The limits of the new “Nile Agreement”

On Monday, March 23, 2015, leaders of Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan met in the Sudanese capital Khartoum to sign an agreement that is expected to resolve various issues arising out of the decision by Ethiopia to construct a dam on the Blue Nile. The Khartoum declaration, which was signed by the heads of state of the three countries—Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (Egypt), Omar al-Bashir (Sudan), and Halemariam Desalegn (Ethiopia), has been referred to  as a “Nile Agreement,” and one that helps resolve conflicts over the sharing of the waters of the Nile River. However, this view is misleading because the agreement, as far we know, only deals with the Blue Nile’s Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project (GERDP) and does not tackle the broader, still contentious issues of sharing of the Nile River waters among all riparian states. Thus, the new agreement does leave the conflict over the equitable, fair, and reasonable allocation and utilization of the waters of the Nile River unresolved.

As we celebrated Earth Day recently, it is important that we reflect upon the importance of natural resources such as the Nile and gain an understanding of why they are so important, especially for Africa and its long-term development. In fact, 160 million people rely on the waters of this important river for their livelihoods. Thus, preserving, maintaining, and using the waters and resources of the Nile River efficiently and sustainably is a goal shared by all.

History of the Nile Waters Agreements

These disagreements over the use of the Nile are not recent and, in fact, have a long history because of these countries’ high dependence on the waters of the Nile. In 1929, an agreement was concluded between Egypt and Great Britain regarding the utilization of the waters of the Nile River—Britain was supposedly representing its colonies in the Nile River Basin.
The Anglo-Egyptian Treaty covered many issues related to the Nile River and its tributaries. Of particular relevance to the present discussion is that it granted Egypt an annual water allocation of 48 billion cubic meters and Sudan 4 billion cubic meters out of an estimated average annual yield of 84 billion cubic meters. In addition, the 1929 agreement granted Egypt veto power over construction projects on the Nile River or any of its tributaries in an effort to minimize any interference with the flow of water into the Nile.

In 1959, Egypt and an independent Sudan signed a bilateral agreement, which effectively reinforced the provisions of the 1929 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty. The 1959 agreement increased water allocations to both Egypt and Sudan—Egypt’s water allocation was raised from 48 billion cubic meters to 55.5 billion cubic meters and Sudan’s from 4 billion cubic meters to 18.5 billion cubic meters, leaving 10 billion cubic meters to account for seepage and evaporation. Finally, the agreement stipulated that in the case of an increase in average water yield, the increased yield should be shared equally between the two downstream riparian states (i.e., Egypt and Sudan). The 1959 agreement, like the 1929 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty, did not make any allowance for the water needs of the other riparian states, including even Ethiopia, whose highlands supply more than 80 percent of the water that flows into the Nile River.

Over the years, especially as the populations of the other countries of the Nile River Basin have increased, and these countries have developed the capacity to more effectively harvest the waters of the Nile River for national development, disagreements have arisen over the fact that Egypt has insisted that the water rights it acquired through the 1929 and 1959 agreements (collectively referred to as the Nile Waters Agreements) be honored and that no construction project be undertaken on the Nile River or any of its tributaries without prior approval from Cairo. In fact, various Egyptian leaders have threatened to go to war to protect these so-called “acquired rights.” Upstream riparian states such as Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and Ethiopia, have argued that they are not bound by these agreements because they were never parties to them. In fact, shortly after independence from Great Britain in 1961, Tanganyika’s (now Tanzania, after union with Zanzibar in 1964) new leader, Julius Nyerere, argued that the Nile Waters Agreements placed his country and other upstream riparian states at Egypt’s mercy, forced them to subject their national development plans to the scrutiny and supervision of Cairo, and that such an approach to public policy would not be compatible with the country’s status as a sovereign independent state. All the upstream riparian states have since argued in favor of a new, more inclusive legal framework for governing the Nile River Basin.

