Egypt's thawing relations with the Nile Basin Initiative: What you need to know

Bassem Abo Alabass , Tuesday 24 Jan 2017

Egypt froze its participation in the bloc in 2010, but last July, Egyptian Irrigation Minister attended the 24th annual meeting of the NBI’s Nile-Com in Uganda, a move viewed as partial return to the group

Mohamed Abdel-Ati
The Egyptian irrigation minister Mohamed Abdel-Ati (C) during the NBI's 24th meeting of the Nile Council of Ministers (Photo: Nile Basin Initiative)

The Nile Basin Initiative is currently preparing a delegation to visit Cairo to discuss Egypt’s possible return to the regional grouping after seven years of inactivity, the initiative’s head said.

“Hopefully by March, the NBI can send the delegation if formed, and successful talks would depend on the Egyptian authorities,” Innocent Ntabana, the executive director of the initiative, told Ahram Online by phone earlier this month from Entebbe.

Egypt froze its participation in the bloc in 2010, but last July, Egyptian Irrigation Minister Mohamed Abdel Ati attended the 24th annual meeting of the NBI’s Nile Council of Ministers (Nile-Com) in Uganda, a move viewed as partial return of the northern African nation to active participation in the group.

From the perspective of many Egyptians, neither the minister’s move nor the NBI’s anticipated visit to Cairo have been that significant, due to their lack of information about the Nile states’ relations.

The initiative was launched in February 1999 by nine African countries with the aim of creating an intergovernmental partnership and providing “a forum for consultation and coordination among the Basin States for the sustainable management and development of the shared Nile water and related resources for win-win benefits,” according to the initiative official website.

The Nile Basin members
The Nile Basin members (Photo:Ahram Online)

The founding members were Burundi, the DRC, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda. Sudan has subsequently divided into two separate countries, both of which are now members of the grouping.

Despite many Egyptians knowing little about the NBI itself, they do name Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia as among the members of the organisation.

The ongoing conflict over Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam, which Egypt has reservations about, has been heavily reported by the Egyptian media for several years.

“I am not surprised, and am not sure about the knowledge of the rest of the basin population over the Nile, but they are highlighting the conflicts, then that is because the media doesn’t focus on the cooperation and the benefits out of the partnership,” Ntabana told Ahram Online.

Egypt’s concerns over the CFA

In 2010, five of the Nile Basin Initiative members adopted a treaty called the Cooperative Framework Agreement.

The CFA stipulates, among its principals, an equitable and reasonable utilisation of the waters of the Nile river.

Egypt and Sudan declined to sign the agreement, citing disagreements over Article 14(b) which requires members “not to significantly affect the water security of any other Nile Basin States.”

It was this disagreement over the CFA that led Egypt to suspend its full participation in the NBI.

Cairo argues that Egypt has historical rights to use the Nile water that were not taken into consideration by the CFA, said John Nyaoro, the NBI’s former head during the initiative’s media training held in Kigali last month.

According to NBI, 95 percent of Egypt’s population “lives along its banks, and the Nile accounts for nearly all of Egypt’s drinking and irrigation water.”

Egypt has also demanded a clear phrase about prior notification for other members of planned measures by any of the NBI states, Nyaoro said.

“All our development partners would want an all-inclusive NBI, where the basin states are participating. So even when one country -not just Egypt- is out, saying that it isn’t satisfied with an issue, the partners would want the NBI states to consider and look into that issue,” Nyaoro said.

“Egypt’s current stance toward the NBI is legal, and the participation will be remained frozen until the issues raised can be solved,” Walid Haqeqi, the Egyptian irrigation ministry’s spokesman, told Ahram Online.

“What we care about is to reassure Egyptians over their water security,” said Haqeqi.

Haqeqi elaborated that freezing activities within the initiative does not affect Egyptian bilateral relations with the NBI members themselves.

Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi stressed last month to water and irrigation ministers from a number of Nile basin countries the importance of reaching a consensus on the CFA, which aims to guarantee the rights and water security of all countries along the river.

El-Sisi has been attempting to bolster Egypt's relations with African nations over recent months, visiting Uganda, Rwanda and receiving the South Sudanese President Salva Kiir in Cairo to discuss the current situation in his country. 

“The ministry is yet to receive an official notification from the NBI regarding its delegation’s visit to Cairo, but Egypt welcomes any move that could solve the CFA issues, and the minister said so at the last meeting he attended,” he concluded.

"I would like to seize this opportunity to reaffirm Egypt's sincere will to continue and build upon what we started in 1999, putting aside all the challenges and misunderstandings that may hinder our regional cooperation," Egyptian water resources and irrigation minister Mohamed Abdel Ati was quoted as saying during the Nile-Com annual meeting.

Egypt needs to diversify its demands on the table to make the issue easier to negotiate, because with only one single item on the table, the talks would become very rigid, Ana Cascao, a programme manager at the Stockholm International Water Institute told Ahram Online on the sidelines of a workshop held in Sudan last month.

“In order to have Egypt back to the NBI family, there is a need for it to show openness to compromise as this could also influence the willingness of others to compromise," Cascao said.

The CFA versus bilateral treaties

“Egypt and Sudan’s fears over their historical rights to use the Nile water are exaggerated,” Salman Salman, a former World Bank advisor on water law told Ahram Online last month in Kigali.

Egypt signed a bilateral agreement with Great Britain, on behalf of its colony Sudan, in 1929, which was then supplemented by another accord in 1959 between Egypt and independent Sudan; under these treaties Cairo has the right to a water share of 55.5 billion cubic metres a year, the lion's share of the river's total flow of around 84 billion cubic metres, while Sudan has the rest.

Salman explained that there is no contradiction between the downstream countries’ historical rights and the CFA principal of an equitable and reasonable utilisation of the water.

“The South Sudanese swamps are the factor that sets the flow rate of the Nile, nothing else,” Salman told Ahram Online.

The White Nile travels through the South Sudanese Sudd wetlands, and much water is lost to evaporation.

Previous attempts to build a canal to divert the White Nile away from the vast swamps, to raise the flow of the river, have failed, as local communities rely on these wetlands.

“Egypt has accepted the GERD itself, so why does it rejects the CFA?” wondered Salman.

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in close snapshot (Photo: Bassem Abo Alabass)

In 2015, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan signed a Declaration of principal s in Khartoum on the sharing of Nile waters and the GERD, include giving priority to downstream countries for electricity generated by the dam and providing compensation for any damages.

Last September in Khartoum, the three countries signed contract with the French engineering consultancy Artelia and BRL groups to study the impacts of the GERD on the downriver states.

Sudan's return to the fold

“Sudan came back to the NBI in early 2012, believing in its strong commitment to cooperation and the benefits of being part of the Nile Basin fraternity,” said Seifedin Hamad, the former minister of water resources of Sudan.

Hamad had prepared a paper--unveiled last month in Kigali--summarising Sudan’s benefits from resuming its activities with the African initiative and “urging the development partners to play a major and effective role in bridging the gap between Egypt and other Nile Basin countries.”

The paper, obtained by Ahram Online, listed thirteen points explaining the Sudanese experience of unfreezing its participation in the NBI.

Hamad notes among them that: “when absent your voice will not be heard, whereas if you are present you observe and acknowledge the interests of others and others will observe your interests.”  


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