Nile Basin initiative deadlock

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Water ministers from five Nile basin countries could not settle their differences on the language of a new river treaty when meeting last weekend, but said they will uphold a one-year deadline for other basin members to enter the agreement. Government officials from Egypt and Sudan have said they will only sign an agreement if it protects their current use.

After more than a decade of negotiations, five upstream countries (Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda) decided in May to move forward and sign the new treaty without the consent of basin heavyweights Egypt and Sudan. The Cooperative Framework Agreement would establish laws and institutions to govern the development of the Nile River.

'The way the treaty is explained in the media is that they are allocating all the water and there will be impacts in Egypt and Sudan and this is not true,' said Ana Cascao of the Stockholm International Water Institute. 'If Egypt and Sudan do not sign they will not be bound by the treaty. And there are no allocations in the agreement, not a single number. It's basically about principles.'

'Half the articles are about principles of international water law, half are about institutions; who is going to be president, who will manage the organisation, and so on,' Cascao added.

The river's current legal regime favours downstream users. That treaty, signed in 1959, divided two-thirds of the annual flow of the Nile between Egypt and a newly-independent Sudan with a veto over upstream development projects allocated to Egypt.

With the assistance of the World Bank and the United Nations, basin countries established the Nile Basin Initiative in 1999 to increase dialogue. One of the primary goals of the organisation was to sign a treaty creating a permanent Nile Basin Commission with legal authority over the development of the river. Four countries (Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt and Sudan) did not sign and were given one year to decide at a June meeting of the Nile Basin Initiative in Ethiopia. The treaty needs one more ratification to be legally binding for its members.

The point of contention is Article 14(b) which addresses water security. Government officials from Egypt and Sudan have said they will only sign an agreement if it protects their current use. The Nile is Egypt's only perennial river and nearly 100% of its flow originates outside the country's borders. 'Egypt's share of the Nile's water is a historic right that Egypt has defended throughout its history,' Mohammed Allam (minister of water resources and irrigation) told parliament after a round of failed negotiations in May. 'Egypt reserves the right to take whatever course it sees suitable to safeguard its share.'

A major benefit to the commission is the exchange of information about planned projects. According to Cascao, 'The alternative, and I would say worst case scenario, is unilateral construction of infrastructure, not taking care to inform downstream countries and just building. The world has changed a little bit recently and the World Bank and bilateral donors are not the only donors available any more. The case of China shows this very well. China is supporting a lot of projects - roads, dams, irrigation schemes - in these countries already.'

The Nile Basin Initiative will meet again in autumn to reconsider the treaty.

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