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Changing Tides of Egyptian Hydro-Hegemony

IWRA World Water Congress 2017 - Cancun Mexico
4. Water policy and governance
Author(s): Shawna Moore
Shawna Moore

Keyword(s): Nile River, water rights, Egypt, 1929 Water Basin Agreement
Article: Oral:


The Nile River, among the world’s most significant waterways, supports the irrigation and hydro-electric power needs of an estimated 200 million people living in the approximately 3,350,000 square kilometer Nile River Basin. Water rights have been a point of extreme contention throughout the region for centuries. The international community has recognized Egypt as the dominant force based on a political and legal foundation built by Great Britain during the colonial era. The unrest in the Nile River Basin throughout past decades is a result of asymmetrical control of the Nile River established by the 1929 and 1959 agreements. The 1929 Water Basin Agreement determined water usage until shifts in the 21st century spurred initiatives to renegotiate the terms of rights to the Nile River.

The 1929 Water Basin Agreement was the first legislative action taken that established any official rights to the Nile. The agreement granted Egypt water rights to almost the entire flow of the river, and further provided the country with legal veto-power over any competing water projects. The impacts of the legislation are analyzed through a political lens, resulting in the conclusion that this agreement established Egyptian de facto sovereignty over the Nile that maintained efficacy as a result of (1) economic and political superiority of both Great Britain and Egypt, (2) reinforcement by the 1959 agreement, and (3) the inability of former colonies to abrogate territorial claims despite succession of state.

Recent shifts in the regional balance of power and straying adherence to the established legislation suggests that Egyptian domination of the Nile may be in decline. Multidimensional analysis investigating the causes of such changes concludes that (1) hydrological uncertainty, (2) rapid population growth, and (3) cyclic Egyptian political instability have forced these shifts in the balance of power throughout the riparian states in the 21st century. These factors are found to be the cause of waning Egyptian dominance because they undercut Egypt’s claim to natural rights based on necessity, a foundation of their justifications for unilateral control of the Nile, and diminish their ability to enforce existing legislation.

Past regional cooperation initiatives have failed because they either did not include all of the riparian states, or were only focused on technological advances without addressing the broader legal framework. Recent cooperation, especially between Ethiopia and Egypt, suggests a promising future for the Nile River Basin, but the region is still vulnerable to political regime change and tensions stemming from conflicting construction and irrigation initiatives. To ensure long term stability, the riparian states need to construct, ratify, and enforce an agreement similar to the CFA, but with unanimous support. All states must agree to adhere to new policies of water allocation that take into consideration changing regional circumstances and water demands in order to draw an end to the Egyptian hydro-hegemony established by the 1929 Water Basin Agreement.

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