Archive for June, 2014

Dr. Salman M.A. Salman: Entry into Force of the UN Watercourses Convention – Where are the Nile Basin Countries?

Monday, June 2nd, 2014

The following post, by Dr. Salman M. A. Salman, is the second in the series of essays related to the entering into force of the 1997 UN Watercourses Convention (see links to all of the essays here). Dr. Salman is an academic researcher and consultant on water law and policy. Until 2009, Dr. Salman served as Lead Council and Water Law Adviser for the World Bank. He can be reached at SalmanMASalman [at] This post is being published simultaneously in this blog as well as in Dr. Salman personal web site (

The year 1997 was a defining point in history for both the Nile Basin countries and the UN Watercourses Convention. At the beginning of that year, informal contacts facilitated by The World Bank and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) resulted in a preliminary agreement to establish, for the first time, a forum inclusive of all the Nile riparian countries. In May of the same year, the UN General Assembly (UNGA) adopted the UN Watercourses Convention by a large majority, paving the way for its entry into force and effect. Unfortunately, that point in history also turned out to be a departure point as none of the Nile riparian countries became a party to the UN Convention. This essay addresses the reasons behind this sad fact.

Pursuant to the 1997 contacts and the subsequent facilitation by the World Bank and UNDP, the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) was formally established by the Nile Basin states at the meeting of their Ministers of Water Resources in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, February 22, 1999. The Agreed Minutes of the meeting, signed by the Ministers in attendance, included the overall framework for the NBI and its institutional structure and functions. NBI is guided by a shared vision “to achieve sustainable socio-economic development through equitable utilization of, and benefit from, the common Nile Basin water resources” (see here). The main objective of the NBI was to negotiate and conclude a cooperative framework agreement that would incorporate the principles, structures and institutions of the NBI, and that would be inclusive of all Nile riparians.


The Nile River Basin. Source: Nile Basin Initiative

The Nile River Basin. Source: Nile Basin Initiative

Work on the Nile Basin Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) commenced immediately after the NBI was formally established in 1999, and continued for more than ten years. However, the process ran into major difficulties as a result of the resurfacing and hardening of the respective positions of the riparians. Egypt and Sudan, the two lower riparians, insisted on the validity and binding obligations on the upper riaprians of the treaties concluded in 1902 and 1929, which the upstream riparians have persistently and completely rejected. Those two treaties purportedly give Egypt and Sudan veto power over any project in any of the upper riparian states. Moreover Egypt and Sudan insisted on their claims to their acquired rights and uses of the Nile waters under the 1959 Nile Waters Agreement, which the upper riaprians also squarely rejected since it left no Nile waters for them. Those differences persisted and could not be resolved at the negotiations level. They were eventually taken to three ministerial meetings in Kinshasa, Alexandria, and Sharm El-Sheikh in 2009 and 2010. However, these meetings failed to resolve these issues and no agreement on the final draft CFA was reached.

On May 14, 2010, four of the Nile riparians (Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda) signed the CFA. They were joined five days later by Kenya, and by then Burundi on February 28, 2011. Although the Democratic Republic of Congo and the newly independent nation of South Sudan both indicated their support for the CFA, neither has signed or become a party to the instrument. Ethiopia eventually ratified the CFA in June 2013, but no other signatory state followed. The CFA needs six ratifications to enter into force and effect.

Egypt and Sudan vehemently oppose the signed version of the CFA because it does not incorporate their concerns under the 1902, 1929 and 1959 treaties. As a result, the division of the Nile basin countries into lower and upper riparians have sharpened and escalated.

Similar to the UN Watercourses Convention, the CFA lays down basic principles for the protection, use, conservation and development of the Nile Basin. These include cooperation among the states of the Nile River Basin on the basis of sovereign equality, territorial integrity, mutual benefit and good faith, sustainable development, equitable and reasonable utilization, and prevention of significant harm, as well as procedures for settlement of disputes. Cooperation is clearly and unequivocally the defining and common theme of the two instruments.

Yet, despite the similarities between the two instruments, the position of the Nile-riparian countries toward the UN Convention varies significantly. When the Convention came before the UNGA, Kenya and Sudan voted in favor, while Burundi joined Turkey and China in their negative vote. Egypt, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Rwanda abstained, each for different reasons, while Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Eritrea did not participate in the vote. As of today, none of the Nile riparian countries has signed or ratified the UN Watercourses Convention; not even Kenya or Sudan, which voted for the Convention. In contrast, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and Rwanda signed the CFA, and Ethiopia ratified it.

This may seem baffling. Why would the six countries that signed the CFA refuse to join the UN Watercourses Convention, given that the CFA is derived from and largely based on the Convention? The answer rests with the controversies surrounding the Nile treaties referred to above. The six upper riparians that signed the CFA do not want to be parties to a Convention that includes clear and detailed obligations for the notification of other riparians of planned measures and projects in their territories that may affect the Nile. They are concerned that such notification obligations would be construed by Egypt and Sudan as recognition of the 1902 and 1929 treaties that give Egypt and Sudan veto power over upstream activities. Indeed, this is the main reason that the CFA does not include provisions on notification, only on exchange of data and information.

On the other hand, Egypt and Sudan cling strongly to their historical rights and uses and both believe that the UN Watercourses Convention tilts towards equitable and reasonable utilization at the expense of the obligation not to cause significant harm. As lower riparians with claimed historical rights over the Nile waters, their cardinal principle is the obligation not to cause significant harm. They read the decision of the International Court of Justice in the Gabcikovo-Nagymaros Project case (Hungary/Slovakia) (ICJ 1997) as heightening and underscoring their concern that the Convention may have subordinated this obligation to the principle of equitable utilization. For this reason, they would not accede to the Convention.

Thus, for the eleven Nile riparian countries, accession to the UN Watercourses Convention is deeply intertwined with the controversies regarding the so-called “colonial Nile treaties.” In particular, Egypt and Sudan’s position reflects a major failure by both countries to view cooperation, equitable and reasonable utilization, and the obligation not to cause significant harm, as all closely related and interwoven, and not as separable elements of international water law.  Thus, any attempt to resolve the pending issues under the CFA, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), or accession to the UN Watercourses Convention will prove futile until Egypt and Sudan recognize that these treaties are outdated and non-functional because they have simply been totally ignored by the other riparians, both in theory and in practice.

Indeed, it is time for both Egypt and Sudan to remove these “colonial treaties” out of the flow of Nile negotiations and to join both the CFA and the Convention. Such a bold, albeit realistic, step would generate a new and genuine spirit for cooperation among the Nile states, and reignite the world community’s goodwill for the region. It will also pave the way for an equitable sharing of the benefits of the common Nile waters by the eleven riparians, without real harm to either Egypt or Sudan.

In turn, these events will no doubt end the current sad state of affairs of conflict and disputes over the Nile, and help lift the 300 million inhabitants of the Nile from their ever-increasing misery, poverty and underdevelopment. After all, the vision of the NBI itself, which Egypt and Sudan subscribed to in 1999, is to achieve sustainable socio-economic development through equitable utilization of, and benefit from, the common Nile Basin water resources. Indeed, this is what both the CFA and the Convention are about.

You can find prior IWLP Blog posts on the CFA and NBI here, here, here, and here.