Nile Basin Initiative (NBI): Has it delivered on its promises?

(Aregu Balleh)

River Nile is not just the world’s longest river, but also is one shared by riparian countries whose demand to utilize the water as a development resource has been sharply increasing. Historically, the largest river remained the least explored, least understood and least utilized river in the world. ‘Cooperation’ over the use of the river had for years been a hardly swallowed concept for the riparian countries. For several decades the lower riparian countries and particularly Egypt enjoyed ‘a sole proprietorship right’ over the River water. Going far back to history, one finds River Nile being a source of mistrust, and at times conflict mainly between upper and lower stream countries. Apparently the media portrayal of the Nile issue in the riparian countries was one of a reflection of the mistrusts and misconceptions. National sentiments and emotions, but not facts and professionalism, dominated the content and style of reporting about the Nile.

Recently the Voice of America (VOA) and Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) organized in Entebbe, Uganda a ‘Journalists Training Workshop on Reporting the Nile’. The training which was attended by journalists from the Nile Basin Countries, was an eye-opener in the sense that journalists from the the Nile Basin Countries were introduced to new facts and realities about the Nile River. Various scholars who made presentations during the workshop indicated both the challenges faced in utilizing the river and opportunities available for cooperation. Despite the several attempts to establish a cooperation agreement for the Nile Basin countries, an all inclusive cooperation framework was not easy to come by until 15 years ago when the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) came into existence.

Teferra Beyene, the Current Executive Director of the the Nile Basin Initiative Secretariat ( Nile-Sec) explains that the NBI is the only intergovernmental body established by member countries to enhance mutual understanding among the basin countries which rather had a history of suspicion and mistrust. Has the initiative delivered on what it promised 15 years ago? People may be divided in their responses. However, the Executive Director argues that achievements outweigh the challenges faced.

Evidences indicate that before NBI came into existence, different initiatives were proposed as cooperative platforms for more than 45 years. Among the previous initiatives most notable was a project called Hydromet which was established with the main focus being hydrometeorological survey in the Lakes Region. Other previous initiatives include ‘Undugu’ which took place from 1983 to 1992 whose focus was on the establishment of the Nile Basin Economic Community and the Technical Cooperation Committee for the Promotion of Development and Environmental Protection of the Basin (TECCONILE), which focused on technical cooperation (environmental and water quality). However, all these initiatives lacked inclusiveness with some of the riparian countries not being represented in the effort. Above all, they did not anchor the cooperation effort in a comprehensive institutional setting and within the ambit of a shared vision.

The riparian countries of River Nile came to a more inclusive and comprehensive in nature cooperation platform with the establishment of the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) in 1999. NBI was launched also to pre-empt challenges impending as a result of the non-inclusive previous cooperation frameworks and possible conflict among the riparian countries that would arise from the poorly managed, and increasingly shrinking and scarce Nile water resources. As a result, the launch of the Initiative received a significant support from the international community.

According to Teferra, the establishment of the NBI targeted attaining shared vision of the riparian countries through realizing sustainable socio-economic development through equitable utilization of, and benefit from, the common Nile Basin water resources.

NBI is a 10-member regional inter-governmental partnership with Eritrea holding an observer status. The ten members are Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda.

NBI was established as a transitional mechanism that will phase out when the permanent River Nile Basin Commission is established following the conclusion of the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) negotiations, and its highest decision making body is composed of Ministers in charge of Water Affairs in the riparian countries, also known as Nile-COM. Nile-COM is supported by a Technical Advisory Committee (Nile TAC) comprised of 20 senior government officials: two from each of the riparian states. The NBI is managed from three Centres: the Secretariat (Nile SEC) based in Entebbe- Uganda, the Eastern Nile Technical Regional Office (ENTRO) based in Addis Ababa- Ethiopia and the Nile Equatorial Lakes Subsidiary Action Programme Coordination Unit (NELSAP-CU) based in Kigali- Rwanda. NBI implements three core programmes, namely Basin Cooperation, Water resource Management and Water Resource Management.

