Accord or Discord on the Nile? – Part II

Before giving my assessment of the Agreement on the Nile River Basin Cooperative Framework (CFA), a brief caveat. As you will see from the copy I procured, the document has some formatting defects (e.g., different font sizes, a few color changes, non-consecutive numbering, variations in indentation spaces, etc.). While I (and my sources) cannot vouch that this is the final edition of the agreement that was opened for signature on 14 may 2010, it appears to be a near final version. Accordingly, you should consider my comments with a grain of salt.

Overall, the CFA appears to be in line with some of the more comprehensive transboundary waters agreements, spelling out in some detail the legal bases upon which the region’s hydro-relationship is to be forged and articulating the rights and obligations of the parties. To that extent, it is a valiant and meaningful effort at achieving a functional and worthwhile accord. Those of you who would prefer hard numbers and provisions on allocations, though, may be disappointed – the agreement is fundamentally about principles.

The most noteworthy aspect of the agreement is Part III, which creates the Nile River Basin Commission. The significance of this section is that it establishes a mechanism for facilitating cooperation and preventing disputes, one of the core objectives of the CFA. Moreover, and possibly most important, it creates space for discussing sensitive issues outside the political realm thereby minimizing the hyperbole and gridlock that often plagues international politics. And the Nile River Basin is no stranger to political hyperbole and gridlock …

Of course, the creation of a supranational institutional apparatus will not guarantee harmony on the Nile. Its success will greatly depend on whether the parties to the CFA implement the provisions for its creation and operation, as well as the degree to which they place their trust in it. Nevertheless, the design of the institution is somewhat similar to that of the Organization for the Development of the Senegal River, known by its French acronym OMVS (Organisation pour la Mise en Valeur du Fleuve Sénégal), a rather successful transboundary water management mechanism. Indeed, if the countries of the Nile Basin actually follow the OMVS paradigm for cooperation, there could be a very bright future for the region.

Other sections of the CFA that deserve mention include Part II and III, which articulate the legal principles underpinning the agreement and the relationships of the riparians as they pertain to the management of the Nile River. While the extent to which these doctrines are defined or explained varies in the agreement, having an established core set of values and rules bolsters the likelihood of the CFA’s success.

Of the principles presented, most are well recognized under international water law, including those of cooperation, equitable and reasonable utilization, no significant harm, and exchange of data and information. The CFA, however, proffers a number of legal doctrines that are not in the mainstream. For example, while the notion of subsidiarity often appears in other contexts, it has rarely been invoked explicitly in the framework of transboundary water management and regulation. Article 3(3) briefly defines the principle as “development and protection of the Nile River Basin water resources [that] is planned and implemented at the lowest appropriate level.” Furthermore, Article 10(a) elaborates on this notion by emphasizing that State Parties to the CFA “shall … allow all those within a State who will or may be affected by the project in that State to participate in an appropriate way in the planning and implementation process.” Given the disparate geographies, climatic conditions, economics, and other factors that are found along the length of the Nile and its tributaries, this is a welcomed progressive addition that enhances participation and democratizes the management of the River.

Possibly the most interesting, and certainly the most controversial, provision of the CFA is contained in Article 14, which recognizes “the vital importance of water security” to each of the Nile’s riparians and acknowledges the achievement of such security through “the cooperation management and development of waters of the Nile River System.” Under Article 2(f), “water security” is defined as “the right of all Nile Basin States to reliable access to and use of the Nile River system for health, agriculture, livelihoods, production and environment.” As such, it implicates a legal right, held by each of the riparians, to an amount of water that is adequate to fulfill the needs of all of these sectors. Read in isolation, such a right might seem quite reasonable, possibly even noble. However, given the degree of water scarcity that is typically of the region, this ideal must recede in the face of reality. What remains is an aspirational goal that must be balanced against the availability of water in the watercourse. Certainly, Article 14(a) creates a relatively lose obligation that requires Nile Basin States “to work together to ensure that all states achieve and sustain water security.” That provisions, though, does not impose individual liability or dictate reductions of water withdrawals in relation to the achievement of this goal. That possibility was left to Article 14(b).

As might be imagined, Egypt and Sudan objected to such a mechanism. As originally drafted, Article 14(b) had Nile Basins States agreeing “not to significantly affect the water security of any other Nile Basin State.” If implemented, this provision might have been used to find states individually responsible for its violation and, thereby, affect those states’ withdrawals. In sharp contrast, Egypt proposed (with Sudan as its lone supporter) that the Nile’s riparians be bound “not to adversely affect the water security and current uses and rights of any other Nile Basin State.” In other words, Egypt sought to modify the notion of water security in relation to states’ current uses and withdrawals, certainly in relation to its own historical claims [see my prior posting on this issue].

In a surprising move, the members of the Nile Basin Initiative – the partnership composed of the nine Nile riparians that drafted the CFA – decided to move ahead with the CFA minus Article 14(b). In its stead, they put a placeholder indicating that “the issue on the Article 14(b) be annexed and resolved by the Nile River Basin Commission within six months of its establishment.” This is rather an amazing procedure given the importance of the issue for all of the Nile’s riparians, especially for Egypt and Sudan, and because it implicates that the latter two countries would join the accord in order to revisit the dispute. If it wasn’t for the two lower riparians’ subsequent refusal to sign the agreement and their rather strong language in objecting to its implementation by the river’s upper riparians, you might think that peace had reigned over this troubled region. Still, recent reports (e.g., here and here) suggest that the two dissenters are willing to continue negotiating over the provision and the agreement in general. Hence, hope remains.

Ultimately, though, if it wasn’t for the encouragement and support (including financial) by international institutions and western nations, it is unlikely that the initiative would have progressed this far. The United States, Europe, the World Bank and other entities must become more engaged in advancing this effort. The nations of the Nile River have made considerable progress in drafting the CFA. It would be a real shame if they could not finalize the accord and realize its potential. It would be an even bigger shame if the breakdown in negotiations escalated tensions in the region.

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