POLITICS OF THE NILE: Thicker than blood




The water flowing down the River Nile is the key to foreign policy in the region

By Mark Huband in Cairo

Financial Times, 12 May 1998

Throughout a decade of tension between Egypt and Sudan over the issues of Islamic fundamentalism and border disputes, engineers from both countries have carried out a daily inspection of the water level at the Aswan High dam in southern Egypt.

In accordance with a 1959 agreement, Egypt is permitted to allow 55.5bn cubic metres to pass through the dam. When this level is reached, the sluices are closed – without argument.

However, the development of plans to exploit the river and the availability of more investment capital allowing projects to be realised, have heightened the stakes and are likely to wield increasing influence on the regional policies of the 10 Nile riparian states. The rivers that tumble from the Ethiopian highlands to form the Blue Nile are reckoned by technical experts seeking to draw-up a development masterplan for the Nile, the Nile Basin Action Plan, to hold sufficient hydro-electric power potential to provide electricity to every home in Sudan and Egypt.

Sudan’s southern Sudd swampland, if the White Nile was properly irrigated, could make one of Africa’s poorest countries self-sufficient in food. The potential for power-pooling is vast. At present Egypt is planning to divert 5.5bn cu m of water annually from the Nile basin along a new canal being built at Toshka in southern Egypt.

To meet this need, and to allow irrigation of reclaimed desert land elsewhere, it will need to find an extra 15bn cu m through either recycling or new allowances.

While Egypt has developed a strategy for securing part of this increase – by better water re-use, canalisation projects it intends to complete in Sudan and careful water management – Ethiopia complains that Egypt is not allowed to divert water from the basin, even when that water is already inside Egyptian territory.

The issue of water is the largely unacknowledged centrepiece of Egypt’s policy towards its southern neighbours and lies behind its diplomatic initiatives in the region. “What we are facing is an important issue. We are looking to avoid a crisis,” says Amr Moussa, Egypt’s foreign minister. “There has to be a scheme based on good relations and co-operation,” he says. “That is why stability is important. The partition of Sudan would militate against this. Water is one of the issues involved in the issue of peace in Sudan.”

For the first time since Sudan’s civil war was reignited in 1981, Egypt is actively involved in brokering talks between the warring sides.

Furthermore, it is trying to find a solution to the civil war in Somalia, an involvement regarded by regional states as further evidence of its wish to assert itself among the states with whom it must deal if it is to renegotiate the Nile water-sharing agreement.

By assisting in Somalia, which is not a riparian state, Egypt is cementing its relations with interested states such as Kenya and Ethiopia, which are.

“The reality we face today with regard to the Nile waters, and the future prospects if the present trend continues, is a free-for-all scramble,” says Mohamed Hagos, chief engineer at Ethiopia’s ministry of water resources.

Ethiopia’s desire for a greater role in the management of the region’s water resources stems in part from the very existence of Egyptian-Sudanese co-operation. Ethiopia could have signed up to the 1959 agreement but chose not to. To this day it has no official water quota despite being the source of the Blue Nile.

Need may play a growing role in determining the future ties of regional states. But more important than need is potential.

The Nile, a 6,058km waterway, has the potential for turning desert and swamps into the fertile breadbasket of north-east Africa and much of the Middle East. Friction, while accompanied by a degree of co-operation, is likely to mount as plans for a basin-wide development strategy evolve.

Tecconile, a grouping of engineers from the 10 riparian states advised by the Canadian International Development Agency, the UN Development Programme and the World Bank, has spearheaded technical assessments of the basin’s potential.

Negotiations over the plan will become increasingly political when Egyptian hopes of reducing its reliance on the Ethiopian-sourced Blue Nile in favour of the Sudanese-sourced White Nile emerge in the discussions.

Annual loss through evaporation from the Blue Nile amounts to about 7bn cu m. Egyptian-backed plans for canalisation, dam construction and improved drainage in Uganda and Sudan are intended to cut annual losses through evaporation of 135bn cu m from the White Nile by 10.5bn cu m.

Egypt hopes to renegotiate its annual quota on the basis of increased flow from the White Nile. Alone among the Nile states, it has the economic weight to procure the necessary investment for the projects which will bring this loss reduction.

While it is unlikely to act as the beleaguered Sudanese regime’s banker, it can use its influence to dilute Sudan’s international isolation in order to procure investment and improve Sudan’s position in the eyes of bilateral donors.

Ethiopia, which backs exiled Sudanese opponents of the regime in Khartoum, is likely to regard such developments as self-interested Egyptian meddling intended to strengthen a regime in Sudan of which Addis Ababa is immensely suspicious.

Water, it appears, may become thicker than blood as the politics of the region come increasingly to be drawn on the basis of shared resources rather than ideological differences.


© Financial Times