Nile basin: Progress and Prospects of Cooperation

On Monday (October 8th) this week the Nile Tripartite Committee, now named the International Panel of Experts, paid its second visit to the construction site of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. The committee is made up of six experts drawn equally from Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan, together with four other international figures. The Committee has been set up to study the possible impact of Africa’s biggest dam now under construction. It made its first visit to the Dam site in mid-May, and held its first meeting in June in Cairo. The establishment of the committee was at the initiative of the late Prime Minister Meles as a goodwill gesture to build trust among the lower riparian states. The committee which is expected to clear up doubts and come up with a unified stance s after assessing possible impacts, is due to present its findings in nine months time to the highest authorities of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan. The Committee is already reported to have hinted that the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam will have no negative impact on down stream countries; Egypt and Sudan. Certainly Ethiopia has conducted numerous studies on the project which unequivocally affirmed the benefits of the project to downstream countries including prevention of flooding and siltation and regulation of the flow throughout the year. It will also reduce evaporation of water as the planned reservoir in Ethiopia will be in a far less humid area than current reservoirs.

The River Nile is, of course, a crucial resource both for the Horn of Africa and for the whole of the Nile Basin, a cause both of tension and of alliances among regional powers. Recent agriculture and industrial development in the Nile Basin, and rapidly growing populations, have raised the issue of competition and confrontation, as well as, more recently, significant opportunities to create more constructive interdependence and cooperation.

Some of these were outlined on Friday (October 5th) last week when Professor Yacob Arsano, of the Department of Political Science and International Relations, Addis Ababa University and Director of the Addis Ababa University Press, gave a talk at Chatham House in London. It was entitled ‘Progress and Prospects of Cooperation in the Nile Basin’ and it looked at the current status of the situation in the Nile Basin. Dr. Arsano underlined the point that historically the geopolitical profile of the basin had been marked by competing quests for hegemony among riparian countries. He noted that for a long time, Egypt and Sudan had wanted to maintain the status quo of usage of the Nile waters on the basis of colonial/post-colonial agreements, to which Ethiopia and the other upper riparian countries had never been a party. Ethiopia, of course, provides 86% of the water of the river, but it has never made any claims of a monopoly, and has made very little use of the water. This contrasted with Egypt which is 97% dependent upon the river and which had claimed a monopoly of usage. Ethiopia and other upper riparian states wanted a negotiated agreement on the basis of equality.

Dr. Arsano said that one result of this attitude by the lower riparian states had been “a legacy of net distrust between the upstream and downstream countries.” It was under these “challenging circumstances” that the inter-governmental Nile Basin Initiative was established in 1999. This had enormous international support but it also had to face the very difficult task of establishing a mechanism of cooperation from substantially conflicting interests and demands from its members. Dr. Arsano noted that the two main pillars of the NBI were the shared vision for the river and the subsidiary action and joint multi-purpose programs. These eventually led to the adoption of the Comprehensive Framework Agreement instrument in 2009, and its signing by the upper riparian states.

The downstream/upstream division, however, has continued, and in the absence of co-operation, Ethiopia has begun construction of the Nile Dam, whose benefits for Egypt and Sudan, Dr. Arsano noted would include flow regulation, cheaper energy, less silt and control of flooding. The Committee of Experts can be expected to underline these advantages. Interestingly, a recent symposium in Sudan, organized by the Sudanese Engineering Association, and involving government officials, experts, consultants, and other interested parties, linked the Dam’s construction with future development in Sudan, and was revealed a largely positive attitude towards it. Among benefits noted were reduction of alluvial silt reaching Sudan, provision of water at a fixed and stable rate, reduction of soil erosion, and a supply of electricity at a much cheaper rate. Professor Mohamed Akod Osman, Dean of the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Khartoum, specified that construction of the Dam will bring a “stable rate” of water to the Nile throughout the year.

At the same time there are other challenges to co-operation in the Nile Basin and a need to address such issues as water security overall, improvement of the management of water use in downstream states and, equally, of management of water use in the upper riparian countries. Control of pollution was an additional factor. It is also relevant that there is a lack of joint multi-purpose water development projects in operation. Dr. Arsano suggested that the Nile Basin states could learn from others, mentioning the co-operative consensus which operates in a number of other rivers with multi-state access, including the Indus, the Senegal, the Rhine and the Danube.

Dr. Arsano, indeed, was very clear: “there is no viable alternative to upstream-downstream cooperation for equitable and reasonable utilization and sustainable benefit sharing…”. The Nile River, he pointed out, provides for a permanent bond between the states of the Nile Basin. This underlines the four basic parameters and imperatives for development and co-operation which cover environmental and economic factors as well as security and institutional issues. Sudan now appears to be considering the matter of the use of the Nile waters on the basis of evidence rather than emotion and propaganda. Ethiopia hopes that Egypt will follow suit and consider the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project with an open mind, understand that the impact of power generation, not irrigation, will be positive, not negative for the lower riparian states, and accept the very clear benefits of cooperation for all the Nile Basin states.


*Originally published on A Week in the Horn – Oct. 12, 2012 issue, titled “Progress and Prospects of Cooperation in the Nile Basin”.

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