Nile nations promise to consider Egypt's concern in water deal

The nine countries of the Nile River Basin are likely to agree on a final water-sharing framework within the next several months.

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CAIRO // The nine countries of the Nile River Basin are likely to agree on a final water-sharing framework within the next several months, the prime minister of Kenya, Raila Odinga, said yesterday. Mr Odinga was in Cairo this week to discuss what many here have described as a growing diplomatic "crisis" between the seven up-river nations of the Nile River Basin and Egypt and Sudan over plans to create a multinational organisation to resolve water-sharing disputes.

Kenya and four other countries signed an agreement earlier this month to establish the Nile River Basin Co-operative Framework. Egypt and Sudan have so far refused to sign the treaty because it would not guarantee the two countries' colonial-era claims to the bulk of the Nile's water. "We are very conscious of the fact that the economy of Egypt will not thrive without the Nile and therefore we will do everything possible to ensure that the water security of Egypt is not in any way affected by any agreement," Mr Odinga told reporters yesterday following a meeting with Ahmed Nazif, the prime minister of Egypt. "Any clause that will cause anxiety and concern to Egypt will be reviewed."

So far, it is the lack of a clause guaranteeing water security for Egypt and Sudan, which share the lower portion of the world's longest river, that has been the main cause of Egypt's anxiety and concern. The signing of the agreement by Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda set off a flurry of diplomatic activity and mild sabre-rattling in Cairo early this week. When the Ethiopian government inaugurated the Tana Beles dam on Friday, Egyptian officials reacted with outrage, calling the dam a "provocation" aimed at provoking Egypt into a diplomatic conflict with the upper-riparian states.

Hosni Mubark, Egypt's president, met both Mr Odinga and Joseph Kabila, the president of the Congo, on Sunday. While the five upper-riparian signatories have raised hackles in Egypt by signing the treaty without their down-river neighbours, experts who have followed the negotiations say the treaty has left security concerns for future negotiations in the hopes that the two remaining countries will eventually accede to the treaty.

"This Co-operative Framework Agreement that some five countries signed contains the provisions that were agreed upon by all the riparian countries including Sudan and Egypt," said Teferra Beyene, the head of trans-boundary river affairs for Ethiopia's ministry of water resources. "We wanted to establish the agreement with the provisions that we all agreed upon. The difference was in this article 14B on water security that has been deferred."

The Egyptian government considers its access to the Nile waters a question of national security - a level of alarm Egyptian officials justify because of Egypt's dry climate and its vulnerable position at the Nile's mouth. Egypt also points to two treaties that it says guarantee the lion's share of the water for Egypt. In 1929, a treaty between Egypt and Britain, which at the time governed many of the upper-riparian nations as colonies, gave Egypt final say on all up-river projects, such as dams and irrigation.

A 1959 pact between Egypt and Sudan, which followed the two countries' independence from Britain, gave Egypt 55.5 billion cubic metres of the 84bn cubic metres of water that flows into Egypt every year. Both treaties are outdated and unfair, say the upper-riparian nations, and should be replaced by a system that allows for more equitable access to water through negotiations. For its part, Egypt maintains that international treaties on water, similar to treaties over land, cannot be changed unilaterally without the agreement of all the parties involved, regardless of whether such treaties were signed under colonial powers.

"This water has come to Egypt for thousands of years and it is a gift from nature and a gift from Allah, not from these countries," said Hani Raslan, the director of the Sudan and Nile basin studies programme at the semi-official Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. As it stands, Egypt's allotment still only offers about 700 cubic metres of water per Egyptian - markedly less than the international water poverty line of 1,000 cubic metres per capita.

If the upper-riparian countries manage the water responsibly, there should be more than enough to go around, Mr Raslan said. And while the past treaties allow Egypt to use about 87 per cent of the water that reaches the Aswan High Dam in Upper Egypt, that allotment is actually less than five per cent of the water that fills the river's 5,584km length. "All the quantity of the water that is running in the River Nile is only a small part of the whole quantity of water to the Nile Basin," he said.