Egypt must negotiate on Nile water

As the region's leader, Egypt has to develop a new treaty on access to the Nile or risk violence and further water shortages
Egyptian children drink and wash in water from a hand pump in Qalyoubia village north of Cairo
Some 95% of Egypt's drinking and irrigation water comes from the Nile. Photograph: Amr Abdallah Dalsh/REuters AMR ABDALLAH DALSH/REUTERS

Last summer, the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) was gearing up for a new era in its decade-old existence. It was supposed to signal a turning point in the geo-partnership that would translate worldwide as an example for other regional bodies dealing with natural resources to follow. Today, however, what optimism there was has gone, having been replaced with power politics and "national security" claims.

Ahead of a conference in Alexandria last July to renegotiate water resources along the Nile, anger and frustration was already fomenting against Egypt. At the time, analysts, commentators and water experts viewed its refusal to negotiate a new treaty with the other eight NBI nations as wrong and arrogant.

How things have changed. Earlier this month, NBI water ministers, officials and international donors met in Sharm el-Sheikh to attempt yet again, to agree on sharing the Nile's water. Egypt remained obstinate, saying that it could not survive without its 87% share of water and pointed to water shortages that were expected to hit the country in the next five years.

This time, unlike last July, the Egyptian intelligentsia has largely supported the government's rejection of a new agreement. They argued in local press commentaries, echoing the government's assertions that Egypt's water resources are a national security issue, that "we must not budge on the needs of our country".

One member of parliament went so far as to say that future wars would be over water and "we welcome this war if it is imposed to us".

The irony is that while government officials and commentators give a doomsday scenario to justify Egypt's dominance of the Nile's water, millions of Egyptians already suffer from water shortages on a daily basis. Today. Not five years from now.

Just ask Adel Mohamed, a 44-year-old handyman who lives on the outskirts of Cairo. He told me that last summer, weeks went by when his family and no access to running water. "I worry about what is coming this summer," he said.

The cause of the water cuts, he and his neighbours argue, is the new upscale developments being erected for Egypt's wealthiest people. The area's inhabitants say water is being redirected.

On one level, the Egyptian officials and commentators are right to fear water shortages. It is easy to see who they are fearful of: those with the economic power. This is why they do not want to renegotiate a treaty that would see the country lose any of the water currently allocated to the country under a 1959 treaty with Sudan.

That treaty is the continuation of the Nile water agreement of 1929 – brokered by the British when they were the colonial power. Egypt was guaranteed 48bn cubic meters of water. Following the 1959 deal, which did little more than reaffirm Egypt and Sudan's right to a majority of the Nile, this was increased to 55.5bn cubic meters, while Sudan is allotted 14.5bn cubic meters.

Egypt, as the regional leader, politically and economically, could truly become a leader if it were willing to go beyond the desire to keep a treaty first created by its colonial overlords. It could instead create something with the NBI that would truly transcend borders.

The NBI's main funder, the World Bank, has said it will not go along with any projects in upstream countries unless Egypt agrees. With a veto power, Egypt has the ability to stall development along the Nile. There are other options, however, such as desalination efforts that could be made to reduce Egypt's reliance on the Nile. According to the Egyptian Water Partnership, some 95% of the country's drinking and irrigation water comes from the Nile. This has to change.

The Egyptian government could come to a deal with the other NBI countries that would see it reduce its Nile resources in favour of erecting desalination plants along the Red Sea and Mediterranean. This would give Egypt the ability to increase water output – or keep it at around the same figure – without depriving upstream countries of their ability to develop and improve agricultural output.

Burundi's environment and water minister, Degratias N'Duimana, told me recently that his own country, and other upstream countries, "are struggling to improve our infrastructure and agriculture sectors because we can't develop industries or irrigation lines from the Nile because Egypt won't let us and there is no money for these projects". The trump card falls to Cairo.

With desalination, however, Egypt could provide a sustainable amount of water along the Red Sea coast that would end the transport of water from the Nile to the coast, hours away.

Khaled Abu Zeid, director of the Egyptian Water Partnership, agreed. "There needs to be a look into desalination projects in Egypt, because that would give the country another source," he began, "because it could really be a huge boost to Egypt's water needs. It is expensive, but in the long run, it might make these discussions easier if Egypt is seen as looking for alternatives."

The World Bank could help fund such projects. And at the same time it would show that Egypt is willing to come to terms as the region's leader. By compromising and establishing alternative solutions, the partnerships that Egypt could help create along the Nile would go a long way when those deadly water shortages come. It could avoid potential war. By negotiating and developing a new treaty that would give upstream countries greater access to the world's largest river, Egypt would signal a new era of partnership and understanding in a region fraught with anger and frustration. If they fail, the region could quickly turn toward violence and posturing.

There must be a new way along the Nile and Egypt must make an effort to resolve the crisis before it becomes unmanageable. Egypt must make amends, or face the consequences of upstream countries going it alone. That could me more dangerous to Egypt's "national security" than finding a solution now.