Africa’s Waning Waters: Dispute over the Nile

With populations booming throughout Africa and water sources already strained due to recurrent drought and increased desertification, disputes over major African water resources are likely to increase in intensity, as is currently the case between several Nile basin countries. Under an antiquated 1959 agreement, over 90% of the Nile’s waters are shared amongst Egypt and Sudan, with the vast majority going to the most barren of the Nile Basin countries, Egypt. However, as countries like Ethiopia expand in population and seek to develop their water and irrigation systems, disagreement over the current distribution paradigm has escalated. Although Egypt and Sudan have promised their cooperation in resolving the water dilemma, they have staunchly opposed any reduction in their Nile water allocation and have even blocked funding for water development projects in other Nile basin countries, so as not to disrupt their own supply. Recently, several Nile basin countries signed the Nile River Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA), which stipulates more equitable sharing of Nile waters. The CFA, which has been vehemently opposed by Egypt, is the culmination of years of study, negotiation and ultimately, frustration. It represents the empowerment of previously disenfranchised African nations, but also signifies the onset of a larger conflict over Africa’s limited water supply.

The River Nile

Use of the Nile waters is essentially governed by two colonial era agreements. The first agreement signed in 1929 between Egypt, Sudan and Great Britain, which represented all East African countries under its rule at the time, guaranteed Egypt 48bn cubic meters (bcm) of water and Sudan a mere 4bcm out of a total 87bcm. The signing of the agreement was largely the result of a desire by both countries to begin large scale works projects on the Nile. Great Britain was particularly interested in developing water resources in Sudan, a British protectorate at the time. In exchange for Egypt’s approval of greater Nile water usage by Sudan, Great Britain and Sudan agreed to recognize Egypt’s natural and historic rights over the Nile waters, based upon prior use. The agreement also granted Egypt the power to renegotiate the terms if Sudan’s political status were to change in the future and veto power over any proposed water projects throughout the Nile basin that may affect its water supply. For over 30 years, the 1929 accord maintained the status quo, providing Egypt ultimate control over Nile waters. However, after Sudan gained its independence in 1956, it repudiated the agreement, arguing that a material change in circumstance had transformed the parties’ rights and obligations under the treaty. This eventually led to the signing of a new agreement in 1959, which increased both Egypt’s and Sudan’s Nile water allocations to 55.5bcm and 18.5bcm, respectively, and resulted in the building of the Aswan High Dam. The 1959 agreement changed little else, however. Egypt still exercised decisive authority over the Nile’s waters; any water works project had to be approved by Egypt, which would, after approval, monitor the project to ensure compliance with the agreed water allocation. In addition, none of the other Nile basin countries were consulted regarding the 1959 agreement, and Ethiopia refused to accept the agreement as legitimate.

Although many Nile basin countries achieved independence in the 1960’s, it was not until the 1990’s that these countries made substantial efforts for more equitable sharing of Nile waters; these efforts culminated in the formation of the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI). Established in 1999, the NBI is the main institutional mechanism for Nile Basin countries seeking to develop Nile river water resources in a cooperative manner. NBI membership includes all Nile Basin countries (Burundi, DRC, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda), including Egypt and Sudan. Although officially launched in 1999, countries of the NBI have been working cooperatively since 1992 to achieve a sustainable and fair solution to the region’s growing water needs. Since its inception, the NBI has established a formal organizational framework, facilitated significant study and agreement regarding specific programs and projects and also acquired significant funding to begin implementing the first stages of its proposed multilateral and bilateral projects. The ultimate goal of the NBI was to establish the Nile Basin Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA). The CFA is the final step needed before countries can begin implementing NBI projects; it is the actual treaty that will authorize, with the approval of all NBI countries, more equitable allocation of Nile waters by establishing the Nile Basin Commission (NBC), through which member countries will act together to manage and develop resources of the Nile.

In June of 2008, after nearly a decade of negotiations, the deadline to ratify the CFA passed with only seven of the nine NBI member states’ approval; Egypt and Sudan refused to ratify the treaty. Although Egypt claimed that its refusal to sign was based on its concern over certain clauses and that it would continue to try and reach a consensus over any contentious provisions, other NBI countries blamed Egypt for once again acting only within its own interest and not recognizing the obvious inequalities that exist with regards to Nile water distribution. Specifically, Egypt and Sudan have stated their objection to a specific provision of Article 14 of the CFA, which states, “Having due regard for the provisions of Articles 4 and 5, Nile Basin States recognize the vital importance of water security to each of them. Nile Basin States therefore agree, in a spirit of cooperation, to work together to ensure that all states achieve and sustain water security and not to significantly affect the water security of any other Nile Basin State.” Both countries continue to advocate for the clause’s rephrasing to “not to adversely affect the water security and current uses and rights of any other Nile Basin States.” However, this phrase would completely nullify the purpose of the NBI and the CFA, which is to dispose of the 1959 agreement and allow for more reasonable allocation of Nile waters.

