April 28, 2012

Grand Renaissance for Ethiopia, Doom for Egypt

Conflict over water supplies between “upstream” and “downstream” states is emerging as a vital incubator of international conflict. Though control over water has long played an important role in domestic and international politics, increasing population pressures have made for growing conflicts over this vital resource, indispensable to agriculture, energy, and industry.

Turkey’s diversion of water from the tributaries of the Tigris and the Euphrates, at the expense of Syrians and Iraqis; Israel’s diversion of water to its West Bank settlers, and away from the Arab population; China’s increasing mobilization of the waters of the Tibetan plateau, to the detriment of downstream nations such as Vietnam and India—all these reflect intractable conflicts that seem likely to grow in importance in future years.  

Ethiopian’s announcement that it intended to build the “Grand Renaissance” dam on the waters of the Blue Nile is another illustration of these polarizing conflicts. The dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia, among other upstream states, is highlighted in a series of reports by Erin Cunningham of Reuters. It is difficult to see the dispute as anything other than a “zero sum” game, with one side losing what the other side gains; certainly that is how the parties themselves seem to see it. Also notable is how larger geopolitical changes are affecting this issue—Cunningham points especially to China’s willingness to finance Ethiopia’s new dam, shocking to Egypt, and Egypt’s loosening of ties with the United States and the international financial institutions. These external supports previously buttressed Egypt’s historic claims to the Nile.

Until now, Ethiopia has lacked both the technical capacity and the diplomatic support to trap its Blue Nile waters — which give Egypt’s Nile 86 percent of its own flow — for domestic use. A 1959 colonial-era treaty brokered by Great Britain gave Egypt, and to a lesser extent Sudan, unrivaled “historic rights” over nearly all of the Nile River’s resources.

But now all that could be changing as upstream states like Ethiopia and Burundi seize on Egypt’s post-revolution political uncertainty to finally wrest at least some control of the world’s longest river.

Just 16 days after President Hosni Mubarak stepped down in February 2011, Burundi reneged on its erstwhile promise to Egypt not to sign a new treaty that seeks to adjust water rights in the basin. If ratified by other basin states, the agreement would strip Egypt of its majority share of the river’s water.

The most serious threat, however, comes from Ethiopia, already Egypt’s regional rival. In May 2011, Ethiopia announced plans to build a massive, $4.8 billion hydropower dam — known as the Grand Renaissance Dam — along the stretch of river within its own borders, despite Egypt’s opposition to the project. “Most of us here are eager to use the Nile. But every farmer expects Egypt to be the enemy,” said Manichey Abey, a 33-year-old Ethiopian farmer.

While hydropower dams — used to generate electricity — in theory eventually allow the dammed water to flow through, Egyptian officials remain wary of Ethiopia’s intentions. They demanded in October of last year the creation of a tripartite committee, now at work, to study the new dam’s effects and are worried the project could set an unwelcome precedent for more ambitious schemes in the future.

At 6,000 megawatts, the dam would be the largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa, with a reservoir capable of holding roughly 65 billion cubic meters of water. “It will be a renaissance for the Ethiopian system,” Abey said. “The Nile is the main source of Egypt’s economy, and if the amount of water they use is reduced, it will be a big problem. But we have the right to use it.”

Such ambitions by upstream states are contributing to the gradual loosening of Egypt’s 5,000-year grip on its nearly sole source of freshwater, threatening not only the desert nation’s ability to grow enough food for its expanding population, but also its political stability and regional hegemony.

Egypt’s uprising ushered in a period of political and monetary volatility, stalling the economy, shaking up relations with the US and kicking off a year of sporadic protests and clashes between protesters and Egyptian security forces.

All of this has diminished the Egyptian government’s traditional ability to stonewall both financing and diplomatic support for independent Nile Basin projects. “Ninety-five percent of Egypt’s water comes from the Nile. We depend on the Nile more than any other country,” said Hani Raslan, an expert on water politics at the government-affiliated Al-Ahram Center for Political Strategic Studies in Cairo. “But right now, the [Egyptian] government is only a transitional government,” he said. “It has nothing to do with the long-term plan for the Nile, and is only paying attention to our internal affairs.”

The importance of the Nile to Egypt is hard to exaggerate. Like a slender, green thread, the waterway fastens Upper Egypt in the south to Lower Egypt in the north, and has nurtured agricultural civilizations in its verdant Delta for millennia.

