Today is official Nile Day in the basin and celebrations will be taking place in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the Nile riparian zones. For the assembled dignitaries, however, these are nervous times. This has already been a momentous year for the Nile basin – and 2011 is still only two months old. Egypt and Sudan, which have divided up the river’s flow for 50 years, are now subject to major internal political change. In Sudan a decisive referendum result is leading to the emergence of an 11th Nile state whilst in Egypt, the basin’s most monolithic system is undergoing political convulsions.
Viewed from an upstream perspective, this may be a gratifying sight; and a sign too that the Egyptian-Sudanese ‘dyad’ – which has effectively governed the river since the 1959 Nile Waters Agreement (NWA) – is now falling apart. If not bust completely, it is certainly under unprecedented pressure.
The political direction of any new Southern Sudanese state will be watched carefully in Cairo. Of immediate concern will be any decision that Southern Sudan makes to join the recently-formed ‘breakaway’ upstream states. Their emergence frustrated Egypt and Sudan last year, when five states pushed ahead with a new cooperation framework in spite of downstream protests.
Right now Egypt is more preoccupied with internal protests that are busy reshaping the political scene and generating a more plural political future. This could reshape the way Egypt behaves within existing basin cooperation arrangements – including the Nile Basin Initiative – and engender a wider range of voices in decision making in the basin. But an alternative, and less welcome, outcome would be the emergence of a new politics which would gather disparate political voices around renewed ‘resource nationalism’ – taking Egypt back to the 1970s and 1980s, and towards further belligerence with upstream states. On the brighter side, however, a new political pluralism could generate a more developmental and equitable outlook by Egypt, and could end in the re-establishment of relations with sub-Saharan African states on a more inclusive footing.
For an independent Southern Sudan, the choice is between adhering to the existing 1959 Agreement and demanding a share of Sudan’s existing 18.5 billion cubic metres a year of water (Egypt has 55.5 billion under the NWA), or opting out of the agreement and looking southwards and eastwards towards closer alignment with states of the East African Community – and Ethiopia. If Juba chooses to demand a slice of the existing agreement (say, half of Sudan’s current quota) it may have to agree to completion of the controversial Jonglei Canal project as quid pro quo. This will help to conserve waters flowing through the Sudd (Southern Sudan’s vast swamp and a globally important ecosystem) and increase flows to downstream states. But the Jonglei Canal is hugely controversial, and its initial construction was a key trigger of the long-running civil war.
If the southerners decide to look to stronger alliances upstream and join the ‘breakaway bloc’ this may strengthen their position with respect to future investment under the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA). Already many donors are viewing the ‘upstreamers’ as capable of taking the CFA forward without Egypt and Sudan. Rapidly expanding markets within an integrated East Africa are one such investor magnet – and, crucially, for the Chinese in particular.
During 2011 both Egypt and Sudan will be invited to join the CFA one last time by the upstream states. Their reaction will shed light on the re-configuration of relationships between old and new Nile basin states. One state watching attentively is Ethiopia. Last week Prime Minister Meles Zenawi announced new hydropower projects in the Blue Nile basin. This apparent attempt to take advantage of weaker downstream neighbours is clearly provocative, but also a sign of increasing upstream confidence. At the same time, however, Meles has also been careful to keep downward pressures on food prices, mindful of the potential for unrest in his own country.