Thursday, May 13, 2010

Egypt refuses to make concessions on Nile water

Nile expert says Egypt will object to any project agreed by upstream African countries that affects its share.
By Samer al-Atrush - CAIRO

Egypt is refusing to relinquish a drop of its legal right to the lion’s share of Nile river water, despite demands from other African countries for a more equitable sharing agreement.

Following years of barren negotiations, seven upstream African countries — Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, DR Congo, Rwanda, Burundi– are on Friday expected to push forward with a new water-sharing deal to replace an agreement that gives Egypt and Sudan majority control of the water flow.

Egypt has repeatedly cited its “historical” right on the river which provides the country of 80 million people with 90 percent of its water needs.

The upstream countries want to be able to implement projects, in consultation with Egypt and Sudan, but without Egypt being able to exercise the veto power it was given by a 1929 colonial-era treaty with Britain.

A 1959 agreement between Egypt and Sudan — following Sudan’s independence in 1956 — allocated 55.5 billion cubic metres of the Nile to Egypt, and 18.5 billion to Sudan, a combined total of 87 percent of the Nile flow.

Egypt’s water needs are expected to exceed its supply by 2017, according to a government report last year.

“Egypt is exerting efforts with leaders of the upstream countries to persuade them to delay the agreement,” said Hani Raslan, a Nile expert with the Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

“The only way out of the problem is cooperation,” he added.

Raslan said that the Nile Basin Initiative — a basin countries umbrella group funded by the World Bank — had studied 22 projects including energy projects, saving lost water and irrigation.

“Unilateral signing will abort these projects. And Egypt will object to any project that affects its share,” Raslan said.

Egypt says it is still hoping to negotiate, failing that it has threatened legal action.

“If certain countries of the Nile Basin sign an agreement without consensus, Egypt will insist that all countries respect international law,” Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit told a local newspaper on Saturday.

“If necessary, we will treat this in the adequate legal way,” he said, adding that his country’s water rights were a “red line.”

The outcome of the next meeting could unravel the 10-year-old Nile Basin Initiative, which the World Bank credits with helping keep the countries talking with each other on quotas.

Raslan says that an agreement on May 14 that excluded Egypt and Sudan would bring an end to the initiative, a message Abul Gheit says has been delivered to the basin countries.

“Egypt has been careful to affirm to the Nile Basin countries and donors that opening the door to signing the agreement means the end of negotiations and an announcement that the Nile Basin Initiative has failed,” he said.

Egypt has proposed to help manage its African partners’ water resources, and vowed to better make use of its own.

But Egyptian diplomats say the African countries will have a hard time financing large projects if there is no consensus among the Nile countries.

Cairo “will not accept the construction of any project in the Nile basin that could affect its water resources,” Abul Gheit said.

Some observers say Egypt is not serious about negotiating.

“Egyptians are behaving with the Africans the way they accuse Israel of behaving with the Palestinians: they say they are ready to negotiate but without committing to the difficult issues,” one western diplomat said on condition of anonymity.

And Egypt insists that the Africans have other sources of water.

“Egypt only has water coming from the river. The Africans have it from the rains,” one Egyptian diplomat said.

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