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Tensions on the Nile – Dr. Mahlakeng Khosi Mahlakeng

October 18, 2019


Tensions on the Nile

by Dr. Mahlakeng Khosi Mahlakeng

National University of Lesotho

Volume 7 (2019), Number 15 (October 2019)

The environmental and political landscape of the already fragile Nile region has become threatened. The Nile River Basin faces considerable challenges, all of which have resulted into ‘water scarcity’ (i.e. the decrease in the quality and quantity of water). The already precarious water situation is also threatened by rapid population growth, environmental degradation and depletion, excessive strain on dwindling renewable resources, unequal distribution and insecurity. The causes of water scarcity in the NRB are evidently numerous thus exacerbating the issue of ‘hydropolitics’ (i.e. the politics over water) in the basin. Moreover, these causes are detrimental when they interact with one another and/or occur simultaneously. These challenges combined have affected the management, sustainability and use of the basin.

One of the most contentious issues related to the Nile River is the use of available water resources. The use of the Nile has always been and remains a controversial issue. Water is already scarce in some parts of the basin. Water scarcity is not only a result of the amount or scale of rainfall, but also of the agreements (i.e. the 1929 and 1959 agreements) that govern the Nile. These agreements have rendered the use of water between the upstream (i.e. Burundi, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and the DRC) and downstream riparian countries (i.e. Egypt, South Sudan and Sudan) unequal.

The current distribution of water in the area has serious global political consequences and is fundamental to the developmental processes of the respective countries. This uneven distribution also bears many local political, economic and social implications. The impact of resource distribution, specifically water, carries many political implications in local, state, regional and international spheres. In shared basins, the lower or upper-lying riparian country can control the quantity and quality of water flow by means of its military might and hydrological situation. Political actors may often also use resources as objects of military and political action in an effort to extend their influence in such regions. Thus, increasing the potential for ‘conflict’ (i.e. conflict defined as verbal, political and/or violent).

An example of this is the defining influence of Egyptian foreign policy on states in the basin. Egypt, being the stronger party, provokes, initiates or prevails with military action against its weaker adversaries, thereby increasing the potential for conflict. The issue of controlling the Nile at the expense of other riparian countries has been central to political decision-making.

In almost a century long continued interest by Egypt and Sudan to exclusively control the Nile waters, the other nine riparian countries remain structurally denied from accessing, utilising and benefiting from the Nile. Despite its seemingly current participation and interest in cooperative renegotiation and development with upstream countries, however, it is still evident that Egypt continues to hold the idea that the 1929 and 1959 agreements should remain as valid yardsticks and as controlling international legal instruments for managing the governance of the Nile. These series of agreements shared the principle of protecting Egyptian interests in the Nile region. They stipulated that countries would not construct or cause to be constructed irrigation or any work that might negatively affect the flow of the Nile to Egypt.

Egypt’s’ repeated call for external intervention, particularly the United States of America (USA), shows defiant signs and a challenge to an equitable cooperative solution. For instance, Egypt’s close relationship with a succession of major powers has always helped it to exert its influence over the Nile. The United Kingdom (UK) until the 1950s, the Soviet Union until the mid-1970s and, currently the United States (US), have all provided political and financial support to cement Egypt’s position in the basin, through legal treaties if possible. They have also simultaneously influenced the construction of infrastructure for power generation, storage and irrigation.

The involvement of external actors, possibly with varying external demands and biases, further exacerbates and complicates an already delicate environment. The role of external actors is significant to the sustainability, management and use of trans-boundary basins in that they can highly influence the nature and politics of trans-boundary basins.

Given a number of immense challenges confronting the Nile water security vis-à-vis the water needs of all riparian countries, it is no surprise that under the uneven water distribution in favour of Egypt and Sudan, Ethiopia’s construction and completion appears to the former to be moving too fast.In a similar understanding by Egypt that climate change and the subsequent water scarcity pose a great danger to the Nile in general, and its shares specifically, it must note the enormous water security challenge facing the upstream riparian countries particularly given their current exclusion for the access and utilisation of the Nile.

