Egypt furious over new Nile Water deal threatens legal, 'other' action

Saturday May 22 2010

Egyptian women wash pots and pans in the River Nile in Qalyoubia village north of Cairo. Egypt is furious with the signing of the new Nile Basin Agreement. File Photo

A new treaty signed by five African countries on the equitable sharing of the Nile waters amidst strong opposition from Egypt and Sudan has sparked a bitter row with the North African country threatening to mobilise international support or “other means” to retain its powers over the river.

Rwanda, Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania and later Kenya signed the new framework against the wishes of Egypt and Sudan who control the lion’s share of the river’s waters.

Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo were not represented at the meeting held in Entebbe, Uganda, a week ago.

“This agreement benefits all of us and harms none of us,” Ethiopia’s Water Resources Minister Asfaw Dingamo said.

Egypt expected Ethiopia to support its bid, especially after the latter’s signing of a memorandum of understanding late last year, to establish an Ethiopia-Egypt Council of Commerce with the aim of strengthening economic ties between the two countries.

The upstream countries want to be able to implement irrigation and hydro-power projects in consultation with Egypt and Sudan, but without Egypt being able to exercise the veto power it was given by a 1929 colonial-era treaty with Britain.


The new agreement, the Nile Basin Co-operative Framework, is to replace a 1959 accord between Egypt and Sudan that gives them control of more than 90 per cent of the water flow.

The two countries have expressed fears that their water supply would be severely reduced if the seven other Nile users divert the river for irrigation and hydropower projects.

The Nile Basin Initiative, which had been spearheading the talks, will now become the Nile Basin Commission and will receive, review and approve or reject projects related to Africa’s longest river.

It will be based in Addis Ababa and have representation from all the nine Nile basin countries.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit has warned that Cairo’s water rights were a “red line” and threatened legal action.

“Any unilateral agreement signed by the upstream Nile Basin countries is not binding on downstream countries, Egypt and Sudan, and lacks legitimacy,” he said.

Egypt described Ethiopia’s inaugurating of the 460MW Tana Beles hydroelectric dam on the Nile, done the same day the new agreement was signed, as aimed at “provoking Egypt into taking action that would turn global opinion in favour of upstream Nile countries.”

Egypt is now lobbying the international community to nullify the deal, which allows equitable utilisation of the Nile water among the 10 basin states.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, on the other hand, said the dam’s recent inauguration marks the country’s success in using the Nile waters after decades of biased laws.

Ethiopian industry and manufacturing have suffered shortage of power, whose demand has increased by 25 per cent every year. Current Ethiopian power generation capacity is about 2,000 Megawatts and the government targets to generate 5,000MW in the coming five years to meet the demand and export energy to neighbouring Kenya, Sudan and Djibouti.

Tana Beles is a modern hydro dam complex located underground and constructed at a cost of over 550 million Birr ($369.2 million).

Earlier efforts to build the dam were frustrated by the refusal of the African Development Bank, World Bank, and European Investment Bank among other creditors, to fund the project.

Ethiopia has built it without foreign support. China is reportedly pumping millions of dollars into the dam scheme.

Ethiopia plans to generate 45 per cent of its energy from the Nile Basin, a plan that does not sit well with Cairo.

Ethiopia has also built multiple hydro dams along the Gibe river, including Gibe 3, the largest in sub-Saharan Africa, despite growing protest from environmental groups over its impact on half a million people in northern Kenya, as fears mount that it could cause Lake Turkana to dry up.

Addditional reporting by Catherine Riungu