The Nile River: Egypt and Sudan firm up water alliance By DALLIA MONIEM in Cairo | Tuesday, September 18   2012 at  15:10

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy (right) and Sudanese counterpart Omar al-Bashir. The two Islamist leaders are forging a united front on the use of the Nile River, a contentious issue for the countries that share its waters.   PHOTO | AFP

They are not ordinary neighbours; they have a shared history and continue to drink from one well, the vital River Nile. They also speak the same language and sit in the same meetings as members of the Arab League, and both are non-signatories to the Rome Statute. This is the law that paved way for the formation of the International Criminal Court.

In a way, the similar interests of Sudan and Egypt seem to keep them close to each other.

When President Omar al-Bashir arrived in Cairo for a brief official visit last weekend, activists predictably, but in vain, came out with their demands for his arrest. For three years, Mr Bashir has been wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of genocide and war crimes allegedly committed in his country's region of Darfur. So far, he has managed to escape the court's net.

Despite the trials and tribulations that Sudan and Egypt are currently going through, both have managed to maintain a strong alliance of sorts, and now with an Islamist president in either country, it looks only natural that kinship will be further cemented and enhanced.

Mr Bashir, also a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, was one of the first presidents to officially visit Egypt following the revolt that brought an end to Hosni Mubarak's regime. Both he and Egyptian President Mohammed Morsy emphasised the importance of bilateral partnership, dialogue, trade, cooperation and most importantly, an agreement on the Nile water.

Undoubtedly, one of the core issues that a number of African countries are grappling with is that of the River Nile, with disputes over water rights with neighbouring Nile Basin countries remaining unresolved.

A warning shot

In what must be construed as a warning to the other Nile waters sharing countries, both President Bashir and his Egyptian counterpart reaffirmed their countries “identical position” in regards to the water dispute.

Mr Morsy's spokesperson did not hide the fact that the issue of the Nile Water is “an Egyptian national security issue". The two countries receive 55 billion ( Egypt) and 18.5 billion ( Sudan) cubic meters of water annually thanks to a series of agreements that date back to 1929 and drawn by Britain when it was the main colonising power over much of the continent.

The upstream countries maintain that these agreements, which also give the two countries veto powers over projects deemed as “harmful' to their interests, where signed during the “colonial era, and should be rewritten to allow countries to equally share in the river's economic potential.”

One of Egypt long standing objectives over the body of water is that it would never consider the calls for a decrease in its annual share, in fact it would actively seek to increase it – already both Egypt and Sudan control approximately 87 per cent of the water resources of the Nile.

Back in 2010 then Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif, following the signing of the the Cooperative Framework Agreement water treaty by Uganda, Rwanda, Ethiopia and Tanzania, flatly stated Egypt's annual share would not be affected.

That view has pretty much remained unchanged in the eyes of the newly elected government and whilst it also seeks to increase that share, it has been at pains to add that this is "through cooperation and coordination with the Nile Basin countries", not unilaterally.

Marked change

This signals a marked change to the policies adopted by Mubarak regime especially as African nations ambitions have been recognised and followed through as in the case of Ethiopia and the development of its hydroelectric resources such as the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, Africa's largest hydroelectricity project.

Egypt's disregard to African politics and refusal to further build bi-lateral agreements in the past few decades has been to its detriment as countries such as Burundi, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda et al have all taken concrete steps to protect their access to the water resource as well as seeking to redress the colonial-era agreements heavily in favour of Cairo that give it the bulk of the continent's longest river.

Moreover, the Nile Basin Initiative, the multilateral organisation comprising all upstream and downstream countries in the Nile Basin region set up to “achieve sustainable socioeconomic development through the equitable utilisation of, and benefit from, the common Nile Basin water resources", now has ten members following the admittance of South Sudan which could potentially be a spanner in the works for both Sudan and Egypt.

The 1959 water treaty did not consider the possibility of South Sudan seceding from it's northern neighbour, so legal rights to the Nile by Africa's newest nation is another factor that undoubtedly must also be considered.

This fear was illustrated in the Wikileaks leaked diplomatic cables which revealed that back in 2009 “Cairo was uncomfortable with a divided Sudan, fearing an independent South would threaten its stranglehold on the River Nile waters. A former foreign ministry official had even asked the US government to help postpone the January 2011 referendum by four to six years.

Charm offensive

The official said the creation of a "non-viable state" could threaten Egypt's access to Nile waters and so to the country's agriculture. Khartoum could also be affected by the South's independence with one analysis arguing it has “been weakened by the secession of the South and with many observers almost certain that Juba will work with the upstream states to force the North and Egypt to agree to a new treaty.

It is noticeable that President Morsy's government has gone on a charm offensive with its African counterparts, with the newly elected head of state visiting Addis Ababa during the African Union summit meeting – something which his predecessor refused to do following the attempted assassination on his life in the Ethiopian capital back in 1995.

President Morsy emphasised the need for stronger ties saying: "I would like to officially announce that Egypt has a desire to work towards a common African market. Egypt will use its human and financial resources to ensure that. We stress our concern with education, health, construction and development."

That the Egyptians are worried in regards to the Nile is not in doubt, especially with Ethiopia's grand dam plans further hinting at the Nile Basin countries determination to move ahead with their water development plans.

This view was emphasised by Mohamed Nasr El Din Allam, the former Egyptian Minister of water and irrigation from 2009 until early 2011 when he stated in an interview that the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam would cause "political, economic and social instability," in the North African country.

Forced hand

What steps Khartoum and Cairo will take is still unclear, but the signs do point to a more conciliatory tone though not to the extent where they will agree nor accept the demands of the other Nile Basin countries unconditionally.

It's also fair to say both countries will work in tandem with each other and to the benefit of themselves. Matters could come to a head and force all the countries involved to take much needed pragmatic steps in resolving the issue with Egypt and Sudan forced to re-consider their past positions as it is clear their Nile Basin counterparts have moved to rectify what they view as one-sided agreements as seen in the signing of the Entebbe Agreement by Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Kenya which Cairo called a “national security” threat.

Back in 2005 Boutros Boutros Ghali, the former UN Secretary General and Egyptian foreign minister, famously stated that future conflicts and military confrontations would be over water rights, one hopes in regards to the Nile it will not reach that stage.