Hope for a new accord: The Cooperative Framework Agreement

In 1999, the Nile River riparian states,
except Eritrea, signed the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) in an effort to enhance cooperation on the use of the “common Nile Basin water resources.” Under the auspices of the NBI, the riparian states began work on developing what they believed would be a permanent legal and institutional framework for governing the Nile River Basin. The Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA), as this agreement is called, formally introduced the concept of equitable water allocation into discussions about Nile governance, as well as a complicating concept called “water security.”

The CFA was ready for signature beginning May 10, 2010; Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda have signed it; and the Ethiopian parliament has ratified it. However, arguing that their “acquired rights” to the waters of the Nile River would not be protected, Egypt and Sudan immediately registered their intention not to sign the agreement because they objected to the wording of Article 14(b): “Nile Basin States therefore agree, in a spirit of cooperation: . . . (b) not to significantly affect the water security of any other Nile Basin State.” They then proposed an alternative wording for Article 14(b): “Nile Basin States therefore agree, in a spirit of cooperation: . . . (b) not to significantly affect the water security and current uses and rights of any other Nile Basin State,” (emphasis added). This wording was rejected by the upstream riparian states, who argue that “the current uses and rights” phrasing would entrench the concept of prior rights, including those created by the Nile Waters Agreements and effectively retain the inequity and unfairness that has characterized the allocation and utilization of water in the Nile River Basin since the 1920s.

On April 2, 2011, then-prime minister of Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi, laid the foundation for the construction of the Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam. The dam is located on the Blue Nile, in the Benishangul-Gumuz region of the country. Shortly after the announcement, authorities in Cairo immediately launched a campaign of words against what they believed was an attempt by Addis Ababa to interfere with Egypt’s water needs. Then Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, angrily stated that while he was not “calling for war” with Ethiopia, “Egypt’s water security cannot be violated at all,” that “all options are open,” and that Egyptians would not accept any projects on the Nile River that threatened their livelihood.

Then what happened in March 2015?

The 2015 agreement between Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan—with Sudan acting as an intermediary—represents an important but predictable shift in Cairo’s approach to the Nile River—that those colonial agreements are unsustainable. About 85 percent of the water that flows into the Nile River comes from the Ethiopian highlands through the Blue Nile; the rest comes from the White Nile. It was simply unrealistic and untenable for Egypt to believe that it could continue to prevent Ethiopia from using water resources located within its boundaries to meet the needs of its people. While it is true that Egyptians rely totally on the waters of the Nile River for all their needs, they must be sensitive to the development needs of the upstream riparian states, especially given the fact that the latter, particularly Ethiopia, are in a position to cause significant harm to the quantity and quality of water that flows into the Nile. Hence, the practical and more accommodating attitude taken by Egyptian leaders in their decision to endorse Addis Ababa’s Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project (GERDP), should be welcomed. However, Cairo needs to go further and sign and ratify the CFA without insisting on changes to Article 14(b) to guarantee Egypt the rights created by the Nile Waters agreements. With the CFA in place, all 11 riparian states can negotiate in good faith to agree an allocation formula that is acceptable to all of them and considered fair, equitable, and reasonable. As Africa becomes more and more affected by climate change, the continent’s various groups must agree to cooperate in the development of institutional structures that can enhance their ability to live together peacefully and allocate their natural resources, including water, in a fair and sustainable manner.

Further reading

Mwangi S. Kimenyi & John Mukum Mbaku, Governing the Nile River Basin: The Search for a New Legal Regime (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 2015).

[1] Ethiopia was not one of those colonies. The British colonies then included Kenya, Uganda, Tanganyika, and what was known as Anglo-Egyptian Sudan (a condominium under the control of Britain).

[2] The Nile River riparian states are Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Sudan (Republic of), Tanzania, and Uganda. Egypt, Sudan, and South Sudan are downstream riparian states. South Sudan, however, has indicated that it does not recognize the 1959 bilateral agreement between Egypt and Sudan.