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After seven-year absence, Will Egypt return to Nile Basin Initiative?

Egypt is seeking to return to the Nile Basin Initiative to secure its water interests, but it seems that it is facing obstacles.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi speaks during a meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis at the Pentagon in Arlington, VA, U.S. April 5, 2017.  REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein - RTX3499X

CAIRO — After seven years during which Egypt froze its membership in the Nile Basin Initiative to object to the Entebbe Agreement — which does not recognize Egypt’s historical annual water quota from the Nile River and gives upstream countries the right to build dams without any prior notice — the Egyptian team handling the Nile water issue at the Foreign Ministry and Water Resources Ministry embarked on a round of negotiations that started with an extraordinary ministerial meeting in Uganda on March 29 and aimed to find a formula of understanding that satisfies all parties and paves the way for Egypt's return to the Nile Basin Initiative. This comes ahead of the Nile Summit scheduled for June in Uganda.

The Egyptian decision to return to the initiative remains dependent on canceling the legal effects of the unilateral signature by the Nile upstream states on the cooperative framework agreement (CFA) known in the media as the Entebbe Agreement.

However, in light of the insistence by the Nile upstream states on the CFA, the first round of negotiations ended without any agreement being reached, as Egypt requested more time to review its report on its concerns.

In an interview with Al-Monitor, an Egyptian diplomatic source familiar with the Nile Basin issue said, "The political administration is now adopting policies to support its presence in the regional environment in Africa in order to secure Egyptian interests. We have a clear vision that the Nile basin issue is the key issue underlying Egypt’s role in Africa. Egypt will not promote its African bilateral relations or have a greater influence within the African regional organizations unless the dispute with the Nile upstream countries on the management of water in the river is resolved.”

The source added, "This approach motivated the political administration to resolve the dispute with Ethiopia on the Renaissance Dam by signing a declaration of principles for confidence-building. But the Egyptian position this time is complex. Some within the team that manages the issue do not want to return to the initiative unless a legal breakthrough guarantees Egypt’s water interests in the Nile or the Nile upstream countries agree to discuss the Entebbe agreement and amend the controversial clauses rejected by Egypt. Otherwise, Egypt’s seven-year freeze of its membership would have been useless.”

Egypt froze its membership in the Nile Basin Initiative in June 2010 to object to the signature by six Nile upstream states on the CFA, which includes three controversial clauses rejected by Egypt.

Indeed, Egypt wants to amend Clause 14(b) on Water Security, as the country seeks to obtain its historical quota of Nile water, estimated at 55.5 billion cubic meters (45 million acre-feet) in accordance with the 1959 Convention. It also wants to amend Clause 12 so as to oblige upstream countries to notify it before starting any project along the Nile. Egypt also want to amend Clause 46 on voting so that decisions are issued unanimously instead of by a majority to prevent the formation of blocs among the countries opposing Egyptian interests, especially since there is a firm belief that Cairo alone has the lion's share of water.

The source said, “During the ministerial meeting we presented a detailed technical and legal report on the geological and hydraulic state of the river that explains the Egyptian vision of water management according to the international rules governing transboundary rivers, which confirms that the positions of Cairo are backed by international law and not based on political intransigence against cooperation with Nile riparian countries.”

“We know that persuading the riparian states to modify the Entebbe agreement is difficult, but they know very well the importance and strength of the impact of the Egyptian presence,” the source added.

The source further said there were several initiatives and attempts to convince Egypt to return to the initiative, especially since the freezing of its membership caused financial losses and suspended numerous aid programs granted by international partners, mainly the World Bank, to support the Nile Basin Initiative.

The source continued, “Egypt seeks an agreement on a legal document signed by the heads of states, including a number of principles governing the management of the Nile water, and setting the main lines of cooperation and decision-making mechanisms in relation to any project on the river, whose legal effects would be as binding as those of the Entebbe agreement, which has yet to be final, as not all signatory countries have concluded their ratification procedures.”

The diplomatic viewpoint differed with that of the technical authorities involved in the management of the file in Egypt, such as the Egyptian Water Resources Ministry. The committees believe in the inevitability of reaching an agreement with the Nile Basin countries and that the continuation of the freeze is not in the best interest of any of the parties. The advocates of this position are pushing for the return of Egypt to the NBI without entering into legal and political mazes that will further exacerbate the dispute between Cairo and the upstream states.

A Nile Basin technical official from the Egyptian Water Resources Ministry told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “The freezing of Egypt's NBI membership had some negative effects, such as the lack of activities and projects, the lack of databases on the riparian countries' projects on the river and the spread of false information on Egypt’s Nile water uses and requirements. Thus, the freeze made Egypt lose an important platform through which it can defend its water interests.”

It seems that Sisi’s administration is now seeking coordination with some allied countries from among the Nile upstream states to try to influence the positions of other countries, such as Uganda, Kenya and South Sudan.

Amani El Tawil, head of the Africa and Nile Basin Studies Unit at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, told Al-Monitor, “The political administration is trying to fix its relations with the Nile riparian states. It started with two steps, the first of which was direct contact with Kenya on Feb. 18 and Uganda on Dec. 18, 2016, during the last two visits of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and the second was the rapprochement with Eritrea, Ethiopia's rival, and coordination with South Sudan, Sudan’s rival.”

In light of converging opinions among the Egyptian team handling the Nile Basin issue on the decision to return to the NBI, several factors are pushing Cairo to take a quick decision that guarantees its water interests from the Nile River. Egypt’s seven-year long absence has only led to intransigent positions by upstream states. In parallel, Ethiopia is about to finish its construction of the Renaissance Dam, a potential threat to Egyptian water security. Sisi has been in power for three years now, and no agreement has been reached with Ethiopia on issues of water storage and the Renaissance Dam operation.

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