From the perspective of enhancing cooperation, NBI, which started virtually from scratch, is said to have built and facilitated various multi-level platforms and multi-stakeholder platforms with the aim of promoting an informed dialogue and building an informed foundation for mutual understanding, trust and confidence so as to move forward in a cooperative way to realize tangible benefits.

Authorities of the NBI believe that the Initiative has built a strong technical foundation for cooperative water resources management and development, including a comprehensive shared knowledge based on the water and related resources of the Nile as well as tools to enable the countries understand the implications of their actions on neighbours and opportunities for managing risks and realizing tangible benefits. Various tools and Models have been operationalized to provide the necessary analysis to inform decision making in water resources planning and management.

According to Teferra Beyene, NBI Executive Director, the Nile Basin is witnessing observable improvement in both extent and quality of cooperation among Member States. The tone of discourse over the Nile has changed, and transitions have already been made from mistrust to mutual trust and cooperation. “Today riparian countries believe that cooperation is the only way forward, and NBI provides the most viable platform for cooperation,” says the NBI Executive Director.

In the past some countries failed to accept the fact that River Nile is a ‘shared resource’ and that what happens in one country, negative or positive, affects the other hence the need for joint management and development for the benefit of all.

Apart from confidence building the NBI has gone a considerable distance in the implementation of projects on the ground. In relation to this, the Executive Director mentions as an example the joint preparation and implementation of investments in power, agriculture and regional trade as well as River Basin Management and Development, which are meant to bring tangible benefits to the citizens of the Nile.

According to evidences obtained from the office of the NBI Secretariat Investment Projects, worth over USD two billion, were planned to be implemented by the two subsidiary action programme offices namely, ENSAP and NELSAP-CU of which seven have been completed. Some of these projects include the now operational Ethiopia-Sudan interconnection with 100MW power trade from Ethiopia to Sudan benefiting 1.4 million households; the USD 403 million regional transmission interconnection project where an estimated 1500km of 220 kv and 110 kv transmission lines and associated sub-stations are under construction to facilitate power trade among Burundi, DR Congo, Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda as well as the long stalled USD 470 million regional Rusumo Falls hydroelectric project which will generate 80 MW to benefit Burundi, Rwanda and Tanzania. Others are the Eastern Nile Watershed Management Project planned to be jointly implemented by Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan. Meanwhile, according to Teferra, implementation of projects under the Eastern Nile Subsidiary Action Programme (ENSAP) has not been as effective as that of the Equatorial Lakes Subsidiary Action Programme (NELSAP).

The NBI did not go far enough toward transforming itself into a Commission. That was due to the disagreement in the signing of the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA). According to Teferra Beyene, agreements are expected to be reach at in the next meeting.

So far Ethiopia and Rwanda have ratified it as a law in their parliaments where as in Burundi and South Sudan, it is waiting for ratification. Similarly, Tanzanian Council of Minister’s has also referred the law to parliament for ratification, while the Ugandan Parliament is going to vote on it soon. And in Kenya the law is at the cabinet level. When the six of the 11 countries ratify it as law by their parliaments, the initiative will convert into a Commission, according to Teferra. Meanwhile, securing financial support for the Initiative to continue operating as an intergovernmental body and run its projects remains uncertain.

So far the Initiative enjoyed consistent, predictable and flexible financial support from development partners. It remains uncertain whether the development partners will continue supporting the Initiative. However, once the Initiative converts itself into a Commission, financial support may not be a headache, as the Commission will have its own revenue generation schemes, according to Teferra.

The slow joint investment projects implementation by the subsidiary Action programmes are feared to lead to an increasing number of major water resources investment projects (e.g. dams, power plants) planned and implemented unilaterally by individual riparian states and ultimately affect the spirit of cooperation on the Nile and the sustainability of the river Nile itself.

Meanwhile, Nile cooperation under the auspices of NBI thus far is considered to be a success despite the challenges still being faced, according to the Executive Director. Cooperation remains the only choice for member states to jointly address the regions trans-boundary water resources management and development challenges and take advantage of the opportunities for a win-win benefits especially now that the jointly prepared investment projects are at various stages of implementation. For that to happen more commitment is required from both member states and citizens of the Nile Basin countries as their development partners.

Source: Herald, August 30, 2014

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