Global Policy Forum

Nile River Politics: Who Receives Water?

August 10, 2000

Egyptian regional foreign policy has shifted. Instead of fostering conflicts and supporting rebels, Cairo is solving conflicts and apparently giving up control over its most vital resource – the Nile river. Backed by the West, a new initiative among the Nile Basin riparian states will redistribute more equitably the river's water usage rights. Until now, Egypt prevented development in order to maintain its monopoly over the river. Cairo's decision to cooperate is motivated by its need for regional stability and economic development.


Officials from 10 African nations met in Khartoum over the weekend, reported the Panafrican news agency on Aug 7. The second meeting within the last month between cabinet ministers from Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan and the six Great Lakes states, focused on the plans for the redistribution of the region's most vital resource – the Nile river.

Backed by the World Bank, the United Nations, several European countries and Washington, the plan lays the groundwork for the river's economic development. Historically, Egypt has monopolized the longest river in the world and prevented development throughout the region. Now Cairo is supporting the redistribution plans. The reason for the change of heart is simple – Cairo needs regional stability in order to advance its own economic growth.

For half a century, Egypt has maintained its monopoly over the Nile by fostering regional instability. Cairo backed rebel groups in Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia. Addis Ababa claims that Cairo provided military intelligence, training and arms to separatist rebels, contributing to Ethiopia's civil war and the eventual partitioning of the country into Ethiopia and Eritrea. Although Cairo denies the allegations, the government admits to remaining in constant contact with rebel leaders from Sudan.

Map of Egypt - the Nile Delta

In addition to destabilizing its fellow riparian states, Egypt has maintained its ownership of the Nile through a 1959 treaty with Sudan. The agreement gives Egypt rights to 87 percent of the river's water. Sudan receives the remaining 13 percent. Eighty-six percent of the Nile's water originates in the Ethiopian highlands. Amazingly Ethiopia received no share of the river's resources under the agreement. Although Addis Ababa has repeatedly declared its right to develop the Nile's resources, the country's protracted conflicts have prevented that development. And although Sudan receives a small portion of the Nile's water usage, it cannot develop along the river without Egyptian consent.

But a changing economic landscape has spurred a shift in Egyptian foreign policy. South Africa is pushing for an integrated southern African economy while building up its military and transforming itself into the world's economic gateway to the continent. In 1997, South Africa received almost 40 percent of all foreign investment in Africa and 90 percent of all portfolio investment, reported The Economist.

In response, Cairo now wants to strengthen its own economic and political position. In fact, Egypt's foreign minister, Amr Musa, recently signed several agreements with South Africa aimed at garnering a portion of South Africa's bounty of foreign investment for itself. And with the considerable drop in World Bank loans – from $550 million in 1999 to only $50 million this year, Egypt is looking to local trade to boost its economy.

But in order to foster economic growth, Cairo must first quell the region's conflicts. Indeed, the government's support for regional insurgents has declined recently. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has led the peace negotiations between the government and rebels in Sudan and sent delegates to the Somali peace conference in Djibouti. Egypt will likely retain relations with regional insurgents in case of future need. For the moment, however, Egypt's interest is focused on warming relations with Ethiopia and Sudan.

Mubarak's peace initiatives however won't resolve the region's most contentious issue – water rights. Created in 1993, the Nile Basin Initiative has only recently begun to make real progress. The recent agreements reached this past week on hydro-electric power development, power sharing cooperatives, river regulation and water resources management will be finalized at an extraordinary ministerial meeting in December.

The new policies will cancel out the 1959 Egyptian-Sudanese treaty and redistribute water usage rights among the riparian states. Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan will form one development program and the remaining six Great Lakes member states – Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda – will form the other joint program.

Initiative officials are positioning themselves to gain international aid and investment at the upcoming summit of the International Consortium Co-operation on the Nile (ICCON), scheduled for February 2001.

Cairo will need to employ its powers of persuasion to maintain its water monopoly. Although Egypt has agreed to cooperate on the development of the Nile, the plans will diminish the river's flow into the North African country. Cairo is well aware of the economic impact of the river's redistribution to Ethiopia as well as Addis Ababa's disdain for Egyptian olive branches.

Egypt's willingness to cooperate would seem to contradict its historical domination of the Nile. The contradiction, however, is only semantic. As the river's most experienced user, Egypt can employ its considerable experience to participate in dam development and water resource management as well as other projects in Ethiopia and the Sudan, thereby continuing Egyptian rule over one of the world's most famous rivers.

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