To change, or not to change? The transboundary water question in the Nile Basin


Transboundary water conflict/cooperation is a widely covered topic by academic literature with studies of more than 200 rivers around the world that are shared by two or more countries, and how this sharing increases the complexity of decisions on how to manage, develop and allocate water (cf. review of literature on transboundary water conflict/cooperation in Zeitoun and Mir- umachi, 2008; Zeitoun et al., 2011; Zeitoun et al., 2016). It is particularly complex in places such as the Middle East, a region already experiencing physical water scarcity — where water availability cannot anymore respond to demands - in particular in the case of the highly water-consumptive agricultural sector. African river basins are also experiencing an escalation of complexity due to higher demands for water access and infrastructure associated with fast-growing economies, increasing living standards, urbanisation and industrialisation processes and rising demands for food and energy' security. The Nile Basin is at the crossroads between these different hydropolitical realities.

This chapter aims at providing an analysis of the ‘conflict of interests and approaches’ (called paradigms hereby) in the Nile Basin, shared between 11 countries (Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Sudan, Uganda and Tanzania). The specific focus will be on the transboundary water interactions while not ignoring that they are ultimately influenced by dynamics at the national and sub-national levels. The national water availability, demands and developments are determinant in the definition of countries’ water-related national interests and the relations with the neighbouring riparians. Besides, the outcomes of trans- boundary' interactions (be it conflict, negotiations, collaboration and/or cooperation) will in return eventually influence the national and sub-national dynamics, as examples provided in the next sections will illustrate.

This chapter considers whether the fundamental question in the Nile Basin can be defined as a conflict between two different (and often understood as divergent) major paradigms: a) a paradigm that appeals to the maintenance of the current state of affairs, i.e. maintaining the existing pattern of utilisation and distribution of the Nile water resources; and, b) a paradigm that calls for shifts away from the current situation. It discusses how these two paradigms do not necessarily have to be divergent.

Background - a century of regime building and contestation

One hundred years ago, most of the Nile Basin states — including Egypt, Sudan and several of the Equatorial Nile countries — were part of the British Empire in Africa. The British have built systematic knowledge about the river, its geography and hydrology, and had, to a great extent, identified the relevant potential for irrigated agriculture and associated storage capacities along the Nile’s multiple tributaries. The comprehensive and ambitious Nile’s ‘Century Storage Plan’ was built based on decades of detailed studies carried out by British and Egyptian engineers (Tvedt, 2004). The main goal of the Plan was to achieve full control over the Nile, namely by regulating its extremely uneven flows, to optimise the water development potential in order to increase the agricultural output of large-scale agriculture projects in Egypt and Sudan (Waterbury, 1979). The Owen Falls Dam in Uganda and the Sennar and Jebel Aulia Dams in Sudan are projects that were built at different stages to serve those purposes. The big absence in the Century Storage Plan was Ethiopia’s section of the Nile, because this country was an independent state. This absence was not at all trivial, as already by then there was clear awareness of Ethiopia’s contribution of around 85% to the total Nile flows.

In successive stages starting from Egypt’s independence in 1922, the ‘Century Storage Plan’ was side-lined and later overthrown in the 1950s when President Nasser decided that the best (and the only possible) large-scale storage of Nile waters would be the one located within the administrative borders of Egypt. The process of independence of Sudan from the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium (1952-1956) was crucial to Nasser’s decision to move forward with the construction of the High Aswan Dam (HAD), a massive over-year storage dam. This was the beginning of a new regime in the Nile more in line with Egypt’s national plans. The strongest pillar of that rising water regime was the 1959 Nile Waters Agreement, signed between Egypt and the newly independent Sudan. This agreement made possible the construction of the HAD and defined clearly the allocations - often called ‘historical rights’, of the two signatory countries (Agreement, 1959). For the past 60 years, this agreement has been the one guiding the bilateral hydropolitical relations between Egypt and Sudan and, as a by-product, influencing the relations between them and their neighbours upstream.

Meanwhile upstream, during the same long period of time, the changes have been numerous, such as processes of independence in the 1960s, internal civil conflicts and some interstate conflicts in the 1970s, the region was involved in Cold War alliances and proxy wars in the 1980s, the region has had fastgrowing populations throughout the half century, increasing demands for economic development in the 1990s, and already in the 21”' century a batch of new water development plans (Cascao, 2009). In the last decade, plans for developing the Nile have increased due to a growing inflow of national and foreign direct investment, including towards large-scale hydraulic infrastructure such as hydropower dams and irrigation schemes — and this is likely to have major impacts (Sandstrom et al., 2016). A common characteristic to these upstream countries is as follows: they did not recognise the water regime agreed by the downstream neighbours, as they were not signatories to the 1959 Agreement. Ethiopia, in particular, has contested it systematically as in practice it has contributed to preclude the development of projects in upstream countries (Salman, 2010).

Historical/current uses versus future uses: Two conflicting paradigms?

The long-lasting assumptions behind the paradigms

The argument hereby is that the main source of conflict in the Nile Basin is related to the long-lasting coexistence of two concomitant paradigms. There are two main assumptions that underpin this ideational process: first, the assumption that the Nile might be experiencing ‘basin closure’, i.e. that there are no more utilisable flows left in the basin, because all water resources are already allocated. Some authors alert for the fact that often basin closure is artificially created by over-committing water resources (Molle et al., 2010). Second, the assumption that water-related issues are a political matter and as such they can jump the queue of political priorities and be framed as a matter of national security (Zeitoun and Warner, 2006).