However, Ethiopia’s GERD also presents a unilateral unsustainable lose-lose scenario. However, considering the issues of climate change, water scarcity, population growth and its exclusion from accessing and utilising the Nile for almost a century at the behest and benefit of Egypt, and the continued delay in initialising the NBI CFA, leaves Ethiopia with no other option. More importantly, filling the GERD could take close to a decade or beyond. And during this fill, Egypt could experience a cut of 25% of the Nile’s fresh water flow. Moreover, this is at the background of an already serious country-wide freshwater shortage in Egypt.

Far-reaching consequences of unilateral hydropower developments in shared watercourses are not only water availability but social and environment implications. In many cases, the social and environmental effects, as a result of unilateral decision-making, are far greater than the hydropower potential expected. These implications include, among others, the destruction of arable land and the displacement of communities (i.e. environmental refugees). As a result, this warrants stronger regional basin-wide cooperation and effective water governance. Moreover, it points to the need and urgency of an equitable Nile water sharing solution in a form of a cooperative framework that will cater for short, medium and long term needs of all riparian countries.

The water needs for both upstream and downstream countries cannot be solved by massive water transfers, but rather through a coordinated water-demand management and a supply-oriented approach. This is only possible through multilateral ventures coupled with an agreement that serves and protects the interests of all Nile water users.

A sustainable understanding and consensus of all riparian countries in general, and the established expert panel (i.e. The National Independent Scientific Research Group) would be to equitably access and utilise the Nile through the guidance of a cooperative legal framework, now more than ever. Furthermore, the need and urgency of a cooperative legal framework should form the basis of the findings and conclusion of this panel. This legal framework is the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) proposed by the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI).

Agreeing to and/or signing the CFA would translate into win-win gains for riparian countries. The CFA aims to replace the colonial-era treaties that gave Egypt and Sudan a majority share of the Nile’s water.

The CFA outlines principles, rights and responsibilities for cooperative management and development of the Nile Basin water resources.  Rather than quantifying water use allocations, the Treaty intends to establish a framework to “promote integrated management, sustainable development, and harmonious utilization of the water resources of the Basin, as well as their conservation and protection for the benefit of present and future generations“.

The main reason the NBI proposed for a CFA is because the former is just a transitional mechanism that is expected to phase out when a permanent NRBC is established following the conclusion of the CFA. The CFA should be included in national legislation, thus disbanding the NBI and simultaneously establishing a permanent NRBC. For the initiative to convert into a commission, six of the 11 countries’ parliaments must ratify the CFA as law.7 countries agreed to open CFA for signature, a position rejected by Egypt and Sudan. The Commission would serve to promote and facilitate the implementation of the CFA and to facilitate cooperation among the Nile Basin States in the conservation, management and development of the Nile River Basin and its waters.

Transforming the initiative into a commission entails a different level of competencies. Among others, the establishment of an interstate commission (the NRBC) constitutes a departure from the past trend of unilateral water use and management, particularly in emphasising the issues of fair water allocation, joint management and developing resources. This also signals a fundamental shift in the hydropolitical landscape of the Nile. The NRBC would facilitate and oversee the smooth equitable and reasonable use, management and protection of the Nile’s water.

Without proper basin-wide cooperation, the water system of the Nile will experience severe pressure from uncoordinated projects. The lack of cooperation will lead to an increasingly ineffective use of water. The development of unilateral hydropower projects is a result of the inability to establish a commission that will create a more conducive win-win environment for all Nile riparian countries. The article further argued that unilateralism prompts competition, which leads to lose-lose gains and the failure of the NBI. This subsequently influences the development of more unilateral decision-making by riparian states regarding major water resource investment projects (i.e., hydropower projects) and therefore increases the level of disputes in the region.

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