As a result, and also because of significant US financial and military patronage over the years, Egypt has long been able to dominate the terms of Nile basin negotiations, thwarting independent water projects by other countries and manipulating international customary water law to maintain the status quo, water experts said.

“Egypt did have, until fairly recently, some kind of ideological hegemony [in the Nile Basin],” said Richard Tutwiler, director of the Desert Development Center at the American University in Cairo, a research facility aimed at serving Egypt’s desert communities. “They were able to frame the entire issue of Nile waters in their own context, both within the basin, but more importantly outside the basin and in international forums and so forth,” he said.

For years, Egypt also skillfully influenced international financial institutions such as the African Development Bank and World Bank to sustain its outsized water quota, says Christine Anderson, former associate professor of international water law at the American University in Cairo. “The UN moved on to an international water law treaty standard incorporating equitable distribution [of water resources],” Anderson said. “But the IMF and World Bank … upheld their regional alliance structures in Egypt’s favor … thus preventing any forward movement for the rest of the Nile states.”

Since Egypt’s revolution, however, its new rulers have made decisions that run afoul of the organizations that once helped it maintain its control over the Nile. Last spring, for instance, Egypt’s headstrong military rulers scoffed at the International Monetary Fund’s offer of a $3.2 billion loan package — only to later backtrack and ask again for the funds. They also brazenly put American democracy activists and their Egyptian colleagues on trial for attempting to subvert the state, souring relations with the US, the IMF’s largest stakeholder.

Analysts say Western donors are wary, and that the Egyptian government’s erratic behavior may temper support for its Nile dominance in the future.

In addition, Anderson said, China’s willingness to finance a number of Ethiopia’s dams, including the new Grand Renaissance Dam, has startled Egyptian officials, and indicates a potential new regional order in which US largesse may no longer secure Egypt’s place as the Nile Basin’s most powerful state.

Egyptian officials, for their part, remain defiant.

“Egypt has been asking these countries to come together so we can reach an agreement on the Nile,” said Al Ahram’s Raslan, adding that because Egypt receives negligible rainfall, its water quota should remain the same under any new agreement. “But no one is responding to Egypt’s call. These countries, especially Ethiopia, are making a grave mistake,” he said. “Because Egypt is not a weak country. If it was ever in real peril, it won’t be silent.”

Erin Cunningham, “Egypt is Losing its Grip on the Nile,” Global Post, April 9, 2012. See also by Cunningham, “Could Egypt Run Out of Water by 2025?” Global Post, April 9, 2012.

* * *

A more hopeful analysis of the situation comes in this January 10, 2011 report from the Stimson Center, written just before the outbreak of the Egyptian Revolution (and before the May 2011 announcement that Ethiopia intended to build the Grand Renaissance Dam). It gives a good depiction of the legal regime surrounding the Nile and provides an interesting perspective on Egypt's water diplomacy before the fall of the Mubarak regime. Somewhat incongruously in light of Cunningham's report, however, it emphasizes the "cooperative dynamic between basin states" and argues that, "belligerent as the rhetoric can get, these states understand that water is a means for greater cooperation."
The famous Egyptian Nile only comprises the last stretch of an enormous, complex river system. 86% of the Nile's flows come from the Blue Nile, Atbara, and Sobat rivers (these rivers primarily originate in Ethiopia, but also cover parts of Eritrea and Sudan), while the other 14% of the Nile's flows come from the White Nile, a sub-basin that includes Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Sudan. These rivers merge north of Khartoum to form the proper Nile River.

These ten countries rely significantly on Nile waters: 22 million people depend on fish protein from the source of the White Nile, Lake Victoria; half of the Nile's journey through the basin takes place in countries with no effective rainfall, making them overwhelmingly reliant on these rivers for every aspect of daily life; and Nile waters drive hydroelectricity for some of the poorest countries in the world.

Despite such wide-ranging dependence on Nile waters, only Egypt and Sudan are legally entitled to dam the rivers. This disparity stems from a series of agreements brokered by the British between 1929 and 1959: Egypt was allotted the annual use of 55.5 billion m3 of Nile waters while Sudan was given 18.5 billion m3. But these treaties have strained relations in the greater basin for over 50 years, especially between Egypt and Ethiopia (Ethiopia, a severely underdeveloped country, has enormous potential for generating hydropower). In 1994, when Ethiopia announced plans to build dams on the Blue Nile, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak threatened to bomb Ethiopian dam infrastructure and in 1990 Egypt successfully blocked an African Development Bank loan to Ethiopia for dam construction on the Nile.

