Hope for a new accord: The Cooperative Framework Agreement
In 1999, the Nile River riparian states, except Eritrea, signed the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) in an effort to enhance cooperation on the use of the “common Nile Basin water resources.” Under the auspices of the NBI, the riparian states began work on developing what they believed would be a permanent legal and institutional framework for governing the Nile River Basin. The Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA), as this agreement is called, formally introduced the concept of equitable water allocation into discussions about Nile governance, as well as a complicating concept called “water security.”
The CFA was ready for signature beginning May 10, 2010; Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda have signed it; and the Ethiopian parliament has ratified it. However, arguing that their “acquired rights” to the waters of the Nile River would not be protected, Egypt and Sudan immediately registered their intention not to sign the agreement because they objected to the wording of Article 14(b): “Nile Basin States therefore agree, in a spirit of cooperation: . . . (b) not to significantly affect the water security of any other Nile Basin State.” They then proposed an alternative wording for Article 14(b): “Nile Basin States therefore agree, in a spirit of cooperation: . . . (b) not to significantly affect the water security and current uses and rights of any other Nile Basin State,” (emphasis added). This wording was rejected by the upstream riparian states, who argue that “the current uses and rights” phrasing would entrench the concept of prior rights, including those created by the Nile Waters Agreements and effectively retain the inequity and unfairness that has characterized the allocation and utilization of water in the Nile River Basin since the 1920s.
On April 2, 2011, then-prime minister of Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi, laid the foundation for the construction of the Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam. The dam is located on the Blue Nile, in the Benishangul-Gumuz region of the country. Shortly after the announcement, authorities in Cairo immediately launched a campaign of words against what they believed was an attempt by Addis Ababa to interfere with Egypt’s water needs. Then Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, angrily stated that while he was not “calling for war” with Ethiopia, “Egypt’s water security cannot be violated at all,” that “all options are open,” and that Egyptians would not accept any projects on the Nile River that threatened their livelihood.
Then what happened in March 2015? The 2015 agreement between Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan—with Sudan acting as an intermediary—represents an important but predictable shift in Cairo’s approach to the Nile River—that those colonial agreements are unsustainable. About 85 percent of the water that flows into the Nile River comes from the Ethiopian highlands through the Blue Nile; the rest comes from the White Nile. It was simply unrealistic and untenable for Egypt to believe that it could continue to prevent Ethiopia from using water resources located within its boundaries to meet the needs of its people. While it is true that Egyptians rely totally on the waters of the Nile River for all their needs, they must be sensitive to the development needs of the upstream riparian states, especially given the fact that the latter, particularly Ethiopia, are in a position to cause significant harm to the quantity and quality of water that flows into the Nile.
Hence, the practical and more accommodating attitude taken by Egyptian leaders in their decision to endorse Addis Ababa’s Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project (GERDP), should be welcomed. However, Cairo needs to go further and sign and ratify the CFA without insisting on changes to Article 14(b) to guarantee Egypt the rights created by the Nile Waters agreements. With the CFA in place, all 11 riparian states can negotiate in good faith to agree an allocation formula that is acceptable to all of them and considered fair, equitable, and reasonable. As Africa becomes more and more affected by climate change, the continent’s various groups must agree to cooperate in the development of institutional structures that can enhance their ability to live together peacefully and allocate their natural resources, including water, in a fair and sustainable manner.
This is an excerpt from “The limits of the new “Nile Agreement” by Mwangi S. Kimenyi and J. M. Mbaku