After two more years of failed negotiation, in May of 2010, several NBI countries met in Entebbe, Uganda to sign the CFA. Despite strong opposition from Egypt and Sudan, Rwanda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda and Tanzania ratified the treaty, frustrated over the Egypt and Sudan’s continued resistance. The DRC and Burundi, although not present at the signing, have also agreed to ratify the treaty. The adoption of the treaty by the majority of the NBI states angered Egypt, which immediately reiterated its position that it would not sign any agreement that threatened its current water supply. The Egyptian government says it will staunchly defend its historic rights and powers over Nile waters, and has taken action in the past to do just that. In the early 1990’s, it was reported that Egypt worked to block an African Development Bank loan that would have provided Ethiopia the means to implement a large water works project. In addition, Egypt’s political influence over Middle Eastern affairs provides it with adequate leverage over many developed countries in terms of preventing funding for Nile Basin country water projects. Also, in 1994, it was reported that Egypt had planned but canceled an air strike on Sudan over the building of a new dam. Egypt has stated in the past that it would regard any attempt to alter the Nile’s current status as an act of war. Recently, in reaction to the NBI’s decision to ratify the CFA, Egypt referred the issue to its National Security Authority. The reason for the referral is the inauguration of the Tana Beles hydropower station and dam in Ethiopia, which occurred immediately after the CFA was signed. Egypt insists that its approval is needed before projects such as Tana Beles station can be implemented; however the CFA does not recognize Egypt’s former unilateral powers over Nile waters.

Egypt’s rigorous defense of its Nile water supply is understandable given its present dependency on the Nile River. Egypt’s population is entirely dependent upon the Nile for its water supply. Egypt’s total population lives on only 5% of the country’s land, as the remaining 95% is desert and uninhabitable. Furthermore, Egypt’s population has grown from just 19 million in 1947 to over 80 million currently, a 300 percent increase in just 60 years. The country is already struggling to accommodate its massive population, as areas surrounding the Nile continue to urbanize and suffer from over crowdedness. To alleviate the problem, the Egyptian government has begun to create new towns; however, this requires sizeable amounts of water, something Egypt currently does not have. In addition, over 40% of Egypt’s population relies upon agriculture to survive; hence, a reduction in its water supply will likely result in diminished food production and equally important, the loss of jobs. Naturally, both Egypt and Sudan have expressed deep concerns over the increased likelihood of a decrease in their countries’ water supply, but their fears are also shared by other NBI countries, which have faced similar problems for years.

Similar to Egypt, Ethiopia has a population of over 80 million people, more than double than it was in 1975. In addition, constantly failing rains and recurrent drought in Ethiopia have made it virtually impossible to grow any crops. Compounding the problem is the government’s inability to construct irrigation systems and large water works projects. Over 80% of the Nile’s water flows from Ethiopia, yet the country has never been able to make significant use of it. It has been estimated that the building of irrigation systems would help 30-40% of the population. As 40% of Egypt’s population relies upon Nile waters for agricultural purposes, approximately 80% of Ethiopia’s population is reliant upon agriculture as its main source of livelihood, and agricultural production comprises about 50% of the country’s GDP. Similar estimates apply to several other Nile basin countries. Kenya and Tanzania also suffer from recurrent drought, deforestation and soil erosion and continue to experience rising population numbers. Without access to additional water sources, their people are certain to endure greater hardship. Tanzania’s Water Minister, Edward Lowasa, recently stated, in defense of his country’s decision to pipe water from Lake Victoria, “These are people with no water…How can we do nothing when we have this lake just sitting there?” The fact remains that East African Nile basin countries have suffered greatly from a serious lack of water, which consistently disrupts food production and forces heavy reliance upon food aid. The World Food program (WFP) rates Ethiopia’s hunger situation as extremely alarming, with an estimated 46% of the population undernourished. With six major droughts in just two decades, many people have not had adequate time to recover their livelihoods between droughts, which have wiped out crops, animals and what few assets they have managed to accumulate. This is essentially an endless cycle, experienced by a growing population in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya and other NBI states, and it is a cycle that cannot be broken without an increase in regional water supply.

The signing of the CFA, and the implementation of new water works projects throughout the Nile basin are significant steps towards alleviating some of the burden for growing populations in previously deprived basin countries, but the likely reduction of water supply to Egypt and Sudan will surely impact their populations negatively, resulting in increased impoverishment in these two countries. Therein lies the real dilemma. Regardless of how the waters are ultimately distributed, there simply is not enough water to completely accommodate all parties involved. More equitable distribution, based upon each country’s population needs, is seemingly the fairest solution at this point; however, even the fairest solution has been vehemently opposed by two of the major parties to the dispute. The fact that over a decade of substantial negotiation could not produce consensus is a rather worrying sign, particularly since the conflict will only increase in intensity in the years to come. Therefore, a concerted effort on the part of the international community will be needed in order to prevent a violent escalation, particularly a military confrontation. Former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali warned that “the next war among countries will not be for oil or territorial borders, but only for…water.” All avenues of peaceful resolution to this conflict must be attempted to avert war on any scale. Twenty-five African countries are expected to experience water scarcity or water stress over the next 30 years, which means the Nile basin countries are not alone in their dispute. This also means that it is in the interest of all African countries to work cooperatively to avoid conflict and achieve water security. By using regional, as well as the AU’s mechanisms to pool resources and leverage assistance from the broader international community, African countries, particularly those in the Nile basin, can reach a sustainable solution that will ensure a level of water security that is beneficial to all.