Mother of all riparian battles simmers over the Nile (Comment)

By Rohit Bansal | Wednesday, March 20, 2013 | 1:06:21 PM IST (+05:30 GMT) Comment 0 Comment

As one spends a quiet evening on a quaint beach of the White Nile, it is no giveaway that the longest river on the planet is simmering. The slugfest involves the 11 riparian states, touched by the 6,650 km of main river and tributaries, each involved in a complicated dog fight of bilateral diplomacy mixed with regional trade unionism in north and east Africa with its ripples felt as far as the Gulf.

As one spends a quiet evening on a quaint beach of the White Nile, it is no giveaway that the longest river on the planet is simmering. The slugfest involves the 11 riparian states, touched by the 6,650 km of main river and tributaries, each involved in a complicated dog fight of bilateral diplomacy mixed with regional trade unionism in north and east Africa with its ripples felt as far as the Gulf.

The latest is Egypt's overture to South Sudan in lieu of support it badly needs to stave off the rest. The country's Prime Minister Hisham Qandil showed up in Juba, South Sudan, last week offering to create an "Egyptian Economic Zone" just off the airport in the capital's downtown. An Egyptian hospital already dots the construction boom here.

So far Egypt can count only on the Arabs ruling Sudan for support in continuing with cornering nearly 85 per cent of the Nile's waters. The deal is a gift from the region's colonial legacy, wherein the British doled out an astonishingly one- sided riparian treaty to Egypt, and in some measure erstwhile united Sudan, but left the others to twiddle their thumbs.

Success in the latest overture to South Sudan will isolate the world's newest nation from the growing compact between the "rest" -- Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Eritrea, and Ethiopia. The group, organised under the Nile Basin Initiative since 2010, has announced a massive $15.3 billion watershed management initiative on Monday.

An international water conference over the Nile is expected in Addis Ababa next month, striking willy nilly at the core of the Anglo-Egyptian compact that has parched the entire region.

On its part, South Sudan too has ambitions to utilize the White Nile for irrigation and hydro electricity. While the river here is famously "quiet and lazy" rendering is relatively unviable for power generation, there were reports here Tuesday of Norwegian assistance underway to tap the falls around Nimole in the north. A dam has been talked about, a project that will get the Egyptian really upset.

But officials here see the dam as an "natural right" of an upper riparian state just as they find it "absurd" that water has been flowing by parched lands without a modicum of organized irrigation in sight!

The dam that South Sudan covets is also part of a debris king strategy from excessive dependence on oil likely to restart in three weeks following a matrix agreed with Sudan earlier this month. Agriculture, and to a smaller extent mining, are seen to be as important as tapping the nation's proven oil resources.

"We realize the 'curse' of oil and our president and the entire leadership is committed to developing agriculture," assures Manase Lomole Waya, deputy governor of Central Equatoria, the state where Juba is located.

The dam around Nimule is also a sore point between South Sudan and its interlocutors in Beijing, who when asked for assistance are believed to have outrightly refused! China, as is known, has had deeper interests with Khartoum, controlling as it did, the refining and pipeline complex, and indiscreetly supporting it with arms to hit the Sudanese People Liberation Army.

Beijing is now trying to balance it's relationships between the two Sudans, simply because the actual oil is mostly with the south.

To make things more complicated for diplomats in Juba, Ethiopia has been the host of the peace initiative between the two Sudans. Addis Ababa has made public its intention to create a massive dam on the Nile, completion of which is slated around 2017. Delays and talks of bungling aside, Ethiopia's intent has been treated with acute hostility in Khartoum as well as Cairo.

Recently, Saudi Arabia joined in the hostility and a junior minister claimed that the Ethiopian project won't just endanger Khartoum if it were to burst, it is an outright act of war that might merit aerial bombing. On its part Egypt's Aswan dam has been an example of benefits the river entails.

Water in the Nile is expected to recede each year involving sharp reductions in its per capita availability.

(20-03-2013- Rohit Bansal is chief executive and co-founder, India Strategy Group, Hammurabi and Solomon Consulting. He can be reached at rbansal@amp177.hbs.edu. Twitter @therohitbansal)

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