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Harmony does not flow on the waters of the Nile

This weekend’s mission to Addis Abeba by the new Prime Minister of Egypt, Essam Sharaf, does not seem destined to bring any new agreement on the question of the distribution of the water of the Nile, an age-old controversy in Africa.

The agreement currently in effect is one created in 1929 between Egypt and Great Britain, which at that time represented its various colonies in the basin of the Africa’s main river. This agreement, which favors Egypt and to a lesser extent Sudan, has long been contested by the other Basin countries that have since freed themselves from colonization. For many years now, attempts have been made to stipulate new agreements and avoid a situation where each country acts unilaterally, provoking crises which risk becoming armed conflicts, such as nearly happened a few years ago between Egypt and Ethiopia.

In the last few days, during a visit to Kampala, Sharaf failed to obtain a commitment from Ugandan President, Yoweri Museveni, to sign a new treaty for the Nile basin supported by Cairo. In Addis Abeba, the meetings will concentrate on the building of a new dam, called Millennium, on the Blue Nile border with Sudan, proposed by the Ethiopian Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi.

In the last few weeks there have been various meetings between Egyptian representatives and Ethiopian political and religious leaders which have not made any significant progress.

The meetings between Sharaf and Zenawi do not seem destined to unblock the situation. At the same time, it would be an exaggeration to predict complete failure. The mere fact that the tone of the talks has not deteriorated and that Zenawi said in an interview with Lebanon’s daily, Al Hayat , that “there are no problems with Egypt on the question of the exploitation of the water of the Nile,” could be considered a success. Furthermore, the new government of Cairo has demonstrated interest in re-establishing more solid and worthwhile relationships with the countries of central Africa that had been essentially ignored by the Mubarak regime, which for 25 years never paid one official visit to the countries of Sub-Saharan Africa.

This new style could unblock a question that has until now seen Egypt (with the substantial support of the Sudan) opposing any change. In the last summit between the ten countries of the Nile basin, at Sharm-el-Sheikh last year, Mubarak’s government once again opposed the signing of the Nile River Cooperative Framework Agreement, repeating that Egypt wanted to maintain its rights on the over 55 of 100 billion cubic meters of water transported from the Nile every year.

The alternative plan proposed by the new government of Cairo does not stray too far from the traditional Egyptian position. However, it has accepted one of the fundamental requests of Burundi, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda, that of a shared management of water resources, including the creating of a permanent commission.

In addition, soon there will be a new player in the question of the management of the Nile’s water, South Sudan, which on July 9th will become formally independent, according to a referendum last January. Up until now, the dominant position of Egypt and to a lesser extent, Sudan, has not been touchable, but a new non-Arab State could strengthen the request of the other basin countries and finally achieve a re-distribution of the quotas. So far, the non-response from the South Sudanese to the Government of Khartoum’s appeal to maintain a common position on the question, seems to suggest such a possibility.

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