Nile Basin water dispute: Beyond the meetings

Dina Ezzat , Friday 21 Jan 2011

Despite delayed meetings, Cairo is heavily engaged in talks with Nile Basin states in an effort to resolve dispute over water distribution

Satellite picture of the northern section of the river Nile. (AFP)

Egypt has made no major breakthrough in its attempt to resolve the dispute over access to Nile waters, but it has not confronted a setback either. This was the bottom line repeated by several sources in concerned government bodies, as Egypt continues to fight to keep its annual share of the Nile waters untouched – or almost untouched.

"Things are moving forward with some but not all the upstream Nile states," said one official source.

However, explained the source, this progress has more to do with Egypt’s overall bilateral relations with some of the Nile Basin countries and less with efforts to reach a new water distribution agreement.

The least amount of progress, sources acknowledge, has been made with Ethiopia, which provides Egypt with over 80 per cent of its annual share.

"But we are not letting go on Ethiopia," said an Egyptian diplomat.

It is the consensus in Cairo that there is no short-term solution for this complicated dispute which began last May when five of the seven upstream countries signed an agreement to amend the distribution of the Nile waters in a way that would reduce Egypt's share.

So far, this agreement has not been implemented, and Cairo is hard at work to convince the involved states that it would be more opportune to pursue better management and reduce waste of the Nile resources rather than to cut the shares of the lower-stream states.  

"What we are saying is simply let us all better-manage our resources and let us use more advanced technology in irrigation and power generation," explained the Egyptian diplomat.

This issue was expected to be tabled for discussion during a meeting that was scheduled for 25 January in the Kenyan capital. However, the meeting was delayed just days before it was to convene.

Some Egyptian sources suggest that the delay is essentially related to the corruption charges facing the Kenyan minister of water. Others, however, insist that "a certain Ethiopian influence" was exercised to delay the meeting, "just to keep Egypt on edge."

"But we stick to our policy of containment; getting into a political fight (with Ethiopia) would not resolve the differences," said the same Egyptian diplomat.

Meanwhile, a summit of the Nile Basin countries that was scheduled for next week in Uganda – in which Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif was supposed to represent President Hosni Mubarak – was also delayed.

Cairo, according to the official sources, is not really alarmed by the delays, saying that, despite the hold-ups, Egypt will continue its bilateral engagement with upstream states and with the donor states and organsiations which could provide for water projects that might affect Egypt's share.

Meanwhile, one official said that the Nairobi meeting is now "tentatively" scheduled for late February. He adds that consultations "will be conducted in order to come up with an alternative date for the Uganda summit – with a proper attendance of leaders."

"What counts most is not the convocation of meetings but rather the positions of the relevant states," said an Egyptian official.

The call for a summit was made jointly by Ethiopia and Uganda. And while many Egyptians believe Ethiopia may have had a hand in influencing its delay, there remain many who say that what actually prompted the delay was the anticipated low level of leader participation.

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