Let Our Waters Go


Africa FocusJust shy of a year before a popular uprising toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a little-noticed revolt took place that shows how Egypt’s future is more closely tied to Africa than to the Middle East. After a decade of negotiations, over Egypt’s strident objections and delay tactics, Nile Basin countries Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania, last May signed the Nile Basin Cooperative Framework Agreement, saying they were “tired of first getting permission from Egypt before using river Nile water for any development project like irrigation.” Egypt and Sudan have yet to sign.

The stage for this revolt was set in 1929, when Britain and Egypt signed the Nile Waters Agreement guaranteeing Egypt access to 80 percent of Nile waters, forbidding any irrigation or hydroelectric works “on the tributaries of the Nile or their lakes” without the consent of the Egyptian government if such works can cause a drop in the volume of water reaching Egypt, and giving Egypt the right to inspect the river’s entire length of 4,160 miles. The treaty was meant to keep Egypt happy because the 95 percent desert nation controlled the Suez Canal that gave Britain faster access to Asia.

Unhappy with its guarantee of a measly four billion cubic meters of Nile waters, against Egypt’s 48 billion, Sudan renegotiated the 1929 agreement with Egypt. In 1959, the two nations signed the Full Utilization of the Nile Waters agreement, which allowed the entire average annual flow of the Nile to be shared between them, with Sudan taking 18.5 billion cubic meters and Egypt 55.5 billion. It gave Egypt the right to build the Aswan High Dam with capacity to store the entire annual Nile flow.

Egypt depends entirely on the Nile for its agricultural production. Most of its population lives in the Nile Valley, just 4 percent of the country’s land. “The Nile is to Egypt what rainfall is to the regions south of the Sahara,” says Paul Goldsmith, a tropical agriculture specialist and political analyst based in Meru, Kenya. “Nothing brings Egyptian paranoia to the surface quicker than a challenge to the 1929 agreement.”

Indeed, Egyptian authorities say that any attempt to upend the status quo would be tantamount to an “act of war,” prompting a Ugandan minister of regional affairs to ask recently, “What it is Egypt going to do, bomb us all?” 

Once independent, Uganda and other Nile Basin nations began to clamor for greater access to Nile waters to support their agricultural and industrial development. They argue that Egypt contributes not a single drop of water to the Nile, the world’s longest river. Instead, the Nile is fed by the White Nile tributary, which flows from Lake Victoria in Uganda, and by the Blue Nile flowing from Ethiopia. Ethiopia, which alone provides 86 percent of the resources of the main Nile (the Great Nile) but is only allowed to use between 0.5 percent and 1 percent of those waters, says it does not recognize the 1929 and 1959 treaties.

To quell the grumbling, Egypt engineered establishment of the Nile Basin Initiative in 1999, with the 10 countries that share Nile waters agreeing “to achieve sustainable socioeconomic development through the equitable utilization of, and benefit from, the common Nile Basin water resources.” The good feeling behind this shared vision didn’t last. Amid increasing demand for water resources, dissatisfaction with Egypt’s hegemony over the Nile intensified. “Egypt can’t enjoy the benefits of having access to the sea, while blocking a landlocked country like Uganda from profiting from the fact that it sits at the source of the Nile,” Ugandan commentator Charles Onyango-Obbo, is quoted as saying.

Negotiations got under way for the Nile Basin Cooperative Framework Agreement, with the intent that it would eventually replace the Nile Basin Initiative. Egypt remained obdurate, resorting to tactics ranging from diplomacy to offers of aid to outright threats of violence to derail the upstart movement. In 2004, ignoring Egypt’s veto power, a fed-up Tanzania began work on a $27.6 billion, 105-mile pipeline to draw water from Lake Victoria. Other Nile Basin countries are following suit.

More recently, shortages caused by the diversion of water to wealthy Egyptians’ new estates and projects featured in anti-Mubarak protestors’ list of grievances, Goldsmith notes.

In his Zeleta Post blog, Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, Ph.D, a leading authority on African economic history, posted this last June: “The dispute over the Nile is a reminder to all those, including many in Egypt itself and Euroamerica, who occasionally forget that Egypt is in Africa and strap it to other historical geographies, that without the Nile there would be no Egypt, and without the lakes and rivers and watersheds stretching for more than 6,500 kilometers, all the way to the Great Lakes of East Africa, there would be no Nile.” 

Whether Egypt is prepared to let go of Nile waters is anyone’s guess.