South Sudan war gives impetus to Egypt’s Nile Basin policy

Egypt's President Al-Sisi in Entebbe, Uganda, December 18th (Presidency Uganda)

A brutal three-year civil war in South Sudan has failed to halt an Egyptian technical intervention aimed at taming Nile tributary flows throughout the country, a move that would increase Egypt’s access to water volumes downstream.

Rather than ending the Egyptian intervention, the civil war seems to have driven the cash-starved South Sudanese government to accept ever closer cooperation with the Egyptians – without public debate as to the merits of the riverine projects that they are supporting, including the environmental impact.

“We hope for more cooperation with the Ministry of Water Resources of Egypt,” said Sophia Gai, South Sudan’s Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation, during a November meeting with her Egyptian counterpart.

Egypt is also aggressively courting Uganda, another a Nile Basin country, building business and technical ties in order to improve its standing with the downstream military powerhouse, which played a major role in South Sudan’s civil war in 2014.

Yoweri Museveni, the Ugandan president, recently promised his Egyptian counterpart to host a conference of Nile Basin countries to discuss use of the Nile waters.

“About River Nile, we shall work towards fair use of the water by Nile Basin countries. Uganda will soon host a conference to this effect,” Museveni said, as quoted by his official Twitter feed.

The Ugandan leader also described vague but grandiose plans for improving the navigability of the Nile, which would likely also improve water flow to Egyptian agriculture. “We shall work towards developing water transport on River Nile linking Uganda to Alexandria. A peaceful Sudan is critical for this project,” he said in remarks during President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s visit on December 18th.

In return, Egypt is promising to reward Ugandan exporters. According to Museveni, the two countries are in the process of activating a joint permanent commission to boost trade, with particular focus on increasing Ugandan exports of beef, beans and other agricultural products to Egypt.

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Egypt’s President Al-Sisi with Uganda’s President Museveni, December 2016.

About 80% of the Nile’s outflow originates in the Ethiopian highlands, while the rest originates mainly from western basin tributaries, such as the Bahr el Ghazal in South Sudan, and from the watersheds of the equatorial lakes, including Lake Victoria.

Egypt’s dependence on the Nile for its agriculture and urban water consumption has created a permanent strategic concern to maintain access and to discourage high levels of consumption by upstream countries. Historically, there have been diplomatic tensions and some instances of threatening rhetoric between the countries of the Nile, especially between Egypt and Ethiopia.

In the 1980s, Egypt sponsored a massive infrastructure project in the Sudd wetlands of South Sudan, the Jonglei Canal, which aimed at reducing water loss due to evaporation and transpiration by diverting water from the Bahr al Jabal to a point farther down the White Nile, bypassing the swamps and carrying the water directly to the main channel of the river.

This project would have increased Egypt’s water supply by 5-7%, according to some estimates, but it was halted in 1984 after SPLM/A rebel attacks.

Now, however, the SPLM/A-led government in South Sudan is cooperating with Egypt on similar projects, albeit smaller in scale. Since the 2006 signing of a memorandum on implementation of technical cooperation in the field of water resources, Egypt has committed more than US $26.6 million to works in South Sudan.

Projects include building of new gauging stations for monitoring Nile water levels and discharge, a laboratory for water quality testing, and works to control aquatic weeds in the Nile tributaries across the Bahr al Ghazal region. It is not clear the impact that the latter project could have on the wetlands at the heart of South Sudan. Evidently, it could reduce water loss due to transpiration, increasing the availability of water for Egypt’s downstream consumption.

Another project is a feasibility study on the construction of a dam in the Wau region. According to Egypt’s Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation Mohamed Abdel Aati, who visited Juba last November, additional new arrangements are being made for rainfall water harvesting.

“I trust new projects will benefit our brothers and sisters in South Sudan and consider it as a greeting from the people of Egypt to assure our continuous brotherhood and support to each other,” he said. The minister also promised South Sudanese civil servants and specialists access to Egyptian educational institutions: “All specialists and technicians from South Sudan shall benefit from the Egyptian expertise and capabilities in such fields.”

President Al-Sisi, besides visiting Uganda, has also invited Museveni to make a return visit to Egypt and he hosted South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir last week in Cairo, where he promised to continue existing projects as well as dispatch medicines to South Sudanese hospitals and send food shipments.

“Egypt will maintain its support for South Sudan at all levels,” Al-Sisi affirmed, gushing over his “dear brother President Salva Kiir,” whom he said should consider Egypt as “his second country.”

For his part, Kiir pointed out that more than 6,000 South Sudanese students are studying in Egyptian higher education institutions. He also disclosed that South Sudan is ready to accept “so many other projects that are going to be carried out by the Arab Republic of Egypt in South Sudan.”

Egypt’s reception of the South Sudanese president was marred by a protocol blunder, however, when the South Sudanese flag was flown upside down during the visit. Some South Sudanese commentators suspected that this might have a deliberate action, intended to humiliate the nation.

The incident brought out underlying animosities and suspicions dating to the Turco-Egyptian occupation of Sudan in 19th century and the long 1983-2005 civil war in South Sudan.

But no matter the cultural and historical tensions, Egypt is likely to continue pursuing its policy objectives in South Sudan. Its relationship to the Juba government takes on particular importance in view of the strained relationship between South Sudan and Ethiopia, the other Nile Basin powerhouse.

During peace talks from 2014-2015, the East African region IGAD appointed an Ethiopian-led mediation team. Tensions reached to such an extent that the South Sudanese Cabinet Minister Martin Elia Lomuro urged the venue to be transferred from Addis Ababa to Arusha in Tanzania.

“Seyoum Mesfin [of Ethiopia]… must be replaced,” the South Sudanese minister also said, referring to the former Ethiopian foreign minister who mediated the talks.

Eventually, South Sudan’s government agreed to sign a peace deal under Ethiopian auspices, but it attached several pages of reservations to the deal.

Tensions between Ethiopia and South Sudan increased again in April last year when tribal gunmen, suspected to have been armed by the South Sudanese government, killed more than 100 Ethiopian citizens in the country’s western Gambella region and kidnapped scores of children.

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Egypt’s President Al-Sisi kisses a Ugandan child on arrival in Entebbe, December 18th, 2016, as President Museveni looks on.