A weekend meeting of the Nile basin water ministers does not resolve treaty impasse.
Water ministers from five Nile basin countries did not settle their differences on the language of a new river treaty when meeting last weekend, but said they will uphold a one-year deadline for other basin members to enter the agreement, Reuters reports.
After more than a decade of negotiations, five upstream countries–Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda–decided in May to move forward and sign the new treaty without the consent of basin heavyweights Egypt and Sudan. The Cooperative Framework Agreement would establish laws and institutions to govern the development of the Nile River.
“The way the treaty is explained in the media is that they are allocating all the water and there will be impacts in Egypt and Sudan and this is not true,” said Ana Cascao of the Stockholm International Water Institute. “If Egypt and Sudan do not sign they will not be bound by the treaty. And there are no allocations in the agreement, not a single number. It’s basically about principles.”
“Half the articles are about principles of international water law, half are about institutions – who is going to be president, who will manage the organization and so on,” Cascao added.
The river’s current legal regime favors downstream users. That treaty, signed in 1959, divided the Nile between Egypt and a newly-independent Sudan, with two-thirds of the annual flow and a veto over upstream development projects allocated to Egypt.
Basin countries, with the assistance of the World Bank and the United Nations, established the Nile Basin Initiative in 1999 to increase dialogue. One of the primary goals of the organization was to sign a treaty creating a permanent Nile Basin Commission with legal authority over the development of the river. Four countries–Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt and Sudan–did not sign and were given one year to decide at a June meeting of the Nile Basin Initiative in Ethiopia. The treaty needs one more ratification to be legally binding for its members.
The point of contention is Article 14(b) which addresses water security. Government officials from Egypt and Sudan have said they will sign an agreement only if it protects their current use. The Nile is Egypt’s only perennial river and nearly 100 percent of its flow originates outside the country’s borders.
“Egypt’s share of the Nile’s water is a historic right that Egypt has defended throughout its history,” Mohammed Allam, minister of water resources and irrigation, told parliament after a round of failed negotiations in May, according to AFP. “Egypt reserves the right to take whatever course it sees suitable to safeguard its share.”
A major benefit to the commission is the exchange of information about planned projects, Cascao told Circle of Blue.
“The alternative, and I would say worst case scenario, is unilateral construction of infrastructure, not taking care to inform downstream countries and just building. The world has changed a little bit recently and the World Bank and bilateral donors are not the only donors available any more. The case of China shows this very well. China is supporting a lot of projects–roads, dams, irrigation schemes–in these countries already.”
Egypt’s water minister Mohamed Nasreddin Allam told Reuters the NBI would meet again this fall to reconsider the treaty.
Brett writes about agriculture, energy, infrastructure, and the politics and economics of water in the United States. He also writes the Federal Water Tap, Circle of Blue’s weekly digest of U.S. government water news. He is the winner of two Society of Environmental Journalists reporting awards, one of the top honors in American environmental journalism: first place for explanatory reporting for a series on septic system pollution in the United States(2016) and third place for beat reporting in a small market (2014). He received the Sierra Club’s Distinguished Service Award in 2018. Brett lives in Seattle, where he hikes the mountains and bakes pies. Contact Brett Walton