Nile Politics: Egypt’s Gamble

Nile Politics: Egypt’s Gamble

October 2000. Source: Global Water Intelligence


Cabinet ministers from Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan and the six Great Lakes states met in Khartoum in August to discuss redistribution of Nile water rights. There are clear signs that Egypt is prepared to relax its position and go some way to relinquishing control of the river.

A new initiative from the Nile Basin riparian states could see water from the river shared on a more equitable basis. So far, Egypt has prevented upstream development in order to maintain its control of the Nile. Cairo’s change of tack is apparently motivated by its desire for greater regional stability and economic development.

Egypt’s historical reliance on the Nile has had international repercussions. Based on a 1959 treaty with Sudan, Egypt lays claim to the majority of the river’s annual discharge. However, Ethiopia has expressed interest in developing its water sources by building a series of micro-dams on the Blue Nile, which provides around 85% of the Nile’s flow.

Under the treaty, Ethiopia receives no share of the river's resources. Sudan, which receives a small portion of the Nile's water, cannot develop along the river without Egyptian consent. To date, increased African development of the Nile has posed serious problems for Egypt which has a rapidly increasing population and limited water sources.  


Cairo’s changed standpoint

But Cairo now wants to strengthen its international economic and political position, especially in view of the considerable drop in World Bank loans – from $550 million in 1999 to only $50 million so far this year. To foster economic growth, Cairo must first put an end to some of the region’s conflicts. Supporting Nile redistribution plans goes some way to achieving this goal.

Backed by the World Bank, the UN, several European countries and Washington, the latest plan lays the groundwork for the Nile’s economic development. If implemented, it will cancel out the 1959 treaty and redistribute water use rights among the riparian states.

Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan will form one development programme and the remaining six Great Lakes member states – Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda – will form the other joint programme.

The Nile Basin Initiative was created in 1993 to improve communication among the 10 riparians and develop ways to peacefully share the river’s resources. But it has only recently started to make real progress. The agreements reached during the Khartoum meeting on hydroelectric power development, river regulation and water resources management will be finalised at a ministerial meeting in December.


The risks involved

Some regional experts have suggested that Egypt is gambling with its future by agreeing to co-operate on the development of the Nile. The North African country needs vast quantities of water to increase agricultural production and cope with rocketing population levels. The Egyptian population is about 63 million but is expected to rise to 115 million by 2050.

To survive the consequences of such a fast growing population, Egypt has embarked on a massive development plan consisting of two mega projects.

One of these, the Toshka project, will divert Nile waters upstream into Egypt’s desert oases and increase the exploitation of groundwater sources. Toshka expects to irrigate 200,000ha of land at a cost of $88.5 billion. The plan calls for water to be taken from Lake Nasser, 200km south of the High Aswan dam and 8km north of Khoor Toshka. Water will then flow by gravity into a network of canals consisting of a main channel, the Shiekh Zaid Canal, two submains and four branch canals.

The other scheme in the Sinai, the North Sinai Development project, plans to expand the area of irrigated land by 250,000ha by mixing water from the Nile with drainage water. Widespread economic development is expected to accompany this with roads, new houses, electricity transmission lines, water and sewerage networks all being built. All of these are expected to create opportunities for the private sector.

These ambitious plans are reliant on the availability of water. As Egypt is already using its full allocation of Nile water and groundwater sources are increasingly overexploited, the projects depend on the application of wastewater reclamation and strict management techniques to save water. A coordinated bureaucratic effort will be required to change crop patterns, improve irrigation efficiency, and recycle treated sewage and industrial effluent.

Cairo will need to use all its powers of persuasion to maintain its water allocation from the Nile when officials meet for the next round of talks early next year. Egypt may be seeking to foster regional co-operation but it will need more time to improve and develop its water resources, rationalise water use and protect watercourses against pollution and contamination.


Source: Global Water Intelligence (