A Breakthrough in Cooperation on the Nile?

Stimson Spotlight

A Breakthrough in Cooperation on the Nile?

Last week, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan signed a landmark “Declaration of Principles” on the development of the Nile, provisionally defusing years of tensions between the three riparian nations over their respective rights to the river’s vital waters. Yet until the specifics are hammered out in more detail, the future sustainability of this contentious basin remains unclear.

The framework declaration, signed jointly by the presidents of Egypt and Sudan and the prime minister of Ethiopia, focuses on the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile in Ethiopia, nine miles east of the border with Sudan.  

For Ethiopia, the Grand Renaissance Dam promises energy and economic development. Once complete, the 6000 megawatt project will be the largest hydroelectric plant in Africa. In a country where 83 percent of the population lacks access to electricity, the dam will provide power for domestic use as well as for export.

For Egypt, though, the dam raises existential apprehensions. Egypt receives almost no rainfall. It depends on the Nile for 97 percent of its renewable water resources. The Nile, in turn, depends on Ethiopia. More than four-fifths of the water in the river first falls as rain in the Ethiopian highlands, draining into the Blue Nile before it joins the White Nile in Sudan on its course north into Egypt. So while Ethiopia maintains that the GERD’s operations won’t harm its neighbors, Egypt fears that the mile-long, 560-foot-tall dam could affect its own essential water supplies, threatening the country’s lifeblood.

Cairo’s concerns are not unfounded. The dam will hold back a reservoir of 63 billion cubic meters of water, equivalent to about three-quarters of the Nile’s annual average flow. Filling this reservoir, a process that will take several years, will necessarily diminish the river’s flows to Egypt and Sudan downstream.  If managed cooperatively, however, this temporary loss could be minimized, and ultimately offset by the creation of a significant amount of water storage that could potentially be used to increase the Nile’s flow during dry periods. 

Historically, rights to the use of the Nile have been determined by two colonial-era treaties concluded when most of the basin countries remained under British rule. The Nile Waters Agreement of 1929 and the 1959 Nile Waters Treaty effectively assigned all of the river’s annual flow to Egypt and Sudan, allotting no rights to any of the upstream nations. Ethiopia contested this uneven allocation even before the 1959 treaty was completed and has long asserted its right to develop the Nile waters within its territory.

In 1999, all of the basin countries together launched the Nile Basin Initiative “To achieve sustainable socio-economic development through equitable utilization of, and benefit from, the common Nile Basin water resources.” The initiative was conceived as a transitional platform for the joint planning and implementation of water infrastructure and management pending the negotiation of a Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) and permanent basin institutions among the riparians. Yet the subsequent results proved decidedly mixed. Egypt and Sudan steadfastly rejected the proposed CFA, objecting that it failed to ensure their historical rights and protect their water security. Ultimately seven of the basin states moved to proceed without Cairo and Khartoum, opening the Agreement for signature in 2010. 

The following year, with diplomatic progress stalled, Ethiopia laid the cornerstone for GERD.  By May 2013, as construction proceeded, builders began partially diverting the Nile from its bed. Egyptian policy makers reacted with immediate alarm. That June, then president Mohammad Morsi convened a special cabinet meeting to discuss the dam’s potential impacts. Unaware that their deliberations were being broadcast live on state-owned television, Egyptian parliamentarians overtly debated dispatching spies to sabotage the dam or funding Ethiopian rebels to attack the government.

Against this backdrop, the new declaration signals a significant shift in rhetoric. No longer at daggers drawn, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan have instead drawn up a collective agreement pledging all three countries to “utilize their shared water sources in their respective territories in an equitable and reasonable manner,” and to “cooperate based on common understanding, mutual benefit, good faith, win-win, and principles of international law.”

As an official, high-level diplomatic accord encompassing all three of the principal antagonists on the Nile, the Declaration of Principles represents a critical contribution toward mutually beneficial development of this shared river. Crucially, however, continued collaboration will depend on transforming the text’s broadly harmonious language into effectively cooperative practice. Principle five of the declaration, for example, commits the three countries to utilize the findings of an international panel of experts and a technical committee in order to formulate guidelines for the annual operation of the Grand Renaissance Dam and for the initial filling of its reservoir.  Yet the declaration pushes the actual negotiation and agreement of these procedures off into the future. Similarly, principle ten pledges the countries to the amicable settlement of any disputes which may arise, but does not establish any concrete or binding conflict resolution mechanisms for them to do so. 

To build on the foundation established by the declaration, continued cooperation will have to detail and formalize these pledges. That means establishing and empowering specific coordinating bodies and spelling out dispute resolution mechanisms, among other approaches.  The agreement reached by Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan last week was a first step, and in light of recent history, both an essential and major one. It will just take many more steps before peaceful, cooperative governance is assured in the greater Nile Basin.  

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Photo credit: Rod Waddington via flickr