The combination of these two assumptions have strong impacts in decisionmaking processes over transboundary water resources — as decisions might not necessarily be guided by technical/economic rationality, but often by political agendas. The deconstruction of these assumptions is needed in order to find lasting solutions that serve the interests of all parties involved. On the one hand, the Nile riparians can jointly demystify the ‘basin closure’ assumption by embracing basin-wide solutions towards optimal utilisation of available water resources. On the other hand, riparian countries should jointly work towards a ‘regional water security’ agenda, to replace the nationalist and fragmented approaches that so far have contributed little to find holistic solutions.

Historical/existing uses paradigm

Often used average calculations refer to a total of 84 billion cubic meters (ban) of Nile water per year as measured at Aswan in Egypt. As any average, it hides enormous variations in the hydrological system. For example, the intra-annual variability due to uneven rainfall patterns that results in a runoff very much dependent on 2—4 months of rainfall in the upstream catchments, in particular in the Blue Nile and Atbara river basins (see Fig. 10.1). Besides, the average conceals an inter-annual variability characterised by long periods of drought as those experienced in the 1970s and 1980s, but as well by periodic extreme

Variability of Nile flows (Source

Figure 10.1 Variability of Nile flows (Source: Sutcliffe and Parks, 1999)

flood events. Therefore, some authors are extremely careful in using 84bcm as an annual average and suggest that it can actually be higher than that (Water- bury 1979; Blackmore and Whittington, 2008; Whittington et al., 2014).

The different views on the calculation of the annual water flow is relevant for this discussion because the 84bcm/year average has been adopted under a ceteris paribus principle, i.e. there is a rigid assumption that all other variables remain constant. It does not consider that many variables can change (e.g. climate extreme events/change, new water withdrawals, evapotranspiration rates in new projects) and thus influence the calculations of annual averages in a significant manner. But these variables cannot be overlooked.

For the proponents of the ‘historical rights’ paradigm, the 84bcm/year is the figure to be used in all analysis and debate over the Nile waters. It is also this figure that informs the 1959 ‘Agreement for the Full Utilization of the Nile Waters’ (Agreement, 1959). The title of the agreement is in itself very clear — it aims to fully allocate the total flows, and the negotiated breakdown was: 55,5bcm to Egypt, 18,5bcm to Sudan and lObcm for evapotranspiration at the reservoir of HAD once it would be built (see Art. 2(4), in Agreement, 1959). No allocations for other countries were contemplated, although the Agreement establishes procedures on how to deal with future upstream claims, namely that ‘the accepted amount shall be deducted from the shares of [Egypt and Sudan] in equal parts’ (see Art. 5(2) in Agreement, 1959). In this sentence, there is a tacit assumption that the upstream riparians would recognise and accept the Agreement, which has proven to be a delusion.

For Egypt, the figures, agreements and procedures described above are the baseline for any dialogue and negotiation regarding the Nile waters, and the backbone of its positionality vis-a-vis all its neighbours. The Nile is the main source of freshwater for this arid country and since time immemorial the Nile has played a crucial role in the political economy of Egypt, in social, cultural and economic terms. But what is the current contribution of the Nile water for Egypt’s food and energy security?

Food security

The Nile waters sustain a massive and complex irrigation system that is responsible for the agricultural production that partially contributes to Egypt’s national food security. The construction of the HAD has allowed Egypt to benefit from ‘timely water’ (instead of uneven flows), and to expand threefold the agricultural production output since the 1970s. The agricultural sector is nowadays responsible for 25% of employment in Egypt, although the sector only contributes around 12% to the national GDP - in contrast with 55% and 30% respectively back in 1971 (World Bank, 2017). Even after processes of economic diversification in the 1980s and 1990s, the employment rate in the agricultural sector keeps being a main pressure factor in Egypt's Nile policies. However, as regards food security per se: since the 1970s, the Nile-dependent agriculture has not been enough to guarantee Egypt's food self-sufficiency. According to the forthcoming new National Water Plan, it is calculated that Egypt imports around 35bcm of virtual water (water embedded in food crops) per year from the global food market (equivalent to more than 1/3 of Egypt's total current water needs). This fact has been long discussed widely in academic circles, but only recently officially recognised by the Egyptian government.

Energy security

If the Nile is key for Egypt’s employment and partially its food security, the same cannot be said about its contribution to national energy security. Hydro- power currently represents around 12% of the total installed power generation in Egypt (Ibrahim, 2012). Already by the time of planning and construction of the HAD, hydropower was only a by-product whereas irrigation expansion was the major objective. In brief, hydropower is not a central factor in Egypt’s definition of national water security.

Storage security

The maintenance of an unchanged storage of Nile waters at the HAD - calculated at 169bcm total — keeps being the central piece of Egypt’s water policy. The HAD provides Egypt with an over-year storage that allows the country to store and manage its annual historical rights, but also any water surplus in the system. For the past four decades, thanks to the HAD Egypt has actually ben- efitted from the unused water by Sudan (which did not use its 18,5bcm/year quota so far), as well as any surplus of water when annual average has surpassed the 84bcm (which has been registered in many years, e.g. in the 1990s). In practice, it means that Egypt’s de facto current uses have been above the ‘historical rights’ as defined in the 1959 Agreement.

The short description above highlights the key features of Egypt’s understanding of‘water security’ - maintenance of the current utilisation of the Nile waters (or at least the ‘historical rights’) and safeguarding the HAD will keep being the main storage facility in the Basin.

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >