"Egypt, the gift of the Nile” is a phrase coined by the Greek historian Herodotus 3,000 years ago in his book about Egypt. His description continues to be true today, as Egypt is the only place in the world where a river cuts across a thousand miles of desert, creating a civilization along with it.
The Nile is the lifeline of Egypt, with people crowded on its sides, cities located along its banks, and roads shaped along its bends. But what Egyptians have long taken for granted, the abundant Nile always flowing through their lands, may be facing a dramatic shift.
Although the post-revolutionary atmosphere gave rise to many gestures of goodwill that have eased differences over the distribution of Nile water, Egypt is still facing serious pressure from irritated Nile Basin countries to agree on a new water-sharing package.
The Cooperative Framework Agreement that was signed in 2010, which reduces Egypt’s quota of the Nile water, has become even more pressing since Burundi joined five other Nile Basin states in the agreement last year, giving it the necessary majority to begin implementation.
Although Egypt and Sudan have firmly refused the agreement, it has become obvious that this rigid stance will not resolve the issue. This realization has pushed Egypt to shift its diplomacy regarding the issue, trading a harsh tone for attempts at exercising soft power, calling for more cooperation and joint projects.
"Egypt must first realize that it faces a major threat to its national security; water is vital to a major agricultural country like Egypt, and the Nile provides the country with 86 percent of its water needs and about 92 percent of the water used in agriculture,” explains Mohamed Ibrahim, an assistant professor of agricultural economics at Alexandria University.
Ibrahim adds that in order to resolve this crisis, Egypt has to adopt a multi-dimensional strategy. Diplomatically, Egypt must show more flexibility toward the terms of the new Nile Basin cooperative agreement and more openness to negotiate. Economically, Egypt has to help fund agricultural and development projects in the other Nile Basin countries as well as work on finding better ways to reduce wasted water that results from inefficient, old-fashioned practices of rolling out threats of military actions.”
Egypt began taking friendlier approaches toward the other Nile Basin countries right after the revolution, making up for decades of distancing itself from its African neighbors. One of the first moves came from a public initiative conducted in March 2011 by prominent politicians, former diplomats and youth leaders accompanying former Prime Minister Essam Sharaf on his visit to the upstream countries of Uganda and Ethiopia in attempts to pave the way for better relations.
Along with Egypt’s recent pledges to significantly boost trade and investment ties with Nile Basin countries, many analysts saw the appointment of Hesham Qandil as prime minister as another significant sign of Egypt putting the Nile issue at the top of its agenda.
Working as water resources and irrigation minister before his appointment as head of the Cabinet, Qandil is believed to be the architect of a new phase of relations between Egypt and its largest Nile Basin partner, Ethiopia.
Qandil was also behind President Morsy’s visit to Addis Ababa last month, which was regarded by many as a historical turning point after the tense relations of past years.When Morsy attended an African Union summit in the Ethiopian capital, it was the first time in over a decade than an Egyptian president had attended the conference in person.
During his post as water resources and irrigation minister, Qandil ensured that Egypt places relations with African countries atop its priorities and pays attention to cooperation and economic and trade integration with African states in general and Nile Basin countries in particular.
“Egypt does not mind the establishment of projects by the Nile Basin countries within the area of exchanged benefit and not harming others, as we believe that cooperation with the Nile Basin countries is a must and it encourages development projects in the Nile Basin countries,” Qandil said in a statement prior to President Morsy's visit to Ethiopia.
After the failed assassination attempt on former President Hosni Mubarak in Addis Ababa in 1994, he did not conduct a single diplomatic visit to a Nile downstream country. This has led to further deterioration in relations between Egypt and these vital countries, especially Ethiopia, from which Egypt receives almost 75 percent of its water supply.
Nile Basin countries have long called for a new treaty to delineate a more equitable distribution of water. After almost 10 years of lengthy negotiations, the Cooperative Framework Agreement was formulated in 2010 and was immediately signed by Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania. Burundi signed a year later.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo has abstained from signing for the time being, preferring more negotiations. Egypt and Sudan have refused to sign, declaring their stand behind a 1959 sharing agreement allocating them a majority of the water. The 1959 agreement came as a revisited version of the first agreement dating back to 1929, formulated between Egypt and Britain on behalf of Britain's African colonies. It gave Egypt veto power over upstream projects and the lion's share of Nile water.
In 1959, the agreement was revised between Egypt and Sudan, giving the two countries absolute rights to use 90 percent of the river's waters. According to the current 1959 Nile agreement that is still in place today, Egypt has exclusive use of 55.5 billion cubic meters — or 87 percent of the Nile flow — with Sudan enjoying the exploitation of 18.5 cubic meters of the water.
Nader Noureddin, a professor in the Faculty of Agriculture at Cairo University, tells Egypt Independent that the water system in the upstream countries is complex; in the past these countries were dependent on rainfall since they were located in humid areas, with average rainfall ranging from 1,250 to 1,500 millimeters each year.
Rainfall drops up to 500 millimeters in Eritrea and Sudan while in Egypt it does not exceed 15 millimeters annually; however, due to climate changes and development projects, a need for new resources has emerged, especially in countries like Ethiopia, which suffers from periodic droughts.
Yet Noureddin stresses that Africa is becoming the new food basket of the world, emphasizing that many new players are entering the equation since all countries are searching to secure the continent's water supply.
He explains that Israel, China, India, countries in the Gulf, and some multinational companies are conducting large-scale, industrial agricultural operations that consume massive amounts of water, utilizing this untapped access to irrigation and fertile wetlands.
Currently, several upstream nations are planning to build hydroelectric dams, including Ethiopia’s major project of a US$520 million hydroelectric dam on a Nile tributary, which is part of a decade-long project to create a modern electricity infrastructure financed by Italy, Ethiopia and the European Investment Bank.
According to Ethiopian media reports, however, Egyptian officials concede that the hydroelectric dams will not significantly hurt Egyptian consumption. On the other hand, agricultural projects should be more damaging to Egypt as they permanently reduce the amount of water that reaches the arid country.
Noureddin emphasizes the seriousness of Egypt’s current situation, saying that per capita water use in Egypt is less than 600 cubic meters, significantly lower than the world standard of 1,000. This is mostly made up of agricultural water use, since fresh water consumption only amounts to under 20 percent of the total.
Noureddin warns that Egypt will need nearly 50 percent more Nile water by 2050 to cater to an estimated population of 150 million people, the number predicted by Egypt's National Planning Institute.