In response to increasing complaints of inequity, the World Bank in 1999 sponsored the creation of the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), an effort to foster economic cooperation and establish a permanent governing body for the river. But discord over the Nile treaties has continued, and arguments peaked this past summer when the parties of the NBI met to discuss a draft version of the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA), a document intended to establish laws and infrastructure to govern the Nile. Negotiators could not agree on terminology that would both satisfy the Egyptians and Sudanese and placate the other states which seek greater use of the Nile. Sudanese and Egyptian spokesmen claimed their historical rights were being threatened and only five states ultimately signed the CFA.

NBI negotiations currently treat the basin as a single integrated whole, allowing Egypt to frame the dispute in zero-sum terms. But the NBI's need for basin-wide consensus and its failure to attain that consensus has given individual states free reign to undertake harmful unilateral projects. For example, due to a lack of coordination and monitoring in the basin, Uganda was allowed to mismanage Lake Victoria to the point where lake levels dropped dramatically and harmed fisheries vital to the livelihoods of millions of people.

So what is the best way forward? The NBI is set to expire in 2012, and basin states will reconvene later this year to re-try a settlement. But it seems unlikely that a deal that will be acceptable to all states will have much substance to it. Egypt is already scrambling to accommodate its ballooning population and resulting water scarcity. Northern Sudan is becoming a strong agricultural producer and hopes Nile water will help the country develop further. Meanwhile, the remaining basin states are some of the least-developed in the world and hope that using hydropower (and selling excess power that their grids can't handle) as well as reservoirs for irrigation will provide much-needed revenue.

Rather than treating the basin as a single, integrated system (which invites too much political deadlock), Nile states and donors should emphasize more smaller-scale, sub-basin approaches to river management. This way, states can improve information-sharing and allow scientific and technical issues to take precedent over political distractions.

Indeed, the NBI already separates basin states into two sub-basin programs-the Eastern and Nile Equatorial Lakes programs-and this approach can help to promote better technical coordination between states. In addition, sub-regional programs should be strengthened so that basin states and donors can more effectively monitor and prevent environmental catastrophes. The egregious mismanagement of Lake Victoria is less likely to happen again if Uganda believes it is accountable to (and can be punished by) neighbors in its sub-region-Tanzania, Kenya, Burundi, and Rwanda-that would be the worst-affected by such mismanagement.

The NBI needs to effect these changes if it hopes to remain relevant. Egypt, knowing that it wouldn't be punished, worked hard in 2010 to circumvent the NBI altogether: it made bilateral agreements with individual states, including with Uganda and southern Sudan (which, should it secede, will have control over White Nile flows). Egyptian officials have also emphasized that their investments in Ethiopia surpassed $1 billion for 2010. Ethiopia in fact recently opened a $520 million hydroelectric plant that uses Lake Tana as a reservoir (and thus is not disrupting Abay/Blue Nile flows) and Ethiopia is reportedly in talks with Egypt and Sudan about building more dams.

These non-NBI agreements are both dispiriting and heartening. Dispiriting because Egypt has not only stymied progress on intra-basin cooperation, but is also content to ignore the spirit of the NBI by pushing for a strictly bilateral approach to the basin. But these developments are heartening, too, since they reveal a cooperative dynamic between basin states. Armed conflict has not arisen over the Nile in the modern era, and belligerent as the rhetoric can get, these states understand that water is a means for greater cooperation.

As basin representatives and NBI donors come together in 2011 to try and make real progress on Nile management, they will need to take a hard look at the current structure of the NBI. Improving information sharing and other forms of scientific and technical cooperation are crucial to the sustainability of the river, as is creating viable accountability mechanisms that favor long-term sustainability over short-term benefits. The disagreements of ten heads of state cannot compromise a resource that is crucial to 160 million people, and it is imperative that no more time is lost in finding better ways to protect the Nile.
Corey Sobel, "Negotiating the Nile: The NBI Impasse and Possible Ways Forward," Stimson Center, January 10, 2011


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