While options for international action exist on Ethiopia’s proposed Renaissance Dam, Egypt must implement domestic conservation measures and spur other Upper Nile water providing projects, writes Maghawry Shehata
The Egyptian people are clamouring for tough measures against Ethiopia in response to its intransigence on the question of the Renaissance Dam that threatens the security of their most important resource, the Nile. Popular frustration mounted as Egyptian negotiators’ patience wore thin in defending Egypt’s water rights as confirmed and reconfirmed in every negotiating opportunity not only since 1981 but since the outset of the 20th century. In the rounds in 1902, 1906 and 1929 it was established that Egypt had a right to an annual quota of Nile waters of 48 billion cubic metres. This quota remained unchanged until 1959 when the Egyptian-Sudanese Nile Waters Agreement added the quantity of water stored as the result of the construction of the High Dam (a quantity that had previously gone to waste). Thus, the Egyptian quota was brought up by 7.5 billion cubic metres to 55.5 billion cubic metres a year. This quota was subsequently reconfirmed in an agreement signed in 1993 between former president Hosni Mubarak and then Ethiopian prime minister Meles Zenawi who, additionally, reaffirmed his country’s commitment not to undertake any hydraulic works that might prevent Egypt from receiving its rightful share of Nile waters.
But there came a time when Ethiopia summoned the sufficient determination to shed all these tiresome historical obligations. Whereas once it was reluctant to participate in Nile water talks or was content to attend in an observer capacity, suddenly it was spearheading a Nile Basin countries initiative and lobbying other countries to back a new legal framework that would put paid to the principles of all previous Nile water agreements. The product was the Entebbe Agreement, which was signed by most upper riparian countries in 2010, but which Egypt strenuously opposed for the following reasons:
- It does not recognise the historic rights of Egypt and Sudan to Nile waters and, indeed, it makes no reference to them whatsoever.
- It does not recognise the principle of “current usages” as a potential alternative to “historic rights”.
- The upper riparian nations insist on applying the principle of water security to all countries.
- It discards the principle of prior notification as a guarantee against a hydraulic project or action that could be detrimental to other countries.
- The upper riparian nations insisted that amendments to any provisions of the agreement or its annexes could be approved by a majority instead of a unanimous vote.
- The insistence on the part of the upper riparian nations that any amendment to the agreement would have to be made after the creation of an overseeing commission, while Egypt’s position in 2010 was that changes needed to be made through negotiations and before ratification.
Then Ethiopia went ahead to put the Entebbe Agreement into effect unilaterally by inaugurating the construction of a series of dams on the Blue Nile and Atbara River basin. Unfortunately, Egypt did not raise any objections at the time, which gave Ethiopia tacit encourage to proceed with the construction of the Border Dam on the Blue Nile. It is noteworthy that Addis Ababa laid the cornerstone for this project, which has a reservoir capacity of 11 billion cubic metres a year, on 2 April 2011, which is to say around two months after Egypt’s 25 January Revolution. Clearly, the idea was to exploit the Egyptian focus on domestic concerns and developments at the time.
What is the solution to this precarious situation? What are the available alternatives?
Some are of the opinion that Egypt must escalate its cause against Ethiopia internationally. One option is international arbitration. But according to international law, this would require Ethiopia’s approval, which would obviously not be forthcoming. Addis has already made its position clear: it holds that construction of dams on its territory is a “domestic matter” and has demonstrated its indifference to the rights of downriver nations that might be harmed by such projects. A second option is to internationalise the problem in the manner of the question of Jerusalem or the question of Syria (an option that, in our opinion, would not serve Egypt’s best interests). A third alternative is to appeal to the UN (the General Assembly, the Security Council, the International Court of Justice).
All the foregoing options are feasible, on the condition that Egypt acts on them immediately, taking into consideration the following:
- Our strongest card by far is the report of the international tripartite technical committee on the Renaissance Dam.
- Ethiopia is bolstered by the 2010 Entebbe Agreement and the “majority” of six countries that signed it. Egypt must take action against this prejudicial agreement.
- The UN framework agreement on trans-boundary watercourse networks is elastic and its terms and provisions are open to different interpretations.
- The Nile water conventions signed between Britain, Italy, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan at various phases in history contain clear guarantees for Egypt’s water rights. These conventions are still valid under international treaty law.
Egypt has already taken too long to summon the resolve to appeal to UN bodies. The current circumstances of the country should not be cause for further delay, especially given that Ethiopia is using the current negotiating processes for no other purpose than to buy time in order to impose the de facto reality of the Renaissance Dam. By then, it would be too late, as Egypt will be staring at immeasurable catastrophe.
The second crucial question we must address is do we have the luxury to wait until that moment — which is imminent — that we are deprived of our water rights? Obviously the answer is no and we should turn our attention to a number of important water projects in the Upper Nile region.
