Anyone who has flown above a large river, watching it twist and turn, shiny and smooth, will recognize the cliche of the snake as metaphor.
Perhaps aptly in the case of the Nile, the world’s longest river, the serpent has two heads. One is in the highlands of Ethiopia, the other around Lake Victoria in Uganda. Each hungrily drinks in water from the surrounding catchment areas to sustain their bodies as they slither through the parched terrain downstream. By the time the Blue Nile and White Nile merge in Sudan’s capital Khartoum, the green land has turned to desert browns that stretch all the way through Egypt, where the river’s tail finally reaches the Mediterranean Sea.
There, the harsh climate means that the Nile is no longer just a great river, but an essential lifeline to be protected at all costs — a fact recognized politically as far back as the late 1800s, when Egypt, Sudan and their colonial overseer Britain started inking agreements to deny the upstream nations the right to use any of the water or to build any projects on the river. When the winds of independence swept through Africa in the early 1960s, the seven countries negatively affected — besides Uganda and Ethiopia, Burundi, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania and Kenya all contribute to the river’s flow — rejected the agreements. Still, with small populations and abundant alternative water sources making the Nile a low priority, they did not push further.
Fifty years on and the importance of the Nile to Sudan and in particular to Egypt, which gets 90 percent of its water from the river, remains paramount. But in the upstream countries, the river is now also recognized as an extremely crucial resource, in large part due to fast-changing demographics. Ethiopia is already Africa’s second most populous nation, but high birth rates mean the population is projected to nearly double to 150 million by 2050. Uganda’s population will more than triple to nearly 100 million over the same time.
Decades of underinvestment mean there is great demand for electricity in these countries, and the Nile’s strong flow makes it ideal for hydropower. With more mouths to fill, food supply is going to become an ever more critical issue for governments — particularly with rainfall patterns becoming increasingly unpredictable — making large-scale irrigation projects attractive to countries such as Ethiopia. The colonial-era treaties that in theory prevent this from happening are no longer seen in government offices in Addis Ababa and Kampala as merely an affront but as a dangerous hindrance to development.
To address these concerns, the seven upstream countries plus Egypt and Sudan established the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) to work toward a fairer water-sharing arrangement and address environmental threats to the river. But with a final deal on the table earlier this year, Egypt and Sudan refused to sign, insisting that their colonial-era rights be protected. And so, for the first time in the history of hydro-politics on the Nile, the serpent’s heads bared their fangs at the tail.
In May, Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and Rwanda signed a new framework deal on cooperation over the Nile, with Burundi and Congo expected to join. The decision stunned Egypt and Sudan. At the NBI meeting in late June, Sudan froze its membership. Egypt’s water minister said the new deal "cannot be forced on us" and accused the upstream countries of misusing "our Nile".
In reality, the polar positions should have come as no surprise since they reflect a wider division between the sub-Saharan countries and their North African neighbors. Relationships among the East African countries are good, with the East African Common Market, allowing free movement of labor, goods and capital coming into full operation on July 1. Though outside the economic bloc, Ethiopia enjoys decent ties with East Africa, and is strengthening ties with Kenya by seeking to sell it power and improving trade and transport links.
By contrast, the links between Sudan and Egypt and their non-Arab southern neighbors are relatively weak. Egypt in particular appears to have grown apart from sub-Saharan Africa in recent decades, which will only serve to increase mistrust of the parties’ intentions over the river. Meanwhile, Sudan faces breakup next year with an independence referendum that could see South Sudan align closer to its southern neighbors than to Khartoum.
In Egypt, where any talk of the Nile automatically becomes a political issue, the reaction to the upstream countries’ move on a new deal has been furious. In East Africa, even before the split, the talk has been less inflammatory. But speaking in private, government officials in East Africa are genuinely angry at the refusal of Sudan and Egypt to sign a new deal that would, they say, protect the two countries’ rights to the bulk, but not all, of the river’s flow.
Still, despite all the rhetoric, diplomacy seems the only way forward and the heads and the tail have not stopped talking. Within a fortnight of Kenya signing the new Nile agreement in May, Prime Minister Raila Odinga and senior water officials traveled to Cairo for talks. A few weeks later, Egypt’s water minister was in Uganda on an official visit.
Xan Rice is East Africa correspondent for The Guardian newspaper. This commentary is published by Daily News Egypt in collaboration with bitterlemons-international.org.