Egypt and the Nile water debacle
Over the past few months there have been negotiations with Ethiopia by Egypt’s interim government on the proposed Renaissance Dam project, tension on the Nile seems to be growing, with Egypt demanding it does not lose any of its colonial era water rights, while upstream nations like Ethiopia are telling Cairo they deserve more access to the world’s largest river.
Only a few years ago, the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) was celebrating its 10 years in existence in Alexandria. All the major players were present, from World Bank officials to water ministers across the region. The result from that optimistic meeting has been near disastrous, with a smaller spin-off movement growing among upstream nations that Egypt says threatens their very ability to deliver water to their citizens.
They claim “national security” as the prime reason or their opposition to any real negotiations for water. Part of that is true. Egypt is growing at a rapid pace, with the population expected to reach 120 million by 2025, according to the United Nations Population Fund. But the reality is Egypt must negotiate and change its ways over Nile water, or East Africa could become embroiled in a water war of unprecedented character.
Egypt’s doomsday scenarios to justify its dominance of the Nile’s water may be real, but the sad fact is too many Egyptians suffer water shortages today, on a daily basis. Not in the five years that the Egyptian government claims.
Take a quick look at Omar, a 37-year-old plumber, ironically, who lives in Cairo’s Manial district. He says that over the summer months, his family of five is lucky to have enough potable water to make tea, let alone bathe or cook meals.
“I really worry what we are going to do this summer,” he told me recently.
The cause of the water cuts, he and his neighbors argue, is the new developments that are once again being erected for Egypt's wealthiest. These new posh fenced-in towns are pompously called Beverly Hills and Marina. Omar and his neighbors say water is being redirected, causing shortages in the under-privileged areas of the city. On one level, the Egyptian officials and commentators are right to fear water shortages. It is easy to see who they are fearful of: Those with the economic power. This is why they do not want to renegotiate a treaty that would see the country lose any of the water currently allocated to the country under a 1959 treaty with Sudan.
That treaty is the continuation of the Nile water agreement of 1929 — brokered by the British when they were the colonial power. Egypt was guaranteed 48bn cubic meters of water. Following the 1959 deal, which did little more than reaffirm Egypt and Sudan's right to a majority of the Nile, this was increased to 55.5bn cubic meters, while Sudan is allotted 14.5bn cubic meters.
Egypt, as the regional leader, politically and economically, could truly become a leader if it were willing to go beyond the desire to keep a treaty first created by its colonial overlords. It could instead create something with the NBI that would truly transcend borders.
The NBI's main funder, the World Bank, has said it will not go along with any projects in upstream countries unless Egypt agrees. With a veto power, Egypt has the ability to stall development along the Nile. There are other options, however, such as desalination efforts that could be made to reduce Egypt's reliance on the Nile. According to the Egyptian Water Partnership, some 95% of the country's drinking and irrigation water comes from the Nile. This has to change.
The Egyptian government could come to a deal with the other NBI countries that would see it reduce its Nile resources in favor of erecting desalination plants along the Red Sea and Mediterranean. This would give Egypt the ability to increase water output — or keep it at around the same figure — without depriving upstream countries of their ability to develop and improve agricultural output.
After that Alexandria meeting, Burundi's environment and water minister, Degratias N'Duimana told me that his own country, and other upstream countries, “re struggling to improve our infrastructure and agriculture sectors because we can't develop industries or irrigation lines from the Nile because Egypt won't let us and there is no money for these projects.” The trump card falls to Cairo.
With desalination, however, Egypt could provide a sustainable amount of water along the Red Sea coast that would end the transport of water from the Nile to the coast, hours away.
Khaled Abu Zeid, director of the Egyptian Water Partnership, agreed. “There needs to be a look into desalination projects in Egypt, because that would give the country another source,” he began, “because it could really be a huge boost to Egypt's water needs. It is expensive, but in the long run, it might make these discussions easier if Egypt is seen as looking for alternatives.”
By compromising and establishing alternative solutions, the partnerships that Egypt could help create along the Nile would go a long way when those deadly water shortages come. It could avoid potential war. By negotiating and developing a new treaty that would give upstream countries greater access to the world's largest river, Egypt would signal a new era of partnership and understanding in a region fraught with anger and frustration. If they fail, the region could quickly turn toward violence and posturing.