Resolving the Nile discord: the best solution at hand

Why Ethiopia and Egypt need to look into multilateral basin-wide solutions as opposed to sub-basin approaches 

Zerihun Abebe Yigzaw, Special to Addis Standar

Contemporary Nile Basin is featured by binary discords at basin and sub-basin levels. At the basin wide level upstream states on the one hand and downstream states on the other are in divergent positions regarding a new Nile treaty called Cooperative Framework Agreement on the Nile (CFA), which was negotiated by all riparian states for more than ten years (1997-2010). All riparian states except Egypt followed by Sudan are for the CFA which is the first multilaterally negotiated and signed treaty in the history of the River Nile. At The sub-basin level in Eastern Nile Basin Egypt has shown its anger over Ethiopia`s unilateral move to construct the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), a mega dam on the Blue Nile. Sudan affirmed and reaffirmed its support to Ethiopia`s plan appreciating the benefits. Egypt opposes both the CFA and the GERD claiming that both are against its “water security.” Sudan is following Egypt regarding the CFA because it is also a captive of the 1959 bilateral agreement which obliges both to have the same stance regarding any new Nile treaty and claim by other riparian states. This leaves the Nile Basin in the state of hydropolitical deadlock. The absence of any form of agreed treaty between upstream and downstream states is the major impasse of the existing problem including the controversy over the GERD.

Who will lose from a free ride?

Unless governed by multilateral treaties transboundary watercourses are bound to host dozens of problems. In the case of the Nile River, the missing link is that the actions of the riparian states are not regulated by common principles that oblige every riparian state to share and use the fruits of the River. As it is now unilateralism is reigning over multilateralism, which will eventually trigger free ride for some and a scramble for water by all.

If one looks at the contemporary Nile Basin the actual picture is tainted by unilateral projects conducted throughout the basin by individual countries. Toshka and Al Salam of Egypt are projects out of basin diversion, which is not allowed under customary international laws governing transboundary watercourse; Roseires Heightening, the Kajbar, Upper Atbara and Setait in Sudan; the GERD and a possible three other dams on the Blue Nile in Ethiopia; the Karamu in Uganda on the White Nile and potable water projects of Tanzania from Lake Victoria are a few examples. Without a doubt, this affects the collective good of all riparian states as it answers the question of who is losing and who is gaining from each project.

That is why riparian states should plan strategically-especially downstream states, mainly Egypt, as it is the most downstream state in the Nile.

Resolving the Nile discord A return back to the CFA 

The CFA lays down the foundations for governing the Nile for mutual benefit by declaring the principle of equitable and reasonable utilization (Article 4). By doing so it destroys what upstream states moan as “unfair and unjust” past which has its roots from the colonial era. The CFA further stressed riparian states to take appropriate measures not to significantly affect the water interest of any other riparian state. By and large the aim of the CFA is to establish the Nile River Basin Commission (NRBC) as permanent intergovernmental organization “to promote and facilitate the implementation of the principles, rights and obligations provided for in the CFA” (Article 16).

Once established the NRBC is expected to replace the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), the transitional arrangement established in 1999. The CFA in general is a foundation to better enhance cooperation between the Nile riparian states and to ensure benefit from the fruits of the Nile to all riparian states equitably and reasonably. Nonetheless, only six upstream states (Ethiopia, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, and Burundi) have signed the CFA. Congo and South Sudan are positive about it and have shown their readiness to sign, but not yet. Upon the ‘deposit of the sixth instrument of ratification or accession’ with the African Union (AU) the CFA will become a law among the signatory states. But Egypt and Sudan are out of the it so far and have declared not to sign the treaty although as of late Sudan seems indifferent about Egypt’s long standing position.

 Is the conflict on the CFA irresolvable?

The major point of disagreement on the CFA is Article 14(b) which is about water security, a non-legal emerging concept regarding the utilization of water. The concept was brought to the CFA in a bid to solve the divergent positions of upstream and downstream states over colonial as well as bilateral ‘agreements’. The 1929 and 1959 Agreements which gave veto power to downstream Egypt and apportioned the entire flow of the Nile between Egypt (55.5BCM), Sudan (18.5BCM) and evaporation (> 10BCM).

The new water security concept can be regarded as a concept about reliable availability and accessibility of agreed quality and quantity of water to meet human needs. The controversial article as agreed by all riparian states except Egypt and Sudan “not to significantly affect the water security of any other Nile Basin State” is therefore the best solution and the right way to unite all the riparian states for a good cause; it will make every country come out a winner, too. But Egypt proposed and insisted Article 14(b) to read as “not to adversely affect the water security and current uses and rights of any other Nile Basin State.” Egypt’s insistence makes a mockery of its own privilege to use the water for two reasons: first, article 4 of the CFA deals in detail with principles of equitable and reasonable utilization of the water by all riparian states, including Egypt. This by itself answers Egypt’s legitimate concern. Second, by referring to “current uses and rights” Egypt is dragging the colonial era treaties despised by every riparian state except Sudan back in to the new spirit of cooperation among all riparian countries. This is no less of a diplomatic bullying and it stands zero chance of recognition by the rest the Basin’s member states.

Finally, any agreement between Ethiopia and Egypt will have a tremendous impact on the Basin at large as both are the largest water giver and the net receiver respectively. But this does not mean that a sub-basin approach is the solution for the Nile discord as the root cause of the problem is a basin-wide issue which needs a multilateral and basin wide solution. The controversy over the GERD will not therefore be solved by a separate negotiation alone. Ethiopia and Egypt can best agree over the GERD if both agree on the CFA. Any negotiation on the GERD will indirectly have an impact on the CFA based on the issues of discussion and the agreements reached. Nonetheless, following the multilateral track by signing the CFA would be a departure and the right path to turn the discord in to accord.

The writer is a lecturer at Dilla University and researcher on the Hydropolitics of the Nile. He is also head of the Public Relations and Communication Department of Ethiopian International Professionals Support for Abbay (EIPSA). He can be reach     

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