NBI: mechanisms of water diplomacy and their relevance

This section provides analysis and discussion of the different complementary and reinforcing mechanisms of water diplomacy promoted under the NBI process. As we are talking about processes that are still ongoing and work-in-progress, it would not be appropriate to pass finaljudgment about success or failure. The purpose is rather to analyze and debate their actual and/or potential contribution to the transformation of the conflict in the Nile Basin, as well as the challenges that come with it.

Legal-political mechanisms of water diplomacy

The hydropolitical disputes in the Nile Basin have long been associated with legal agreements. It is out of the scope of this chapter to analyze the intricacies of these agreements, but rather to briefly refer to the implications of the negotiations of a new Nile agreement to the NBI’s institutional sustainability and even to the NBI’s raison d’être.

The CFA negotiations initiated in 1997 among all riparians aimed at reconciling the interests of all in a basin-wide legal agreement, while simultaneously providing the legal and institutional basis for the establishment of a permanent RBO, to replace the transitional NBI.8 With the end of the negotiations in 2007, and the decision by upstream countries to go ahead with a signature in 2010, and the subsequent withdrawal of Sudan and Egypt from the process and freezing of participation in the NBI (Sudan returned fully in 2012), the current hydropolitical situation has evolved into a very complex one, nevertheless not one without possible legal-political solutions.9

Because of the disagreement on the political track, Egypt considers the technical track to be delegitimized as well. For Egypt, the two cooperation tracks cannot be understood separately. The Egyptian authorities strongly criticize the decision of the upstream countries to move ahead with the signature of the CFA, while the reservations of the downstreamer and pending issues were not addressed.10 Consequently, Egypt considers the technical track to not have legal or political legitimacy to continue its work before a solution for the legal-political quandary is found, and calls for the resumption of the negotiations. On the other side, the CFA’s signatory countries do not agree, claiming that the negotiations over the CFA have been concluded per the rules of the CFA Negotiation Procedures, to which Egypt has been a party, which namely stipulated that the agreement could enter into force after the deposit of six ratification instruments.11

As of mid-2019, three countries—Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Tanzania (respectively in 2011, 2012, and 2015)—have ratified, while Kenya and Uganda are finalizing their ratification processes and aiming at depositing soon. This indicates that riparians are at a crossroads between adopting the CFA as a basin-wide agreement and having a legal process lingering for a long period over political disagreements. See Figure 7.2 for a timeline of NBI legal-political mechanisms.

In a nutshell, there is still no basin-wide agreement—the NBI operates under a transitional institutional arrangement and the absence of

NBI legal-political mechanisms

Figure 7.2 NBI legal-political mechanisms.

Egypt makes the dialogue about technical and strategic cooperation more challenging and incomplete. However, the continuous uninterrupted engagement of the other riparians in the N BI clearly shows that countries are still committed to basin-wide cooperation.

However, for the purposes of this chapter, the main question is: Besides the mechanisms already mentioned, what have been the specific tools of water diplomacy that the NBI has been employing to find a solution for this legal-political quandary? Several attempts have been made to re-establish the dialogue and address pending issues. A dual approach can be observed. On the one side, the NBI attempted to avoid that dialogue which had been established earlier would loosen, while, on the other hand, preventing that the level of confidence would deteriorate further. A deliberate effort was therefore made to utilize informal ways of engaging with Egypt, for example through enabling a continued flow of information from the NBI’s work, encouraging participation in major public events such as the Nile Basin Development Forum12 or Nile Day Celebrations, continued engagement with water professionals from Egypt, and targeted third-party facilitated events such as study tours and trainings.13

These more informal processes have been essential to approach the different parties and foster dialogue aimed at analyzing and finding solutions for pending issues. The role of the NBI has varied between being the facilitator of such forums and being an active participant in externally organized events, side by side with official representatives from the riparians.14 It is difficult to judge the effectiveness of such informal processes, but they have been fundamental for sustaining dialogue between Egypt and upstream neighbors since 2010.

On the other side, a long period of direct diplomatic efforts led by the Nile countries, and in particular the Nile-COM, continued. One of the main high-level political attempts in that direction has been a process led by the Nile-COM and facilitated by the NBI executive director. Between 2015 and 2017, several consultations at the level of Nile-COM were held, and a special committee (comprised of Sudan, Uganda, and Rwanda) was established to re-engage with Egypt, all of which culminated in an Extraordinary Nile-COM Meeting in March 2017.15 In this process Egypt set out its areas of concern, however no jointly acceptable way forward could be agreed that would enable Egypt to resume participation in the NBI. This was followed by even higher-level talks (between ministries of water and foreign affairs) not only about pending issues but also about expanding the scope of cooperation toward wider regional cooperation and integration. These talks culminated in the first Summit of Nile Basin Heads of State that took place in Uganda, in June 2017. However, no solution was found and the impasse regarding Egypt's re-engagement in the NB1 processes) remains.

Despite the fact that a political solution was not (yet) achieved at the first Nile Heads of State Summit, an analysis of the process shows how the NBI governance structure had been able to mobilize all riparian countries, including Egypt, to find a solution at the highest political level. The Nile-COM in particular has been the main mobilizing force of this process, especially the representatives of the Troika (Uganda, Sudan, and Rwanda), who worked closely with the ministries of foreign affairs and presidential cabinets. During this process, the NBI-Secretariat has provided background support to the Nile-COM.

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