Egypt should set into motion a strategic dialogue with South Sudan and Sudan to promote closer cooperation between the three countries in the pursuit of their water rights and needs. The close linkage between the two Sudans can facilitate Upper Nile water projects aimed at increasing the inflow into the White Nile, from which Nile branch Egypt currently receives very little. For example, of the approximately 45 billion cubic metres of water that flows into the Thala-Bahr Al-Ghazal basin, Egypt receives virtually nothing. It should be borne in mind, however, that such projects, described below, should not be seen as an alternative to Egypt’s historic rights but rather as a means to supplement or augment water revenues for the three countries, and indeed for other neighbouring countries.
- Projects for the Victoria Nile, Lake Kyoga, Albert Nile and Bahr Al-Jabal river network. Only 7-8 per cent of the huge quantities of water that regularly flow through the equatorial plateau reach the White Nile. An annual 23 billion cubic metres of water flows from Lake Victoria (which itself is fed from tributaries from Tanzania, Burundi and Rwanda) through the Owen Falls Dam and makes its way through the Nile Victoria into Kyoga Lake and from there to Lake Albert. Lake Albert, in turn, is fed not only by the Victoria Nile leading from Kyoga Lake but also from the south by the Samliki, which runs through the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and which feeds Lake Albert with an additional four billion cubic metres. Thus, around 26 billion cubic metres of water flows from this lake into the Albert Nile which winds its way northward through Uganda into South Sudan where it becomes the Bahr Al-Jabal. Yet, this portion of the White Nile receives only five billion cubic metres per year from the Albert Nile waters. The White Nile is fed by other tributaries, collecting about 31 billion cubic metres annually at Manjala, but of this only an estimated 12 billion reaches Khartoum where the White Nile joins the Blue Nile from Ethiopia.
The major cause of water loss from the Victoria-Kyoga-Albert river complex is that much of the water is trapped in surrounding marshes and then lost due to evaporation and transpiration. One project, focusing on the Victoria Nile-Lake Kyoga section, aims to channel the water from the marshes back into the river course. It has the potential to increase the flow of water from Kyoga into Lake Albert by an estimated 21 billion cubic metres per year. Similar water diversion, canalisation and levee construction projects are envisioned for the Albert Nile-Bahr Al-Jabal and have the potential to at least quadruple (or greatly augment) the annual inflow into this tributary of the White Nile.
Plans for such projects already exist with the Ministry of Water Resources, but it must be borne in mind that it they should be seen as an integrated system spanning the entire system from Lake Victoria to the Bahr Al-Jabal and therefore requiring close cooperation between Egypt, both Sudans, and Uganda.
Fortunately, the Sudanese and the Ugandans have expressed considerable interest in such projects.
- The Bahr Al-Ghazal and Jonglei Canal project. This vast river basin in southern Sudan (about 530,000 kilometre square) includes a vast area of swampland (40,000 kilometres square). About 12 billion cubic metres of water a year feeds the Bahr Al-Ghazal system, of which virtually none reaches the White Nile because of the processes of evaporation and seepage into the Sudd swampland. The project to develop the Bahr Al-Ghazal basin could produce at least 10 billion cubic metres of water a year, but it would require the tripartite cooperation of South Sudan, Sudan and Egypt. The Jonglei Canal project, which was one of the projects that had been put into effect in order to produce seven billion cubic metres over two phases, was brought to a halt due to the civil war. In fact, technical studies performed by the joint Egyptian-Sudanese technical commission for the Nile have shown that it is possible to provide 18 billion cubic metres of water from the Bahr Al-Ghazal system. In addition to the seven billion from the Jonglei Canal project, another seven billion would be provided from the Bahr Al-Ghazal water diversion project, and four billion from a canalisation system that would draw water from the Sudd swampland. On top of this, another six billion would derive from the Al-Baro-Okobar project on the Sobat River, the most southern of the great eastern tributaries of the White Nile. With this project, which would require cooperation between Ethiopia, South Sudan, Sudan and Egypt, a total of 25 billion cubic metres of water would be made available to the aforementioned countries. Again, relevant studies have been performed and submitted for approval to the countries concerned.
Meanwhile, as we pursue the above Upper Nile water projects, there are projects we can pursue at home that can furnish considerable quantities of water. Treatment of agricultural runoff water and other water purification projects can produce an additional five billion cubic metres a year. Another five billion could be gained by tapping subterranean water resources in the Western Desert in particular. Water conservation and management programmes, combined with the further development of our irrigation and wastewater systems, and measures to prevent water pollution, would make an additional nine billion cubic metres of water available per year.
The abovementioned Upper Nile water projects are viable alternatives (as opposed to such madcap schemes as connecting the Congo with the Nile or digging two new rivers in the Western and Eastern desert). Plans and feasibility studies exist, there is interest among the countries concerned, and all stand to benefit.
Egypt should immediately set into motion the relevant processes of negotiations preparatory to putting such plans into effect. As for the water projects at home, they are long overdue. One cannot overstate the urgency of summoning the political will to carry them out.
The writer is former president of Menoufiya University and an expert on Egyptian water issues.