Accord or Discord on the Nile? – Part I

Its always a good day when nations come to terms over shared fresh water resources, especially in the more parched regions of the world. Hence, it was a wonderful turn of events when various news agencies (e.g., here, here, here, here, and here) reported recently that the nations of the Nile River Basin had reached an accord over the waters of one of the most disputed rivers in the world. On 14 May 2010, the countries of Ethiopia, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda signed the Agreement on the Nile River Basin Cooperative Framework (CFA); Kenya added its signature five days later.

To read it in the news release of the Nile Basin Initiative, a partnership created in 1999 among all of the Nile riparians minus Eritrea (which has observer status at the Initiative) to seek this very accord, readers might think that all serious controversies had been resolved by the nations that share the waters of the Nile (the five that signed the CFA plus Burundi, D.R. Congo, Egypt, Eritrea, and Sudan). Behind the veneer, though, the achievement remains hamstrung by the ages-old controversy plaguing many riverine nations on transboundary watercourses – the upstream-downstream dispute. As reported, though possibly understated, by some of the news agencies, the most downstream riparians on the Nile River are refusing to join their upstream neighbors in the agreement. Both Egypt and Sudan, who have already allocated around 90% of the Nile’s waters between themselves under a 1959 treaty (Egypt also claims a veto right over upstream hydro projects under a 1929 agreement with Britain, the region’s former colonial overseer), have raised serious objections to the new agreement.

Sudan and especially Egypt have long claimed historical rights to the waters of the Nile River based on their dozens of centuries of use and reliance on the watercourse. Their argument is grounded in the notion that older, established rights are superior to more recent claims and is akin to the prior appropriation system used in most of the western United States. Moreover, both countries are highly dependent on the Nile’s waters for maintaining their development and living standards and Egypt has raised the specter of national security as justification for defending its claims.

The difficulty with this position, at least from the perspective of the upper riparians, is that because Egypt and Sudan have made claims to the vast majority of the Nile’s waters, little is left for the peoples of the other eight nations. Moreover, international water law has tended to shun absolute claims of right and has opted for more flexible principles, such as equitable and reasonable use, which allow the possibility that nations’ rights to shared waters may be adjusted in response to changing circumstances.

Egypt, however, has also raised a more novel argument by differentiating between the Nile River and the Nile Basin. While the former carries between 90-100 billion cubic meters of water down the watercourse, the latter actually receives some 1,660 billion cubic meters of rainfall, 85 percent of which falls on the Ethiopian high plateau and the rest over the other upstream nations. Those upstream riparians, Egypt contends, should focus their efforts and claims on developing the vast volume of untapped waters that are otherwise lost to evaporation and infiltration. Notably, Egypt has offered to cooperate on and assist with such water development projects.

As it stands, five nations have signed the CFA and Burundi and DR Congo have indicated they may add their marks in the near future. Actual ratification, though, is the gold standard in international law and the CFA requires six ratifications before it can come into force. To date, none of the Nile riaprians have ratified the accord.

And, what about the accord itself?  Surprisingly, it is nowhere to be found. An extensive online search for the CFA found no direct or indirect hits (other than the news stories about the agreement). It also revealed that even the upstream nations who signed the agreement have not provided its text on their official websites. Moreover, queries to colleagues and contacts around the world, some of whom are well placed, produced nothing (well, almost – see my next IWLP blog posting).

Why would countries sign on to a new treaty, announce the event in a very public process, and then neglect to provide the text of what they agreed to? It seems a rather strange set of circumstances. Of course, this merely may be a pardonable oversight. Moreover, it may be that the text of the CFA is available elsewhere (though, none of my contacts can figure out where). Nonetheless, in this modern information age where public access is often defined by availability on the Internet (even in Africa), and where nearly every bit of text produced on Earth that is fit to print appears first on the Internet, the CFA is conspicuously absent.

The exclusion of the CFA from the public, though, is likely a function of the ongoing upstream-downstream discord that remains among the Nile’s riparians pitting Egypt and Sudan on one side and the remaining riparians on the other. Maybe the Nile Basin nations want to present a more harmonious front when revealing the treaty, or maybe they fear scrutiny of the agreement before it is finalized. Yet, agreements forged behind closed doors, even those that merely give the appearance of secrecy, often falter because of the lack of public support. And since it is the people of the Nile that are at the core of this agreement and who stand to benefit from a more cooperative sharing of the watercourse, the agreement should be made public even though it has yet to be endorsed by all of the Nile Basin governments.

To date, with one exception (by Business Daily, which, for a business-oriented publication, offered a surprisingly rosy assessment of the accord), there has been no review or assessment of the rights and obligations that would be created under this new arrangement. Having finally procured a copy of my own, here is my brief take on the CFA.

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