Until the recent positive signs of cooperation between some of the Nile riparian states, disputes between the downstream and upper riparian states over rights to the waters of the Nile have been a contentious issue for centuries.
The outcome of the Nile water negotiations could have profound consequences for the region and the African continent. In May 2010, five upstream states signed a
Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) to access more water from the Nile. This move was strongly opposed by Egypt and Sudan. Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania were original signatories with Burundi signing in February 2011. The CFA is designed to replace both the 1929 treaty and the 1959 bilateral agreement between Sudan and Egypt, which is now considered to be the main bone of contention among the riparian states. Egypt dismissed the CFA out of hand.
Subsequently, Ethiopia began to construct the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which is expected to be a 63 billion cubic metre reservoir. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam will be Africa’s largest hydroelectric facility and its construction started 40km upstream from Sudan on the Ethiopian portion of the Blue Nile. Although Ethiopia has agreed not to use the reservoir for irrigation, the new dam has become a problem for Egypt.
According to a recent WikiLeaks report, Sudan agreed to host an Egyptian airbase in Kuris in the west of its Darfur region. Consequently, this base could be used to launch an Egyptian assault on the Ethiopian dam, if diplomatic efforts fail.
The WikiLeaks report, emanating from Stratfor, a private intelligence agency, also claimed that Egyptian officials said: ‘If it comes to a crisis, we will send a jet to bomb the dam and come back in one day, as simple as that. Or we can send our special forces in to block/sabotage the dam.’
It is clear that Ethiopia’s giant hydroelectric dam project, which is underway, signals the seriousness of regional resentment over the previous treaties on sharing the waters of the Nile. Egypt and Sudan hold absolute rights to 100% of the river’s water under the treaty signed in 1929 between Egypt and Britain, which was then the colonial power in Kenya, Sudan and Uganda. This treaty was reinforced by the 1959 agreement between Egypt and Sudan where the Nile waters were divided between the two downstream nations. Both the 1929 and the 1959 agreements were rejected by many of these countries after they had attained independence.
Amid the mistrust, suspicion, controversy and threat of conflict over the use of the Nile waters, on 8 October 2012 a ten-member committee of experts and professionals from Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia began to discuss the possible impact of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. The committee also visited the construction site, in accordance with Article 3(8) of the CFA that states the principle ‘that the Nile Basin states exchange information on planned measures through the Nile River Basin Commission as part of the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI)’. This is also in accordance with Article 7, which states: ‘[I]n pursuance of their cooperation concerning the use, development and protection of the Nile River Basin and its water resources, Nile Basin states shall on a regular basis exchange readily available and relevant data and information on existing measures and on the condition of water resources of the Basin.’
At the same time, on the sidelines of the meetings, the Nile Tripartite Committee composed of experts drawn from Ethiopia, Egypt, Sudan and four international experts, including the International Panel of Experts (IPoE), also met. The objective of the meeting was to continue studying the possible impact of the dam on downstream countries, particularly Egypt and Sudan.
Tensions in the Horn of Africa are of great concern to the international community, due to its volatility. Water scarcity, food insecurity, climate-induced migration and poverty are increasingly being experienced in many parts of the riparian states. Conflicts emerging here might spread political, social and economic instability to surrounding areas. Conflict is likely to emerge as long as the downstream states believe their interests in the shared water resource are threatened by the actions of the upstream states. In addition, conflict over the Nile’s waters could also fan existing conflicts in the region, making them more complex and harder to address.
However, instead of conflict, the Nile waters could lead to greater interdependence through cooperation and mutual benefits. By coming together to jointly manage their shared water resources, countries could build trust and prevent conflict. In the face of potential conflict and regional instability, the Nile basin countries should continue to seek cooperative solutions. The political will to develop a new legal framework for managing the Nile should continue.
Finally, it should be noted that the only promising way of avoiding future conflicts in the utilisation of the Nile waters remains focusing on a systematic collaboration among all stakeholders that would maximise the mutual benefits for all sides while contributing to the social, economic and political development of the region.
DEBAY TADESSE is Senior Researcher, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division at ISS Addis Ababa (Institute Of Security Studies)