Institutional mechanisms of water diplomacy

When the NBI came into existence in 1999, it was the first institutional setup in the Nile Basin that included all riparians, contrary to previous cooperative attempts in the basin. Institutional mechanisms of water diplomacy are an effort the N BI has been pursuing to put participatory and basin-wide cooperation on robust, lasting organizational-cum-institutional architecture as developed, financed, and owned by the Nile riparian states. For that matter, the NBI still is the only existing institutional platform with a mandate for hydropolitical cooperation in the basin, despite the fact that Egypt has frozen (but not withdrawn) its participation in the NBI.

The analysis of the NBI processes as an institutional mechanism of water diplomacy shows two different periods. The first was prior to 2010, when Egypt and Sudan froze their participation in the NBI because of disagreements in the political track. Up until then, the NBI was the platform being used and promoted for dialogue and confidence-building among all parties, the forum where countries could discuss and decide upon technical issues of interest to all— this included knowledge and strategic planning tools, but also to advance talks about future investments in the basin, their opportunities, risks, and trade-offs. The roles of the three NBI centers were well defined, as were the governance structures, and the stakeholder involvement mechanisms—countries were jointly working toward a Shared Vision, under the guidance and oversight of Nile-TAC and Nile-COM, the highest decision-making bodies of the NBI. See Figure 7.3 for a timeline of institutional mechanisms in the two different periods.

NBI milestones of institutional mechanisms of water diplomacy

Figure 7.3 NBI milestones of institutional mechanisms of water diplomacy.

However, the NBI was designed as a transitional arrangement pending the conclusion of a new legal and institutional framework (the CFA) then being negotiated under the political track. Although the technical (NBI) and political (negotiations over the CFA) processes were conducted in parallel, the fact is that since 2010 the CFA process is in a pending status. As mentioned earlier, so far only three countries have finalized ratification of the CFA, and one country—Egypt—is not exercising its membership while Sudan came back to the NBI in 2012.16 This pending situation negatively affected the modus operandi of the NBI in institutional, financial, and political terms. Regardless of the challenges, the NBI’s core orientation remains unchanged: to promote dialogue and enable negotiations between the Nile riparians in their search for workable solutions. Since 2008 the three core functions of the NBI are clearly spelled out: (1) Water Resource Management, (2) Water Resources Development, and (3) Facilitating basin cooperation.17 As such, the NBI actually has a clearly articulated water diplomacy-related mandate of facilitating cooperation. The NBI has done so in many different ways in the past, most notably through the Shared Vision programs of Confidence Building and Stakeholders Involvement or Applied Training, but mainly through organizing and preparing hundreds of meetings between and across different stakeholders at different levels: political (Nile-COM, EN-COM and NEL-COM), technical (Nile-TAC, regional expert working groups,18 national consultations), research community (especially through the Nile Basin Development Forums,19 a science-policy dialogue platform organized by the NBI), and civil society (especially regarding media coverage).

Since the beginning of the second decade of its existence, the NBI process has been focusing on enabling technical decision-making processes pertaining to joint planning, management, and development of water resources. The engagement of member states has been systematically broadened through the establishment of mandated regional expert working groups for key areas of technical cooperation (e.g., wetlands, hydrological monitoring, strategic water assessment). This has created a closer link between the NB1 centers and the national governance structures (not limited to the water sector). It is worth highlighting that all these latest developments have been taking place against a background of complex hydropolitical, geopolitical, and regional political changes.

The cumulative effects of these institutional mechanisms are: (a) consolidation of a formal governance platform and procedures related to basin development—in the form of established intergovernmental procedures and regular meetings that enable countries to deliberate in a structured manner on common issues and (b) gradual emergence and consolidation of not-so-formal yet critical norms and values that guide the cooperation process, and that find their expression in a multitude of joint consultations, joint recommendations, policy decisions, and joint investment projects. All meetings and processes have facilitated a constant feedback between technical and political tracks of cooperation; enabled a renewed dialogue at national, sub-basin and basin levels; and ultimately contributed to the creation of a technical and professional Nile epistemic community.

Last but not least, over the past decade, one of the instrumental mechanisms aimed at reinforcing understanding of benefits of cooperation has been specific activities related to public participation and dialogue, namely through proactive media engagement.20 The goal has been to promote public consensus on transboundary cooperation that would eventually enable leaders and policy-makers to embark on new and bold decisions that may not necessarily be in line with national historical sanctioned narratives. These media engagements have at the same time increased the visibility of the NBI’s work— which has been often “side-lined” by the disproportional media coverage of disagreements, failed or incomplete negotiations, and/or potential conflicts.

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