The Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi may soon sign an accord on water usage from the Nile River, paving the way for ratification of a pact that strips Egypt of its rights to the flow from the world’s longest river.
The leaders of the two nations are set to adopt the so-called Comprehensive Framework Agreement once they “fully understand” the issues, Ethiopian Deputy Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn said in an interview in Addis Ababa, the capital, on Jan. 15. One of the stipulations of the CFA is that it should be signed by Aug. 1.
A 1929 treaty brokered by the former colonial power, Britain, granted Egypt a veto over projects that may alter the flow of the Nile. A 1959 pact between Egypt and Sudan claimed 90 percent of the Nile’s flow for the two countries. The CFA, signed by Ethiopia, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya in May, will establish a commission to oversee dam building and irrigation development, effectively stripping Egypt of the veto. Almost all of Egypt’s water supply comes from the Nile.
Egypt and Sudan need to understand “there is no way out without cooperating,” said Hailemariam, who is also Ethiopia’s foreign minister. Not only was Ethiopia not party to the two treaties, but they are also “obsolete and unjust.”
“It’s very important we have a clear understanding of using the Nile water together, with a win-win approach,” he said.
Egypt’s position is for negotiations to continue with Nile-basin countries, Egyptian Cabinet Spokesman Magdy Rady said in a phone interview today.
“This accord must not just focus on water rights, but on development in the countries involved,” he said. “Egypt is already working on project to increase the efficiency of water use in Nile basin countries.”
Egypt warned in April, before the five countries signed the accord, that it would withdraw from the Nile Basin Initiative, a World Bank-funded program aimed at resolving disputes over the river’s water, if the seven upstream states signed the accord. A sixth signatory is needed for the CFA to come into force and once it has been ratified by the six national legislatures, a Nile Basin Commission will be created. The remaining upstream nation, Eritrea, wasn’t involved in talks leading to the accord.
Congo’s position on the CFA hasn’t been determined yet, Environment Minister Jose Endundu said by phone yesterday from Kinshasa, the Congolese capital. “It depends on the Council of Ministers and at this stage no position has been taken,” he said. He didn’t know when the council would take up the matter.
Twelve phone calls and a text message to Burundian government spokesman Philippe Nzobonariba weren’t answered when Bloomberg sought comment today. Jean Marie Nibirantije, Burundi’s Minister of Water, Environment, Territorial Planning and Urban Development, had his phone turned off when Bloomberg called for comment.
Congo and Burundi spearheaded the drafting of the CFA and for them not to sign would raise questions about their “integrity,” Hailemariam said.
The CFA states that the commission will resolve the issue of water security in its first six months of operations. Efficiency measures proposed under the CFA would provide enough water for all upstream countries without reducing Sudan and Egypt’s share, Hailemariam said.
Evaporation from Egypt’s Aswan Dam causes the loss of 10 billion cubic meters (353 billion cubic feet) of water annually, which could be saved if a dam was built in the narrow gorges of the Ethiopian highlands, according to Hailemariam. Investment in modernising Egypt’s irrigation system could save another 6 billion meters; some of the 13.4 billion that flows into the Mediterranean Sea could be utilised; and 5 billion would be saved if Egypt ended its project to irrigate the Tushka Desert.
The Nile River’s average discharge is about 300 million cubic meters per day, according to the website of the Nile Basin Initiative. Ethiopia is the source of about 85 percent of the water that flows to Sudan and Egypt.
The proposed measures may save a total of as much as 20 cubic billon meters, Hailemariam said, while upstream nations need “less than 10 billion cubic meters” of additional water. In addition, Ethiopia’s Nile Basin has the potential to generate 10,000-megawatts of hydropower, he said. This could be shared with all Nile countries if it was developed, without reducing the river’s flow.
“There are lots of technical and political ways of doing things without significantly harming Egypt or Sudan,” he said. The “common ideas” of upstream countries mean Egypt’s decades-long attempts to maintain the status quo by weakening and destabilizing Ethiopia has to change, Hailemariam said. Other realities, such as climate change and Ethiopia’s rapid development and stability, also mean Egypt “must come out of its comfort zone and think in a different way”.
Military conflict over the river would be a “disaster for all sides” and is very unlikely, the minister said. “There is no way Ethiopia can harm Egypt as the interconnection is so high. One cannot trouble the other if we want to prosper.”
Successful development projects in its Nile Basin, such as the construction of the Tana Beles and Tekeze hydropower plants over the past two years, demonstrate that Ethiopia will forge ahead, even amid objections by its northern neighbor, Hailemariam said.