Egypt's fight for the Nile

Ahmed Elleiba, Tuesday 4 Jan 2011

Diplomats and experts call for Egypt to take an initiative in the Nile Basin crisis and implement measures to counteract the looming threat of rising sea levels and water shortage

Diplomats and environmental and legal experts in Egypt are as one on how to address the issue of Nile water distribution. Attendees at lectures sponsored by the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs discussed how to move on beyond the current impasse in negotiations with the other Nile countries.

First, they said, there needs to be a single national agency responsible for Nile Basin affairs to manage the current crisis after several Nile source countries signed a framework agreement (the Cooperative Framework Agreement) which Egypt and Sudan refused to join claiming it neglected key concerns.

This first step is seen as a more viable option than letting the matter be distributed among several government bodies, they agreed. Members of the new agency would be drawn from the National Security Authority, the ministries of foreign affairs, agriculture, water resources, irrigation and international cooperation.

Mustafa El-Fiqi, the chairman of the National Security and Foreign Relations Committee in the Shura Council, said the problems of managing the Nile water crisis are primarily political.

"Someone is whispering in the ear of Nile Basin countries that the 21st century is the century of water," El-Fiqi said. "While the 20th century was the era of oil and the Arabs benefited greatly from that, it is now their turn to reap the rewards and put a price on water and sell it like the Arabs did oil."

Ibrahim Nassereddin, director of the Institute of African Studies and Research, said that Egyptian-African relations are fractured, with animosity directed at Egypt. He used the example of Ethiopia, whose role on the continent has historically been in direct conflict with Egypt's because it views Cairo as a coloniser. Accordingly, Ethiopia resents Egypt's presence among the Nile Basin states.

Ambassador Reda Bebars, who is in charge of the issue at the foreign ministry, asserted that the agreement will not proceed as planned. Bebars said that Egypt will continue talks with concerned parties and has drafted a development plan and closely monitors any new moves by donors for new projects, such as Ethiopia’s planned construction of dams along the river.

To add the sense of urgency, Egypt is predicted to suffer climatic and environmental calamities in the future, forcing it to seek new solutions. Most pressing of these is the expansion of desalination projects and digging a small canal around the Aswan dam to allow the passage of soil towards the Nile Delta whose steady erosion will see areas flooded by the Mediterranean, according to Khaled Ouda, a geology and palaeontology expert.

Managing the crisis from a legal standpoint is comparatively straight forward, according to Egypt's legal team in charge of the issue, because the statutes of international law are in Egypt’s favour. Mohamed Sameh Amr, head of the legal team, said that Cairo is standing on firm grounds regarding its share of Nile water.

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