Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr is currently on a six-country tour of the Nile Basin countries as Egypt increases its attempts to engage its neighbors to the south lobbying for a greater share of Nile water.
Amr's visit is being advertised as promoting Egyptian investment in the Nile Basin countries, but Egyptian foreign policy experts say that the trip is really aimed at improving relations with the six countries that signed the Entebbe agreement in the Ugandan city back in 2010. The treaty calls for a more equitable distribution of Nile water rights among the eleven riparian countries, though at the time of signing it was ten, before the advent of South Sudan.
The treaty was initially signed by Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania. Burundi signed a year later. The Democratic Republic of the Congo has promised to sign, but has yet to do so. Egypt refused to sign the treaty and declared it non-binding because it lacked Egypt’s consent.
According to a 1959 treaty, the current distribution of Nile water gives Egypt the lion's share (51 billion square meters per year) and the second most to Sudan (18 billion square meters per year).
The other Nile Basin countries have long called for a new treaty to delineate a more equitable distribution of water, but those entreaties were long ignored by the Foreign Ministry of former President Hosni Mubarak. The other countries eventually signed the Entebbe treaty, which was critical of Egyptian policy toward its Nile neighbors.
Now is the time to change the treaty, political analysts say.
“We must begin to realize that the other Nile Basin countries deserve to benefit more from the Nile river water, especially as they suffer economic problems and underdevelopment; and this will make a difference for them,” says Mostafa Kamel al-Sayed, a political science professor at Cairo University.
Egypt is now focusing on energizing another treaty, the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) launched in 1999, which aims to increase cooperation between the countries along the river. This initiative was created to stem riparian countries' claims to a larger share of water through economic cooperation. It was after this initiative seemed to stagnate that the prospect of the Entebbe treaty rose.
Egypt recently established the Egyptian Mission for Economic Development, which will look to increase Egyptian investments in African countries, including the Nile Basin states, within the framework of the NBI. The recent formation of the mission is the likely reason for the foreign minister's current visit.
“Egypt must continue to move in this direction,” says Hani Raslan, an expert in African issues at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. “Egyptian strategy must depend on resolving these issues through cooperation and not through disputes.”
“There is no way to utilize the resources of the Nile except through cooperation, so keeping bilateral channels open with the Basin countries is imperative,” he adds.
Amr is visiting Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan and South Sudan on his trip. While in Kenya, Amr said the economic development mission will look to finance projects in energy, agriculture and irrigation.
Kenya welcomes these latest efforts and is willing to work with Egypt for the stability and security of the Nile Basin countries, Chinese state-run Xinhua news agency reported Kenyan Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka as saying.
The Mubarak regime had a belligerent attitude toward the Entebbe treaty and Nile Basin states regarding water distribution. At the time, local commentators recommended a more conciliatory approach, but it was never adopted.
After Mubarak resigned, Egypt began making friendlier overtures to the Basin countries, such as sending a 35-strong delegation to Entebbe last April in an attempt to reinvigorate relations. The delegation included opposition figures and members of revolutionary youth groups.
This was an attempt at a fresh approach. Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi had described the Mubarak approach as “old-fashioned” Egyptian politicians attempting to obstruct foreign financing for irrigation dam projects in Ethiopia, fearing they would affect Egypt's share. He expressed these sentiments early last year at the public announcement ceremony for the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project, which is being constructed 40km from the South Sudanese border.
“We need to stop viewing the other countries' claims as a conspiracy being manipulated by external powers, and there should be an aim to invest in the Nile Basin countries,” Sayed says.
The Egyptian press has run amok with stories about Israel investing heavily in dam infrastructure in Ethiopia and other riparian states in order to threaten Egypt's water security. The narrative often constructed is that the Nile Basin countries are being manipulated by external powers to curb Egypt's control of the Nile.
“In the past, we used to dismiss their legitimate demands to utilize the Nile water,” Sayed adds. “We can't do this anymore and we should look at mutual cooperation. However, we need to propose specific plans to the Nile Basin countries, and not just talk in generalities about mutual cooperation.”
However, not all of the 33 dams already built or are being constructed along the banks of the Nile need be detrimental to other countries, according to hydrologist Haytham Awad.
“The dams being built are not necessarily harmful to Egypt,” he says, adding that the Karadoba dam in Ethiopia would increase Egypt's annual water share by 1.6 million cubic meters, though also mentioning that the Mendi dam in the same country would detract from Egypt's share.
According to Raslan, Egypt is playing this balancing act because it cannot afford to lose too much of its annual share.
“Egypt suffers from poor water resources even with the Nile, so the only viable strategy is to create mutually beneficial projects through the Nile Basin Initiative that will benefit all the countries.”
He adds that other riparian countries, such as Ethiopia, have plentiful rainfall which is used for irrigation purposes, making them not as dependent on Nile water as Egypt, whose agriculture depends almost entirely on Nile water.
The Entebbe treaty has been complicated by the creation of South Sudan last summer. Sudan itself was and remains closely aligned to the Egyptian position, due to the strong ties between Cairo and Khartoum, as well as the fact that under the 1959 treaty Sudan receives the second highest water share.
Whether South Sudan will maintain a contrarian position remains to be seen, but Raslan believes the state to its south will hedge its bets for the time being. “South Sudan can accept the 1959 treaty but I doubt that, or it can refuse that and sign the Entebbe agreement which is possible,” he says, “However most probably it will just adopt a wait-and-see position for now, as the Nile water issue is not a priority at this stage.”
He also believes Egypt needs to be more heavily involved in South Sudan beyond a cordial relationship.
“South Sudan also has much rainfall and it has more pressing issues,” Raslan adds. “Egypt has some projects there such building a hospital and a university and electricity projects in villages, but South Sudan needs heavy investment in infrastructure and Egypt could do more to invest there.”