Water is of critical importance to human survival. However, access to water for various uses can create contention between countries and is a “matter of life and death“, especially when such access affects by transboundary factors. A contemporary example is the controversial Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), a project running since 2011. The GERD is a source of interstate conflict because its construction occurs on the Nile River, which is the sole “reliable source for renewable water supplies” into the Nile countries like Egypt and Sudan.
Egypt and Sudan have enjoyed a considerable advantage and control of the Nile waters because of Agreements dating back to the British colonial era. The two most prominent agreements were signed between Egypt and Britain in 1929, and, Egypt and Sudan in 1959. The 1929 Agreement between Britain and Egypt, “established right amounts to 48 milliards of cubic meters per year measured at Aswan” in favour of Egypt and to satisfy the colonial ambitions of the British through the Egyptian-run Suez Canal, while the 1959 Agreement between Britain and Sudan established right amounts to 4 milliards cubic meters per year for Sudan. However, the two Agreements failed to acknowledge the importance of the Nile to the survival of Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, and Ethiopia that is supplying 70% to 80% of the Nile waters.
The reliance of Egypt and Sudan on the Nile waters to support “agriculture and transportation“, industry, and the provision of drinking water is completely understandable but not to the detriment of Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia especially given “changing environmental circumstances” with precipitation becoming more intermittent and periods of drought getting longer as argued by Salam Abdulqadir Abdulrahman; Head of Political Science Department, College of Law and Politics, University of Human Development, Iraq. More extended periods of drought limit access to “drinkable water” will threaten the health in contributing to the prevalence of diseases in these countries. It will contribute to malnutrition which impedes child development, worsening food insecurity with decrease agriculture production, and creates conflict within the region.
Even with the Nile Basin Initiative formed in 1999, bringing “together the then nine Nile basin countries to develop the river cooperatively, share substantial socioeconomic benefits, and promote regional peace and security”, little success has been recorded securing a “comprehensive water-sharing agreement” the countries. Ethiopia’s Blue Nile source and location of the GERD will not significantly cut the river’s flow to its rapidly growing population and will instead transform into a power hub for its electricity-hungry region was not been able to convince Egypt into an agreement.
In 2010, Nile Basin countries signed the Entebbe Agreement. The Agreement was endorsed by six upstream countries, including Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania and Burundi. However, Egypt and Sudan objected to it, and Egypt froze its membership in the same year, citing the agreement’s failure to consider the implications on Egypt’s water security. With the Agreement shifted control over the Nile away from Egypt and Sudan, the food and water security situation in Egypt could be made highly vulnerable due to its population growth and environmental factors, which have raised deep concerns amongst the nation’s political leaders about the geopolitical shift in the Nile basin region.
Multiple factors, including its deteriorating fiscal position, leave Egypt with little option but to engage in peaceful cooperation with other Nile nations to prevent future severe water scarcity; but this is taking time and escalating political tensions between the Nile countries, by pitting Egypt and Sudan against Ethiopian construction of the GERD.
A comprehensive agreement between the Nile countries will reduce the fears of water scarcity in Egypt. However, the bottom line is that only a deal that will satisfy the water demands of all Nile countries for drinking, agriculture, industry, and transport, but the dust is yet to settle. Perhaps the issues related to whom is upstream and downstream, with who contributes what percentage of the source of the Nile waters should be avoided in negotiations if any agreement is to be met. The main focus should be on how Nile waters can benefit Nile countries and contribute to the region’s development without compromising the water security of any one of them.