Nile River Politics Who Receives Water

Ulhas Joglekar ulhasj at
Wed Aug 16 08:35:44 MDT 2000

Nile River Politics: Who Receives Water?
0107 GMT, 000810
Egyptian regional foreign policy has shifted. Instead of fostering conflicts
and supporting rebels, Cairo is solving conflicts and apparently giving up
control over its most vital resource – the Nile river. Backed by the West, a
new initiative among the Nile Basin riparian states will redistribute more
equitably the river’s water usage rights. Until now, Egypt prevented
development in order to maintain its monopoly over the river. Cairo’s
decision to cooperate is motivated by its need for regional stability and
economic development.
Officials from 10 African nations met in Khartoum over the weekend, reported
the Panafrican news agency on Aug 7. The second meeting within the last
month between cabinet ministers from Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan and the six
Great Lakes states, focused on the plans for the redistribution of the
region’s most vital resource – the Nile river.
Backed by the World Bank, the United Nations, several European countries and
Washington, the plan lays the groundwork for the river’s economic
development. Historically, Egypt has monopolized the longest river in the
world and prevented development throughout the region. Now Cairo is
supporting the redistribution plans. The reason for the change of heart is
simple – Cairo needs regional stability in order to advance its own economic
For half a century, Egypt has maintained its monopoly over the Nile by
fostering regional instability. Cairo backed rebel groups in Ethiopia, Sudan
and Somalia. Addis Ababa claims that Cairo provided military intelligence,
training and arms to separatist rebels, contributing to Ethiopia’s civil war
and the eventual partitioning of the country into Ethiopia and Eritrea.
Although Cairo denies the allegations, the government admits to remaining in
constant contact with rebel leaders from Sudan.
In addition to destabilizing its fellow riparian states, Egypt has
maintained its ownership of the Nile through a 1959 treaty with Sudan. The
agreement gives Egypt rights to 87 percent of the river’s water. Sudan
receives the remaining 13 percent. Eighty-six percent of the Nile’s water
originates in the Ethiopian highlands. Amazingly Ethiopia received no share
of the river’s resources under the agreement. Although Addis Ababa has
repeatedly declared its right to develop the Nile’s resources, the country’s
protracted conflicts have prevented that development. And although Sudan
receives a small portion of the Nile’s water usage, it cannot develop along
the river without Egyptian consent.
But a changing economic landscape has spurred a shift in Egyptian foreign
policy. South Africa is pushing for an integrated southern African economy
while building up its military and transforming itself into the world’s
economic gateway to the continent. In 1997, South Africa received almost 40
percent of all foreign investment in Africa and 90 percent of all portfolio
investment, reported The Economist.
In response, Cairo now wants to strengthen its own economic and political
position. In fact, Egypt’s foreign minister, Amr Musa, recently signed
several agreements with South Africa aimed at garnering a portion of South
Africa’s bounty of foreign investment for itself. And with the considerable
drop in World Bank loans – from $550 million in 1999 to only $50 million
this year, Egypt is looking to local trade to boost its economy.
But in order to foster economic growth, Cairo must first quell the region’s
conflicts. Indeed, the government’s support for regional insurgents has
declined recently. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has led the peace
negotiations between the government and rebels in Sudan and sent delegates
to the Somali peace conference in Djibouti. Egypt will likely retain
relations with regional insurgents in case of future need. For the moment,
however, Egypt’s interest is focused on warming relations with Ethiopia and
Mubarak’s peace initiatives however won’t resolve the region’s most
contentious issue – water rights. Created in 1993, the Nile Basin Initiative
has only recently begun to make real progress. The recent agreements reached
this past week on hydro-electric power development, power sharing
cooperatives, river regulation and water resources management will be
finalized at an extraordinary ministerial meeting in December.
The new policies will cancel out the 1959 Egyptian-Sudanese treaty and
redistribute water usage rights among the riparian states. Egypt, Ethiopia
and Sudan will form one development program and the remaining six Great
Lakes member states – Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya,
Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda – will form the other joint program.
Initiative officials are positioning themselves to gain international aid
and investment at the upcoming summit of the International Consortium
Co-operation on the Nile (ICCON), scheduled for February 2001.
Cairo will need to employ its powers of persuasion to maintain its water
monopoly. Although Egypt has agreed to cooperate on the development of the
Nile, the plans will diminish the river’s flow into the North African
country. Cairo is well aware of the economic impact of the river’s
redistribution to Ethiopia as well as Addis Ababa’s disdain for Egyptian
olive branches.
Egypt’s willingness to cooperate would seem to contradict its historical
domination of the Nile. The contradiction, however, is only semantic. As the
river’s most experienced user, Egypt can employ its considerable experience
to participate in dam development and water resource management as well as
other projects in Ethiopia and the Sudan, thereby continuing Egyptian rule
over one of the world’s most famous rivers.
© 2000 Stratfor, Inc. All rights reserved.

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