Egypt a step nearer to taming the Nile




But Cairo’s plans are turning the politics of the river into a complex regional preoccupation

By Mark Huband in Cairo

Financial Times, 20 February 1998

Egypt has moved a step closer to constructing the world’s biggest pumping station, now that a consortium led by Kvaerner of Norway and Hitachi has won a $434m ¬†contract to build the plant over four years.

The Toshka project is the most ambitious being undertaken along the Nile Basin. It will pump 5.5bn cu m of water a year into a 67km canal to irrigate up to 500,000 acres of desert land.

Egypt intends to spearhead a region-wide strategy meant to ensure its access to an increasing share of Nile water. Its plans are transforming the “hydro-politics” of the river, with their origins in Egypt’s rivalry with Ethiopia, into an ever more complex regional preoccupation.

“There’s nothing new about Toshka, except that now there is the money to do it,” said Aly Shady, senior policy adviser to the Canadian International Development Agency (Cida).

The agency is playing a big role with the World Bank in plans to develop a Nile Basin Action Plan (NBAP), to co-ordinate development along the river. The $600m of government money set to be spent on the pumping station and canal is expected to be followed by $1bn private sector investment.

NBAP’s architects aim to achieve agreement on water-sharing, political co-ordination, energy generation and investment in development at a time when the Nile Basin has rarely been more unstable and disunited.

Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo are involved in a regional strategy under the auspices of Tecconile, a grouping of water engineers from these 10 countries charged with evaluating the technical aspects of regional water management.

Mr Shady estimates the cost of dam and canal construction, hydro-electric power generation facilities, energy export and water treatment plants could reach $100bn. Securing loans and grants from the World Bank, the African Development Bank, creditors and private investors is complicated by loan conditions and regional politics.

Only Egypt and Sudan have a formal water-sharing agreement, signed in 1959. It allows Egypt{A 55.5bn cu m of water a year to pass through the Aswan Dam, and allocates Sudan 18.5bn cu m.  The Toshka project will use 5.5bn cu m of water originating upstream of Aswan and will have to be monitored separately.

Ethiopia has already criticised the diversion of water away from the river basin. “The initiatives so far undertaken to promote co-operation have been slanted towards the status quo,” said Mohamed Hagos, chief engineer at Ethiopia’s ministry of water resources, without identifying Egypt by name. There could be no co-operation among the Nile countries “unless there is a clear commitment . . to the principle of fair and equitable utilisation”, he added.

Ethiopia is criticised for raising the issue, given that it has not complained of any water shortage, despite having no official quota. Tecconile engineers estimate that hydro-electric power from the water course of the Ethiopian Highlands, the source of the Blue Nile, could provide electricity to every house in Sudan and Egypt.

“Ethiopia is the second largest power pool in Africa, after the Democratic Republic of Congo,” Mr Shady said. What Ethiopia regards as Egypt’s “monopoly” on water stems less from the latter’s actual consumption than from its regional weight as a source of investment capital for development projects, and the political weight this implies.

“Egypt wants to see the completion of the Jonglei Canal in southern Sudan, as this will save 4m cu m and increase Egypt’s potential share by 2m cu m,” said Mustafa Kadi, head of Egypt’s consultative committee on the Toshka project. He estimated that 50 per cent of Nile water is lost through evaporation before it reaches Egypt.

“Egypt is also pressing for the launch of a canal project on the Atbara tributary of the Nile and canalisation of the Bahr el-Ghazal. But Jonglei is the priority. Sudan is in a bad financial position, and only Egypt can help them. While this is the case, Egypt{A can have Sudan agree to its projects.”

These projects are expected to reduce water loss through evaporation by a total 10.5bn cu m. Such moves would increase Egypt’s supply from the White Nile, reducing the impact of Ethiopia’s influence on its supply from the Blue Nile. Egypt also plans to build a dam on Lake Albert and regulate the flow from Lake Koiga in Uganda, where Egyptian private sector investors are becoming increasingly active.

Egypt needs to increase its share of water by 15bn cu m a year to irrigate reclaimed desert along its north coast. Plans to double re-use of drainage water will meet less than half this need.

Sudan’s weakness and Egypt’s economic strength have lain at the heart of their reconciliation in the past four months, after five years of strained relations. Egypt has opposed US-sponsored economic sanctions against Sudan. Such sanctions would deter investment in projects such as development of the Nile, from which Egypt stands to benefit.

© Financial Times