NAIROBI, Kenya – It could easily degenerate into a new WWI, analysts say, i.e.: the First Water War. On one side two of the largest countries in Africa, Egypt and Sudan. Since time immemorial, these two massive areas have been connected to one another, developing similar cultures that ended with the fatal split in 1956, marking the end of British colonial rule. On the other side of the barricade, a quite imposing group of states that stretches from the green highlands of Ethiopia, to the Atlantic coast touched by the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi complete the scenario. In the middle, the main vital source of nature: water. In fact, these nine states are currently fighting for an equitable share of the Nile river flow, which is the longest course of water on the planet. Until now, it has been a mild war of words, statistics, and failed agreements. But it seems that all that stopped on the 14th of May, when, after more than a decade of clumsy talks, four of these countries signed an accord that put a firm end to further negotiations. In fact, a delegation of various ministers coming from Uganda, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Tanzania, gathered in Entebbe, Uganda, and unilaterally closed the deal. "This agreement benefits all of us and harms none of us. I strongly believe all Nile Basin countries will sign it," said Asfaw Dingamo, Ethiopia's water resources minister. “We regret the intentional and announced absence of our dear brothers from Egypt and Sudan," Stanislaus Kamanzi, Rwanda's water and lands minister, added.
Kenya issued a statement in support of the document and signed it one week later, as per the delegates from Burundi and DRC it’s not clear if they were present at the meeting. The latter two countries, like Egypt and Sudan, have one year to make up their minds and sign. "We've been negotiating the text we've just signed for more than ten years. If we don't sign today I assure you that we'll go another ten years without having reached an agreement," predicted Mr. Kamanzi. The 6,600 km Nile river, a fundamental source of energy and water for eight of the nine countries involved, has an average annual flow of about 84 billion cubic meters, measured during the1950s at Aswan High Dam, Egypt. In a 1929 treaty between Egypt and the then “Anglo-Egyptian” Sudan, a variety of rules and accords were set up, and some of them go as follow: Egypt and Sudan utilize 48 and 4 billion cubic meters of the Nile flow per year, respectively; Egypt reserves the right to monitor the Nile flow in the upstream countries; Egypt assumes the right to undertake Nile river related projects without the consent of upper riparian states; and, the most disputed point of all, Egypt has the right to veto any construction projects that would affect her interests adversely.
Apart from the Egyptian and the then politically weak Ethiopian nation, none of the other countries were independent, therefore able to oppose the treaty. It is not surprising that, three years after Sudan gained independence, the Nile Water Agreement was modified. Cairo, aiming for the total control of the Nile annual flow, sought international recognition to build the Aswan High Dam. The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development approved the operation on one politically-correct condition: that the new treaty considered a “secure water allocation for Sudan and compensation for the population to be dislocated due to the project.” Without wasting any more time, the agreement allowed “the entire average annual flow of the Nile to be shared among Sudan and Egypt at 18.5 and 55.5 billion cubic meters, respectively.” That’s how irrigation, hydroelectric power, and water supply projects developed under the Aswan High Dam have become the basis for Egypt to claim its “historical rights”. Moufid Shehab, minister of legal and assembly affairs, told recently in parliament that: “Egypt’s historical rights to River Nile waters are a matter of life and death. We will not compromise them”. The nation’s actual 80 million people live near or on the Nile where many of the most beautiful and ancient Egyptian cities were born in the past millenniums.
As the rest of the countries became independent, they began to demand reforms concerning the management of the precious Nile waters. In 1999 the Nile Basin Initiative was formed. The Initiative, financed by the World Bank, had to be a platform for new projects that were supposed to benefit the nine countries. Yet no real changes took place. After last April meeting in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, the four signatories of what became known as the Nile Basin Co-operative Framework, got tired with Egyptians “dragging their feet to the negotiating table”, and they believe they have every right to feel that way. For instance, Ethiopia contributes an estimated 85% of the river waters. “The upstream countries want to be able to implement irrigation and hydro-power projects in consultation with Egypt and Sudan, but without Egypt being able to exercise the veto power it was given by a 1929 colonial-era treaty with Britain,” they have stated.
The Nile Basin Initiative transformed itself in the Nile Basin Commission and the latter will be able to approve or reject every projects related to the Nile waters. It is not yet clear, though, if the commission will be based in Addis Ababa or Entebbe. Knowing that Egypt might face water shortages by 2017, Abul Gheit, the Egyptian foreign minister, already threatened legal action. On Thursday 13, the day before the signature, a senior EU envoy strongly advised not to sign the new treaty and resolve the disagreements with Egypt and Sudan before moving any further. The head of the European Union delegation in Egypt, Marc Franco, warned: “A unilateral deal would make the political problems that exist worse”. Sudan and Egypt affirmed that they needed more time to broker any new deal". We are very close. Why go on your own? We just need more time", said Ahmed El-Mufti, Sudanese legal counsel speaking to Reuters adding that the other countries had plenty of other sources of water. "They have water from other areas. They have a lot of rain. This is nature. They do not need the water. Here in Sudan we need water". Jennifer Byakatonda Namuyangu, Water Resources Ugandan Minister explained that reforms needed to be done because the courses of history are made of changes: "We've not been insensitive to Egyptian concerns about water security – Namuyangu said – but what we are opposed to is their insistence on maintaining their veto as it is in the colonial agreements". "If we don't have an agreed co-operative framework, there will be no peace," Kenya's director of water resources John Nyaro told the BBC, "Where there is no rule of law, the rule of the jungle does not provide peace".
Matteo Fraschini Koffi
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