Tag Archives: Water

Egypt’s river dries up as Burundi joins Nile Basin Initiative

In the midst of the chaos across the Middle East, has no one noticed that Egypt has just lost control of its most significant and valuable resource? No, not oil – not everything’s about oil, and besides, Egypt doesn’t have that much of the black gold. No, it’s not tourism either – the hotels might be hurting but the pyramids aren’t going anywhere, unless Gaddafi decides to bomb them in a fit of retaliatory pique.

It’s water. Egypt needs a lot of it, being a desert country and all, and gets what it needs from the life-giving waters of the Nile. Despite the fact that the great river flows through ten African countries, Egypt – along with Sudan – gets most of the water. 90% of it, in fact, is shared between Sudan and Egypt under the terms of a colonial-era treaty.

But this treaty is being challenged by a coalition of five Nile-bordering countries, spearheaded by Ethiopia, who have set up the Nile Basin Initiative to renegotiate its terms. This week, under the cover of popular revolutions, Burundi became the sixth member of the group, giving it enough legal weight to scrap the treaty without Egypt’s consent, under the provisions of international law. They haven’t done so – yet.

Egypt is obviously in no position to respond – this is further demonstrated by the fact that Al Masry Al Youm, Egypt’s leading independent newspaper, had to seek comment from the former Minister of Water and Irrigation, who made the nonsensical statement that any decisions coming from the new coalition are only binding on the members of the new coalition, and would not apply to Egypt or Sudan. All true; but if they decide to use dam the water upstream, it will suddenly start looking very applicable indeed.

This is Egypt’s – and Sudan’s – most serious foreign policy consideration, as we’ve commented on before. Don’t be surprised if this causes the next revolution or war. Egypt is a fundamentally unbalanced, with not nearly enough fertile land to support its population, even if the water supply remains constant. Take away the water and there will be problems.

VERDICT: This is bad news for Egypt, but the existing treaty is very unfair and deserves to be replaced with something more thoughtful. And we always like to see African regional integration. So the Nile Basin Initiative goes forth.

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First Skirmish in the Water Wars – Egypt’s supply goes 4th

The Nile's inconvenient length poses geopolitical problems (pic: WWF)

The pharaohs of Ancient Egypt recognised the Nile as the source of life; it watered crops, it watered people, and it was the only efficient means of transportation for a people yet to discover the wheel. In the thousands of years since, its function has changed little; it’s a little dirtier, perhaps, but it is still the lifeblood upon which Egypt relies, providing all the country’s irrigation and most of its energy.

The problem is this: the Nile is not Egypt’s alone. Indeed, the river fulfils much the same function for Sudan, and provides livelihoods to millions in the other eight African countries through which it passes. But Sudan and Egypt are the only countries among the ten Nile nations who are permitted, under international law, to make proper use of the water. Under a colonial-era treaty, Sudan and Egypt are guaranteed 90% of the water flow, and Egypt has an absolute veto on all project proposals from the upstream countries. In effect, this means that Eritrea, Ethiopia, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania and Burundi are unable to build dams and generate electricity from the flow of the Nile.

This is not as crazy as it sounds – being downstream, and being primarily desert countries, Egypt and Sudan rely on the Nile to a degree that the other countries do not. Also, they may as well dam the waters of the Nile by the time it gets to them because otherwise it will just flow uselessly into the seas. But profits generated by Nile projects in Egypt and Sudan are certainly not shared, and so it is an inherently unequal state of affairs.

This cosy arrangement – cosy for the North Africans – has recently been threatened in what is potentially the most dangerous political development of this year, anywhere. Ethiopia, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and now Kenya have signed a unilateral treaty which states, basically, that they will do whatever they like with the Nile water. The treaty seeks to ensure equitable use of the water, and was spearheaded by Ethiopia. Apparently, one Ethiopian government official was quoted as saying “If those Arabs can sell their oil, then we can sell our water”. He makes a good point. Water is a valuable commodity now, and it is only becoming more precious. There is certainly money to be made.

But I wonder if the treaty signatories appreciate just what a bold diplomatic step this is. Egypt is already facing appreciable water shortages, even with the Nile in full, uninterrupted flow; its massive population is just not sustainable. This is terrifying Hosni Mubarak and his ruling elite, because the root of their longevity has been a basic social contract – Egyptians may not have any rights or participation, but they will always have access to cheap, basic goods (water prices are negligible, and bread is massively subsidised). If the bread, and then the water, disappears, then Mubarak will too. Egypt will do whatever it takes to ensure it keeps what water it already has, including legal, diplomatic and even military action. Whatever happens, the stakes are high.

Keep an eye on this one, it is set to run and run.

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