A win-win approach to managing the Nile

Taha Abdel Alim , Monday 8 Sep 2014

Egypt should manage the Nile water issue through an approach of cooperation and increased mutual gains, rather than conflict, as the Nile Basin produces enough useable water for everyone

Despite concern because of facts on the ground, there is hope for a better future. I mean investing in the genius of Egypt’s location by launching the new Suez Canal project, with its expected gains of increased revenue from the Suez Canal and transforming Egypt into an advanced industrial and trade centre, on the one hand. On the other, salvaging the genius of Egypt’s location by protecting the Nile — the foundation of its existence and life — through an approach of cooperation and increased mutual gains, rather than conflict and cementing reasons for mutual loss in managing the Nile with source countries such as Ethiopia.

President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi stepped up to his responsibility by directly taking charge of the Nile issue, stating he will visit Ethiopia once, twice or three times if need be, from a strong standpoint and with insistence on guarding Egypt’s rights, not from a position of weakness. It is clear he had informed Ethiopia’s prime minister during their meeting at the African Union summit in Equatorial Guinea that Egypt appreciates Ethiopia’s development efforts, on the condition that this does not violate Egypt’s rights, neither when the Grand Renaissance Dam is being built or after it begins operations.

I must first assert that Egypt’s life is dependent on the Nile and cannot exist without it. And just as Egypt is a primary river state, it is also the world’s primary desert state since the size and ratio of desert within its borders is the greatest on the planet. Egypt is similar to an oasis; it does not rely on groundwater or rainwater. Egypt was freed from the whims of flooding by building the Aswan High Dam and did not waste its annual quota of Nile water, but the country’s water poverty increased with growth of the population and economy, with rising demands that are beyond the capacity of existing water resources.

Future all-purpose fresh water needs up to 2017 are estimated at 87 billion cubic metres, although Egypt’s Nile water quota is 55.5 billion cubic metres. The volume of used water and average share of the individual of used water, and rate of water usage, in Egypt is the lowest compared to other Nile Basin states. Usable water in Egypt meets no more than 20 per cent of water needs, while in other other Nile Basin states — and mainly from renewable sources — comes to more than 164 per cent in Ethiopia, 124 per cent in Uganda, and 159 per cent in Congo.

Second, the issue of managing the Nile was the topic of several articles I wrote in the past, well before the Grand Renaissance Dam crisis. I focused on what Gamal Hemdan concluded in The Character of Egypt: “Whether it is the gift of the Nile or the gift for Egyptians, in the final analysis Egypt remains the Nile; it would not have existed without it. Egypt is like an oasis; it does not rely on groundwater, nor does it rely on rainwater. Thanks to the Egyptians, Egypt’s Pharaoh civilisation was the fruit of the happy and successful marriage between the Father of Rivers and Mother of the World. This geographic epic translated into a civilisational saga. However, throughout history and until the construction of the High Dam, the rise or fall by one centimetre of water levels was a matter of life or death (“In the final analysis, Egypt remains the Nile,” Al-Ahram, 25 October 2009).

Nile water flowing to Egypt is not a grant or gift or charity from anyone. It is an earned right. It is not a usurped resource — as was claimed by those who want to block Nile water to Egypt or even sell Nile water to Egypt. International agreements recognise Egypt’s historic and natural rights to Nile water (“Egypt’s natural rights to Nile water,” Al-Ahram, 6 September 2009).

Third, there are enough water resources in the Nile Basin to meet the needs of all its communities, if used properly and fully. Hamdan notes that using water as a political weapon was created or urged by colonialists (“The fundamentals of threats to Egypt’s security from Nile sources,” Al-Ahram, 30 September 2009).

Before Hamdan, Emil Ludwig wrote in his pioneer work, The Nile: The Life Story Of A River, that Lord Milner, secretary of state for the colonies, clearly warned that “the Nile water necessary for Egypt’s livelihood is always under threat, as long as the upstream course of the river is not under its control or supervision. Who knows, someday a country might build large constructions on the Nile and divert — to irrigate its land — this water that is necessary for Egypt away from Egypt.” Ludwig discussed the dangers of violating Egypt’s water interests and rights, noting there are a thousand ways of obstructing water flow without completely blocking it with a dam (“The fundamentals of threats to Egypt’s security from Nile sources,” Al-Ahram, 30 September 2009).

To defend Egypt’s water security, after the 1919 revolution the Wafd Party began storing Nile water inside Egypt’s borders until Egypt launched the High Dam project after the 1952 July Revolution, instead of reservoir projects upstream of the Nile (“The fundamentals of threats to Egypt’s security from Nile sources,” Al-Ahram, 30 September 2009).

Finally, let’s remember that only four per cent of Nile Basin water is being used, therefore in choosing between cooperation and conflict with Nile states, Egypt must choose joint action to develop best use practices of Nile water to ensure a win-win situation for everyone based on the principle, 'to each according to natural ability, and to each according to legitimate needs.' There is no real conflict in water interests among Nile Basin states because water policy in the basin — as dictated by nature itself — is cooperation not conflict, complementary not contradictory (“Nile basin water is enough for its countries and more,” Al-Ahram, 13 September 2009).

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