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The Politics of Water Sharing in the Nile Basin

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Map of Egypt and the Nile Basin; Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library

Map of Egypt and the Nile Basin; Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library

The Nile: There Won’t Be Enough for Everybody

Is the post-revolution change in Egyptian leadership bringing about a shift in foreign policy towards the nations of the Nile Basin?

The Nile River is a resource strained to its limits on both sides of the equation – supply and demand. On the supply side, climate change trends and rising global temperatures are increasing water loss due to evaporation. The demand side is even less forgiving. The population of the three largest nations through which the Nile River flows is expected to reach 250 million by 2015. This will increase demand for fresh water required for agriculture, industry and public consumption. These needs are further escalating due to economic growth and increasing prosperity within the region.

As the supply of water declines and demand increases, the resulting shortages will exacerbate the region’s already dire humanitarian conditions and could lead to conflict. This could adversely affect the flow of oil through the Red Sea, linked to the Nile via the Suez Canal, and in turn the global economy. One need not look back far to observe how disputes over water ownership may lead to conflict: in 1964, Israel undermined an Arab project diverting water from the Sea of Galilee, when it challenged a similar Israeli initiative. In fact, tensions over water access may well have been one of the causes of the 1967 war.

The war machine

The drums of war beat louder as Ethiopia, the source of 85% of the Nile’s water, and Uganda, Rwanda, and Tanzania signed a Nile River water sharing agreement in 2010 seeking to gain more water from the Nile.  Meanwhile, Egypt, a nation almost entirely reliant on the Nile for its fresh water, is resolute in its protection of its historic right to the bulk of the river in order to advance the prosperity of its citizens.

Egypt has always threatened military intervention if interference with the flow of the Nile affected the volume of water that reached Egyptian borders. In 1980, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat responded to Ethiopian complaints of Egyptian water exploitation saying “if Ethiopia takes any action to block our right to Nile water, there will be no alternative for us but to use force. Tampering with a nation’s rights to water is tampering with its life”.

In 1990, Israeli engineers were discovered investigating the feasibility of constructing three dams in Ethiopia. Egypt’s deputy prime minister for foreign affairs, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, later Secretary-General of the United Nations, warned that any obstruction of the flow of water reaching Egypt would be considered an act of war. Mubarak and his successive governments were no more forgiving and as recently as 2010, he demanded veto rights on any projects in the Nile Basin that might affect Egypt’s share of the water.

Ripples of change

Threats of war aside, pre-Arab Spring Egyptian economic policy towards the Nile Basin was always one of neglect when compared to Egypt’s generally cooperative relationships with other neighbours. Looking at levels of trade, for example, shows that the value of Egypt’s trade with the 11 Nile Basin nations was approximately US$500 million (£310 million) from 2005 to 2008, compared with almost US$700 million (£434 million) in trade with Israel and Libya alone.

This is surprising given the tremendous opportunities that Nile Basin nations offer as trade partners for Egypt. During the Nasser years, Egypt invested heavily in cultivating strong trade relationships with these nations hoping to increase its soft power in the region. In the absence of strong trade, Egypt’s relationship with the nations with which it shares the Nile has been defined by conflict over the sharing of its waters.

However, since the fall of Mubarak’s regime, Egypt’s approach towards Nile Basin nations has significantly improved with the announcement of the resetting of relations with Ethiopia, its leading adversary in the restructuring of water sharing agreements. Egypt has also sent diplomatic missions to all the Nile Basin nations, encouraging cooperation and mutual development. In a public initiative, Egyptian presidential candidates, representatives of political parties and numerous public figures visited Uganda and Ethiopia to discuss the new water sharing agreement in April 2011, almost a year before the elections. Shortly after, Egypt’s appointed interim prime minister repeated this journey and gathered consensus on the formation of a committee of Egyptian, Sudanese and Ethiopian experts to assess the effects of Ethiopia’s new dam on the flow of water to Egypt and Sudan.

This surge of interest in cultivating stronger relationships with the nations of the Nile Basin is likely the result of Egyptian vulnerability in a post-Mubarak world. Mubarak’s policy towards the Nile was clear: no compromise and no change. This is unsurprising given his domestic policy. However, without Egypt’s so-called “paternal” leader to make decisions on its behalf, soft power and cooperation seem to be the way forward. This is a good sign. As water becomes scarcer, mutually beneficial agreements to better manage the Nile’s water are necessary: without a shared vision, armed conflict will be inevitable.

Tamer Azer is a member of Global21, a student network of international affairs magazines and a partner of FutureChallenges. A longer version of this article was first published in The Oxonian Globalist.

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The Oxonian Globalist Oxonian

The Oxonian Globalist is a foreign affairs magazine produced entirely by students at the University of Oxford.