Apr 19 2011

Reality-check: 'Charging Egypt for water' - An Ethiopian idea?

Have you ever heard the idea of setting a counter on Blue Nile and charging Egypt every milliliter of it? Well, I heard that since junior high, though I never took it seriously. It was merely an expression of Ethiopian’s frustration with Egypt’s greed. At least, I thought so.

To my surprise, the lower-riparian countries take it much seriously, as my encounter with Egyptian (and a few Sudanese) media in the last few weeks revealed. Yet, I thought it to be part of the paranoia of the Egyptian media and their incredulous conspiracy theories.

Egypt’s  Ass. Foreign Minister for African Affairs, Ambassador Mona Omar partly justified my disregard of the issue, though he indicated there is some truth to it.

Mona Omar commented on the issue in his interview with an Egyptian media (Al-Masry Al-Youm?) on April 8 or 9. It was published on the Egyptian news outlet www.cp2.gom.com.eg on April 10 with a title that declares ‘Egypt will not buy water from the Nile Basin countries.’ A Google translation of the Arabic interview with Ass Foreign Minister Mona Omar reads:

Q: What do you think of the idea of ​​establishing a bank for water?

** I do not know the extent of the validity of this speech was seen by the media only, but this idea whatever their validity established the principle of the sale of water that is, if needed state the amount of water more than its share, they buy water from the bank and this also from the principles agreed by the basin states as a is on the table. Ethiopia had initially suggested the sale of water. But after the meetings and negotiations, all countries rejected it.

As it turned out, Ambassador Mona Omar is not well-informed on the issues, though, typical to an Egyptian official, he was quick to point his figures on Ethiopia. That is the impression you get when you read the statement by Tanzanian Foreign Minister Bernard Membe and Egyptian Foreign Minister Dr. Nabil Arabi.

The Foreign Ministers of Tanzania and Egypt gave a joint news conference on April 2 in Cairo where the issue of water bank was raised.

The report of the press conference, by www.nile.eg, suggests the issue of water bank is still on the table and is shared by more than one upper-riparian country. The statements by Tanzanian Foreign Minister Bernard Membe and Egyptian Foreign Minister Dr. Nabil Arabi, in the press conference, was reported as follows: (Google translation)

[Tanzanian Foreign Minister Bernard Membe]

On the proposed establishment of the Ethiopian Water Bank,  Tanzanian Foreign Minister Bernard Membe said that there are governments in the upstream countries that did not agree on this idea and there is consultation around, and we will take all views into consideration and will discuss all these topics between the leaders when they meet soon.

[Egyptian Foreign Minister Dr. Nabil el-Arabi]

….And Ethiopia over what she raised the idea of ​​a water bank, Arabi said, that Egypt’s position focuses on the need for a plan required for the Nile Basin. The entire issue is under study, Egypt has a plan to deal with it, but we do not want to enter into the details now.

Could the generalized reference by the Tanzanian Foreign Minister be a diplomatese (diplomat-speak)? It is probable that he declined to solely attribute it to Ethiopia while in fact it is.

Well, I recall an interview by a concerned Ethiopian official with a local newspaper on idea of water bank that left me with the impression that it is a bigger concept than a mere ‘sell of water’, unlike how Mona Omar chose to put it.

Though I couldn’t find that interview online and offline, I stumbled upon a highly relevant piece of information.

Ugandan parliamentarians had once considered charging Egypt for water.

It was reported, by Agency France Press(AFP) on Oc. 9/2002, ‘Uganda has indicated that it wants to charge Egypt and Sudan for using the Nile because Uganda is one of its main sources. Otherwise, Uganda believes that it should have the right to divert the waters for agricultural projects.’

Apparently, the news was referring to the discussion in the Ugandan Parliament in the previous month when a draft law that proposes charging US$0.05/1000 litres was presented.

The draft law was motioned by MP Amon-Reeves Kabareebe and seconded by sufficient number of MPs, thus tabled for discussion on September 5/2002 afternoon.

According to the minutes of the Ugandan parliament of Sep 5/’02, the draft law states:

AND WHEREAS Uganda spends millions of dollars annually in overcoming the problems of deforestation, wetland, degradation, sedimentation, soil erosion, deterioration of water quality, control of water born diseases, point and non point sources of pollution, biodiversity, weed infestation, land degradation, drought, and other safe water conservation related problems;

AND WHEREAS Egypt and Sudan benefit from Uganda s investment into the water bodies that freely flow to these lower riparian states which do not contribute anything to the environmental investments of Uganda;


(c) have particular regard for the need for the heavy compensation for the heavy investments incurred by Uganda in restoring and maintaining the integrity of the water quality and quantity on a sustainable basis; and

(d) that the compensation shall be on the basis of discharge per unit volume on either Owen Falls Dam or at Uganda Sudan boarder with the interim formula of US$0.05/1000 litres. (based on the input to maintain the water at PH 7). PH 7 is the neutrality of water to keep it as clean as possible.

Observing that 1,004 cubic metres flow to Egypt per second, if you multiply that by 60 seconds, 60 minutes, 24 hours and 365 days, that is five cents of a dollar, it comes to US $2,207,520,000 (Two billion two hundred seven million five hundred twenty thousand).

Unfortunately, the discussion on the draft law was hindered by procedural questions – that is, the Parliament’s rule that a motion cannot be tabled if it overlaps with a motion already under consideration.

In this case, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation argued that the draft law overlaps with a draft law, ‘The Nile Basin Initiative Bill: 2002’, which was tabled a few weeks earlier by the Ministry. Though MP Amon-Reeves Kabareebe argued the the two drafts are distinct, the Ministry insisted otherwise. [The session slipped into some intelligible procedural debate and I am not sure if there was a follow-up discussion on the motion on a later date].

The bottom line:

Whatever the merit of the idea, it is errant to attribute it solely to Ethiopia. If Ethiopia made such a proposal, then it is in the context of the Nile Basin Initiative. Presumably, it is intended to curb misuse rather than charging Egyptians for every drop of water. It is unfortunate that the Tanzanian and Egyptian officials, quoted above, chose to feed the misperception and paranoia of the Egyptian media.

Perhaps, this is one place to start for the new National Council of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.



1/ Pending my presentation of the idea of water bank in the context of Nile River (if and when I find one), you may read an explanatory note on the concept of water bank by Oregon State University – (Link).

2/ The interview of the Egyptian Ass. Foreign Minister, Ambassador Mona Omar, and the press conference of the Tanzanian Foreign Minister, Bernard Membe, will be discussed in a review of the Egyptian media that will be posted tomorrow.

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