Because water is the source of life, it was not odd to hear Dr. Mufid Shahab, Egypt’s Minister of Legal and Parliamentary Affairs say that “Egypt’s water security and its historical rights to the water of the River Nile is a matter of life and death that cannot be ignored.” This comment was made when negotiations between the states of the Nile Basin Initiative failed to reach a unanimous agreement during a meeting that was held in Sharm El Sheikh last week and the Nile source countries (Ethiopia, Kenya, Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo) rejected the Sudanese-Egyptian proposal. In fact they signed a new framework agreement bypassing Khartoum and Cairo’s objections.
Is the crisis actually dangerous or is there exaggeration in such statements?
The reality of the matter is that the crisis is very serious and is heading towards further complication and perhaps escalation as well. For a while, the Nile source countries have been uniting demanding that amendments be made to prior agreements governing the division of the Nile water between the Nile basin countries on the basis that these agreements were signed during the age of colonialism and as a result, they are not binding. They also state that countries’ circumstances and needs have changed and their need for natural resources, especially water, has increased; as a result there is a need to divide the Nile water equally. On the other hand, Sudan and Egypt are in support of adhering to historical rights [to the Nile water] and proposed establishing a commission for the ten Nile basin countries (the seven source countries mentioned above, Egypt and Sudan, as well as Eritrea, which has observer status of the Nile Basin Initiative).
The goal of the Sharm El Sheikh meeting was to overcome differences and reach an agreement between basin countries; however Nile source countries escalated the disagreement by signing a framework agreement that will be implemented next month and that does not acknowledge historical rights and quotas, the principle of consensus in decision-making or the condition of prior approval of any water project in any of the Nile basin countries, and these are the demands included in the Sudanese-Egyptian proposal. Cairo and Khartoum responded to that by announcing that the framework agreement is not binding for them and contravenes international law, based on the consideration that there are internationally-recognized agreements that govern the division of the water of the Nile, the world’s longest river.
In reality, the failure of the meeting did not come as a surprise because the crisis has been bubbling under the surface for a while. For some time now, a number of ministers from Nile source countries have been making statements in which they call for a review of the agreements regarding the Nile water, and some of them went as far as accusing Egypt of wanting to control the Nile water by hanging onto the issue of historical rights. On their part, numerous circles in Cairo believed that Israel had a part to play in the matter and that it is instigating some Nile source countries to stir the issue of Nile water, which Cairo considers a matter of national security. Despite that it is no secret that Israel launched agricultural projects in a number of African countries, the issue goes further than that.
In the 1950s, 60s and 70s, Africa represented real depth for the Arab world, and cooperation took on several forms, to the extent that the majority of African countries boycotted Israel in solidarity with the Arabs. But the Arab world drowned in a sea of problems and conflicts and decreased its interest in sub-Saharan Africa. This caused many African countries to rearrange their priorities and many of them restored ties with Israel which began to infiltrate the Dark Continent through politics, support of weapons, delegations and agricultural projects.
Despite all that the crisis that is likely to exacerbate cannot be dealt with on the basis that it is only an Israeli “conspiracy.” There are new facts that must be dealt with and taken into consideration in order to allow Sudan and Egypt to reach an agreement with source countries that will benefit everyone and prevent the region from [experiencing] a war over water. For example, statistics and UN reports indicate that the increase in the population in Ethiopia, one of the most important Nile source countries, is considered one of the highest in the world and that the population level there will surpass that of Egypt by 2015 to become the second largest country in terms of population in Africa after Nigeria. In reference to a UN report on population levels, the number of people in the Democratic Republic of Congo, another Nile source country, will reach 110 million by 2025 exceeding the population of Egypt, which is expected to reach 99 million by the same year, whilst Ethiopia’s population is expected to reach 113 million.
These numbers show that there is an increasing need for water and agricultural resources in the future, and that disputes between the Nile basin countries might increase because of that. Another factor that might suddenly affect the Nile water issue is the potential secession of south Sudan because “the south state” will demand its share of the water, which will impact the current distribution.
Numerous reports and studies have warned against wars over water in the future and the River Nile is vulnerable to potential conflict as long as the problems are not dealt with through providing more water (marshes and grass barriers cause evaporation and the leakage of a large amount of water) and through joint agricultural projects and cooperation in the fields of energy and food security.