with billions of dollars -- the US government has provided $60 billion of assistance to Egypt compared to less than $4 billion to Ethiopia since 1950.

Water Sharing System
Certainly the system of sharing Nile water as it stands looks dysfunctional. There is a plethora of duplicating and overlapping organizations and initiatives concerning water sharing in Nile Basin nations. There is the Nile Technical Advisory Committee (Nile-Tech) as well as NileCom. There is also the International Consortium for Cooperation on the Nile (ICCON) as well as the Nile Basin Initiative. The goal of the Sharm El-Sheikh conference was to work out a comprehensive agreement on the allocation of Nile water resources among the Nile Basin states.

It was not a bad idea by any stretch, although the Nile Basin Initiative is not the liveliest of regional organizations and the going is sometimes laborious. Certain countries still have a knack of sticking the boot good and proper to their neighbors. What is the best and brightest thing about the contemporary Nile Basin region? The traditional reticence of some of the African delegates was tested when four African delegates at the Sharm El-Sheikh conference reportedly withdrew from the talks in a huff and a puff.

Critical Point for Egypt
Control of the utilization of the waters of the 6,670-km river, the world's longest, has long been a bone of contention in the Nile Basin. Egypt will not sign any deal before its conditions are met. The requirements include the commitment to the early notification mechanism before the construction of any projects in upstream countries and that all decisions are to be finalized unanimously and not through majority voting. This last point is critical as far as Egypt is concerned because the upstream riparian nations tend to concur on issues that Egypt objects to. The Nile Cooperative Framework Agreement must clearly recognize Egypt and Sudan's historic share of the Nile Waters. The other seven upstream nations bitterly disagree.

Nile Basin nations are called upon to put aside differences in order to secure the Nile Basin Initiative for the sake of enhancing sustainable development in the region. Egypt in its capacity as current chair of Nile Basin Executive Council is pulling no punches. Assistant Foreign Minister for African Affairs Mona Omar disclosed that Egypt is calling for a 'consensus formula.'

Meanwhile, she also announced that Foreign Minister Abul-Gheit is scheduled to visit Ethiopia later in the month for the Egyptian-Ethiopian Joint Committee. The 1,530-km Blue Nile (Abbai) is key to Egypt's national security, and the Ethiopians understand the strategic importance of their country to the Egyptians. The River Nile Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA), International Consortium for Cooperation on the Nile (ICCON), the Nile Technical Advisory Committee (Nile- Tech) and the Nile Council of Ministers (Nile Com) will survive the altercations at Sharm El-Sheikh.

Walkouts and Bitter Disputes
The debate about who should get what and when will go on for years. Participants were hoping that the days when the problems of quibbling about sharing the waters of the Nile are over. The countries of the Nile Basin might be locked in a bitter dispute over sharing and harnessing the waters of the Nile, the world's longest river, but they at least are still willing to meet on a regular basis to iron out differences.

The walkouts and bitter disputes sadly show that this week's Extraordinary NileCom meeting was not qualitatively different to earlier meetings. 'Ten years ago there was an atmosphere of mistrust, suspicion and doubt. Today the Nile Basin countries are open to each other and ready to collaborate more closely together. This is an achievement to be cherished, nourished and nurtured all the way,' noted Tanzanian Vice-President Ali Mohamed Shein. Wish that was true. The Nile Basin Initiative might yet metamorphose into something more meaningful only by harnessing tremendous political goodwill. Whose water is it anyway?

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