Global Insider: The Nile River Basin

Last month, after negotiations to establish the World Bank-funded Nile Basin Initiative faltered, seven of the nine countries that share the Nile Basin agreed to form a permanent negotiating body to resolve questions of resource-sharing for the world’s longest river. In an e-mail interview, Aaron Wolf, a professor at Oregon State University specializing in water resources policy and conflict resolution, explains the longstanding issues and prospects for Nile Basin water-use negotiations.

WPR: What is the current status quo of water use in the Nile River basin?

Wolf: The last actual treaty signed on the basin is one between Egypt and Sudan dating to 1959. Allocations are based on usage at the time, and, given population and economic growth, and widespread political independence, are quite dated. Water in the basin is fully allocated, with mostly rain-fed agriculture in the upper states, and irrigated agriculture in the lower states. Hydropower demand is growing, as is an awareness of environmental and instream needs.

WPR: Why have negotiations for the Nile Basin Initiative broken down?

I think I would use the word “stalled” rather than broken down. Considering how dramatically the tenor and substance of negotiations have changed over the last 15 years, I’d actually call the current state of affairs quite remarkable. Recall that in the early 1990’s, conflict was the order of the day, with regular predictions of water wars, and even calls for violence from politicians in the basin. Most recently, the parties have come amazingly close to a comprehensive agreement, even to where the differences are represented by mere paragraphs. What we’re seeing are, one hopes, the last bit of positioning necessary before an agreement is signed.

WPR: What impact will an agreement among the seven upstream countries have on the ultimate resolution of the issue?

I don’t think there will be an agreement without all nine countries signing on. Whether the agreement is to form a basin commission first, as Egypt proposes, or to get the details of a framework agreement first, as the upper basin countries would prefer, the final strategy will need to be unanimous in order to generate the efficiencies and development funding promised by a unified approach. Currently, water and energy are managed unilaterally, country by country, and therefore inefficiently. By coordinating, the countries could, with international support, generate enough efficiency to essentially make the current impasse seem quite dated quite quickly.