Environmental Voices: Is Egyptian soft power too late for upstream Nile states?

The following article is the first part of Al-Masry Al-Youm's weekly"Environmental Voices" series, in which issues related to the environment–whether local, regional or international in nature–will be discussed from the point of view of environmental experts.

In an unprecedented move that could potentially radically alter the prevailing water-sharing arrangements in the Nile basin, seven upstream riparian states in May, 2010 opened a Cooperative Framework for signature. The document at present has been ratified by five of them, and the sixth–which, according to the signatories, is required to make it binding–can be expected to join.

Egypt and Sudan, which harness the bulk of the Nile flow, have publicly opposed the said document.

The bone of contention is article 14b, which does not uphold the current or historic use of these two lower riparians, and which Cairo and Khartoum want changed to do so. To protect its hydro-interests, Egypt has, since the issuance of the framework, intensified its diplomatic activity and taken preliminary steps to expand economic and technical cooperation with–and aid to–the upstream states.

But is Egypt’s resort to such “soft power” belated?

Many international experts hold that Egypt and Sudan’s historic use was maintained because of Egypt’s power, even hegemony, in the basin. I think it would be more accurate to say that the persistence of this historic use stemmed more from the daunting domestic problems–from civil wars to poverty–in the upstream states themselves than from the exertion of Egyptian power. Without a doubt, the framework has placed much initiative in the hands of those countries whose head-water position gives them a source of power unavailable to Egypt.

Many in the Egyptian opposition blame the move by the upstream states on their government’s longstanding neglect of its relations with its upstream neighbors, following the peace treaty with Israel and Cairo’s focus ever since on the American/ Israeli connection. However that may be, Egypt has much to contribute to economic development in the basin so as to maintain the indispensable flow of the Nile into its territory.

The upstream riparians are unlikely to consent to Egypt and Sudan’s current use, despite the strong legal case the latter might make. But the deployment of Egyptian soft power could influence how much water these nations would demand or actually use, and how they would divide it between hydroelectric power generation and irrigation. They all have, to varying degrees, other rivers and groundwater resources waiting to be tapped. They are also blessed with high levels of rainfall for crop cultivation and livestock, along with freshwater lakes for fisheries. Their dependence on the Nile is partial, unlike Egypt, which owes its very existence as a society to the Nile and so is in no position to procrastinate in re-engaging its southern neighbors. 

Egypt possesses considerable water management capabilities, being the oldest beneficiary of the waters of this great river. Egypt could offer valuable help in water harvesting, building irrigation facilities, and digging water wells. It could boost its imports of agricultural commodities–such as tea and coffee and livestock–from Ethiopia, Kenya, and the other states. It could purchase electricity from the hydro-electric power stations that the upstream governments of Ethiopia and Uganda are eager to build.

The diversion of water for electricity generation does not affect the water volume in the river, only the timing of the flow. Diversion to agriculture, however, does. It is unclear how much Nile water each of these countries plan, or would be able, to harness for irrigation. Their published plans do not appear to call for major water withdrawals in the foreseeable future. Both Egypt and Sudan have plans of their own for more efficient and economic utilization of water that, if put into practice, could make more water available for everyone and convince the upper basin countries of their seriousness about water conservation.

Beyond water, Egypt boasts by far the highest per capita income and is more advanced industrially and technologically, even in areas such as health care and education (even if these seem less than satisfactory in the eyes of many Egyptians). Egypt could cooperate with the public and private sectors in interested countries in the establishment of basic industries and in the design and building of communication and transportation facilities.

Although I do not by any means belittle the symbolic, aesthetic and ecological value of water, for many people and for governments, the bottom line is water’s function as an economic agent. Considering their pressing developmental needs, the upstream states could profit tangibly from broad economic and technological cooperation with Egypt.

Nor does engagement with upstream states have to be limited to government.  As I followed the news after the announcement of the framework in the Egyptian press, I found a big reservoir of goodwill toward the other countries, along with a feeling that it was necessary to act, despite occasional jingoistic rhetoric by some. In some countries, especially in Ethiopia, there has been a build-up for some time of strong nationalist feelings about Egypt’s perceived taking away of the Nile’s water. Egypt’s Civil society –including environmental NGOs, educational institutions and media– could play a vital role in broadening and deepening cooperation and mutual understanding of the needs of the other side.

Civil society's entry into the field might help both sides appreciate that the Nile is an international river belonging to all the people through whose territory it flows, irrespective of where the water originates; and that history is not irrelevant, but also, like the water of the river, does not remain still. In other words, civil society could do much to improve the discourse on both sides.  

Much has been said about the coming water wars in the Middle East, yet none has materialized–and I do not see any on the horizon in the Nile basin. In general, third world states, lacking navies and logistics, can only wage war against those with whom they share common borders. Sudan is the immediate neighbor of Egypt and Ethiopia, but it is a country under the threat of fragmentation. Should it be split up, the new order, and the addition of one more riparian state, would further complicate the picture for Egypt.

But whether or not midstream Sudan breaks up, its decisions as to where its hydro-interests lie will be paramount. Egypt has much to gain by deepening its ties with the Sudanese state and people. The last thing Egypt and Sudan need is to spar over water. They cannot afford to repeat the virulent rhetoric of past episodes–such as the dispute over Halayeb–lest they fulfill longstanding predictions of water wars.      

The upstream states do not necessarily have identical interests, as some of them are both upstream and downstream of particular Nile tributaries, and may share water bodies, such as Lake Victoria or Victoria Nyanza, among others. There is already an institutional framework within which the Nile’s co-riparians can negotiate and bargain on equal footing: the decades-old Nile Basin Initiative, which has contributed to technical cooperation and water projects.

The good omen so far is that it seems that all countries involved are willing to negotiate, as indicated by the intensification of diplomatic activity and the scheduling of further meetings in which to discuss the framework.

We should not always expect a smooth ride, but Egypt stands a good chance of securing its water interests by mobilizing a portion of its material resources and human capabilities for the development of the upstream states.

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