CAIRO — Egypt is working to restore a cooperative flow of water-sharing solutions with members of the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI).
On March 13, the NBI Ministerial Committee held talks in Khartoum, Sudan, among the water ministers of Egypt, Sudan, Uganda and Rwanda, in addition to representatives from Kenya and Ethiopia. An Egyptian participant in the meeting told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that the talks focused on the possibility of Egypt reactivating its NBI membership. Egypt had frozen its NBI membership in 2010 in protest of the Entebbe Agreement, which rearranged Nile water allotments.
"We emphasized our desire to put aside our differences and resume work side by side with the basin countries," the Egyptian source said. "We also insisted on initiating dialogue regarding the [Entebbe] Agreement's controversial clauses."
Egypt wants to amend three clauses in the agreement. The first amendment calls for upstream countries to notify Egypt before starting any project along the Nile. The second proposal amendment defines the concept of water security, which includes recognizing Egypt's quota of the Nile's water, and the third calls for all decisions to be made in consensus with all basin countries.
The Khartoum meeting followed talks that began in February in Tanzania, where Egypt and the Nile Basin countries also discussed resolving their differences. During a Feb. 22 ceremony in Tanzania to celebrate the regional annual Nile Day, Egyptian Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation Mohammed Abdel Ati called on the upstream Nile countries to overcome past disputes and focus on protecting each other.
In December, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi met in Cairo with some NBI water ministers including those from Uganda, Burundi, Sudan, South Sudan and Tanzania. He said Cairo is willing to expedite implementation of a series of projects, including one that aims to make up for water losses and to harvest rainwater, as some of the Nile's water is wasted, mostly in swamps and through evaporation.
The six member states that signed the Entebbe Agreement in 2010 are Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and Burundi. However, the parliaments of these countries still haven't ratified or enacted the agreement.
Al-Monitor met with Abdel Ati at his office in Cairo, where he said, "We will inevitably reach an agreement that achieves cooperation between the Nile countries. It would not serve anyone if we fail to do so."
He added, "An agreement also needs to be reached on the Renaissance Dam negotiations between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, and we must find common ground when embarking on any new projects on the Nile."
In light of these calls to overcome past disputes and promote cooperation among Nile countries, Egypt is currently seeking to activate the Egyptian initiative for development of Nile Basin countries, launched in 2012. During the past few months, Sisi held several meetings with officials from upstream countries — including Uganda, South Sudan and Kenya.
This initiative includes a series of projects, such as establishing model farms, irrigation centers and aquaculture projects; developing specialized programs for the biological control of water hyacinth; digging wells; rehabilitating hydrological stations along the Nile; dispatching Egyptian experts in the field of management and development of water resources; and establishing Nile River marinas, in addition to the Nile waterway project.
Commenting on his February speech in Tanzania, Abdel Ati said, "We urged [Nile countries] to work as a single entity for the development of the Nile Basin by implementing major development projects. We will begin with the waterway project from Lake Victoria to the Mediterranean to revive trade and tourism in the African continent." He added, "The Nile's waterway will be connected with a route network down to Cape Town, in the south of the continent."
Al-Monitor met with Norwegian researcher and geography expert Terje Tvedt in Cairo March 8. Tvedt, who has written several books and documentaries about the Nile, said cooperation among the Nile Basin countries is the only way to achieve true development. "I believe the Nile water will be enough for all the Nile people once cooperation is achieved," he added.
However, the sensitive subject of the Entebbe Agreement still must be resolved before such cooperation is achieved. Mahmoud Abu Zeid, a former Egyptian minister of water resources and irrigation and president of the Arab Water Council, told Al-Monitor that the Entebbe Agreement clearly violates the norms of international law governing the rivers, since it was concluded in the absence of two basin countries: Egypt and Sudan.
"The agreement also violates the most important principles upon which the NBI was established: a unanimous vote from all Basin countries when making decisions," he noted.
Haitham Awad, a professor of irrigation and hydraulics at Alexandria University, told Al-Monitor he believes the Entebbe Agreement shows aggression against Egyptians' right to life, since Egypt is the only downstream country among the basin countries excluding Sudan, which was also absent at the conclusion of the Entebbe Agreement. The others all can rely on other sources for water, such as rainfall and other rivers.
Yet, the upstream countries' willingness to discuss Egypt's concerns seems to constitute a breakthrough in the long stalemate. Egyptian authorities said another meeting will be held at the end of the month in Uganda to continue the discussions.