The decision-making process for approving new projects on the Nile has large implications for the countries on its banks. If water is used upstream, less water is available for the downstream countries – particularly Egypt and Sudan, who currently claim rights to all of the water.
The Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA), due to be ratified over the weekend (May 14, 2011), would have set up a new, independent body to authorise Nile projects. Six of the nine states bordering the Nile have signed the agreement (six of ten now that Sudan is more properly Sudan and South Sudan). This, in theory, is enough to bring it into force – although in practice not having Egypt, Sudan, and South Sudan on board would of course prove difficult.
But over the weekend Ethiopia, the driving force behind the signing of the CFA, stepped back from final ratification. Ethiopia’s ambassador to Egypt is quoted as saying: "Ethiopia, having seen the current situation in Egypt, where they need to establish their own government and go through a democratic process of election of their president, sees that it is sane and wise to wait for Egypt and give her time.”
Indeed, there seems to be a new era of potential cooperation emerging. There are rumours that Egypt has given its approval to a dam that Ethiopia intends to build, and Egyptian interim Prime Minister, Essam Sharaf, has offered to develop Egypt’s trading relationship with Ethiopia. It seems that, with Hosni Mubarak gone, there may be a chance to rebuild diplomatic relations between Egypt and Ethiopia.
This change in attitude seems to demonstrate very positive steps forwards from both sides. However, other riparian states should perhaps view these developments with caution. If Ethiopia can bring Egypt to the table to develop a reasonable solution to the stalemate observed at the end of negotiations for the CFA this would be very welcome. However, a new bilateral relationship favouring Ethiopia that halts progress with the CFA could, in the long run, be destructive.
There are a number of states that would benefit from a more equitable distribution of Nile resources. Until now use of the Nile has been dominated by Egypt and Sudan. Adding Ethiopia into this mix to create a decision-making quartet - with Sudan split into North and South - does not address the problem of fair allocation of water resources. The decision making process needs to be move away from bilateral – or quadrilateral – deals struck between individual states and towards a Nile Basin-wide solution. The CFA presents the opportunity to set up an independent decision-making body, and this aspiration should not be forgotten.