The importance of the Nile River to Egypt cannot be overstated. The river provides around 90% of Egypt’s water supply for the population of nearly 90m, and as Egypt looks to power up its agriculture sector, the water source remains as important as ever.
As of 2013, Egypt’s Central Agency for Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS) counted nine countries as “Nile Basin” states: Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Congo, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi and Eritrea. South Sudan became independent in 2011 and was recognised by Cairo. CAPMAS figures show that exports to the Nile Basin countries totalled LE7.2bn ($981.4m) in 2013, the last year for which statistics are available, up from LE6.28bn ($856m) in 2012. Exports to the Nile Basin countries made up 3.7% of Egypt’s exports in 2013, up from 3.4% in 2012. Conversely, imports from these countries totalled LE2.96bn ($403.45m) in 2013, down slightly from LE2.97bn ($404.8m) in 2012.
Sudan is Egypt’s biggest export market in the region, accounting for 51% of the total, mainly iron and plastic products, while Egypt imports agricultural produce from Sudan. Of the Nile Basin countries, Kenya is the largest exporter to Egypt, accounting for 63% of the total, including coffee, tea, spices and tobacco; sugar products and paper products were top Egyptian goods exported to Kenya, totalling LE1.67bn ($227.6m). This group of countries are attractive markets for Egyptian exporters and investors. Overall the region has a population of nearly 500m, more than 40% of Africa’s total, and the population size is expected to double within the coming century.
Modern-day cooperation in the Nile Basin over the river’s resources dates back to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A 1929 agreement between Egypt and Britain – then representing many of the countries upstream – forbade the undertaking of works on the Nile River or its tributaries that would impede the flow of water to Egypt. In 1998, the Nile Basin Initiative was established to support regional cooperation for harnessing the Nile’s resources for all the basin countries. Throughout, Egypt has remained active in helping its upstream neighbours secure their own supply, through the construction of dams, wells and water management facilities.
Egypt sits with Sudan and Ethiopia on a tripartite commission on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a contentious project 20 km from Ethiopia’s border with Sudan that would create a reservoir with capacity of 74bn cu metres and substantially boost Ethiopia’s power supply. Cairo has concerns that the dam will constrict the flow of water to Egypt. The commission has recruited consultants to analyse the impact of the dam on Egypt and Sudan, and is bringing the countries together to find compromise. Egypt has expressed concerns about the dam’s speed of construction while analysis is ongoing, and Cairo has called for the mediation of the UAE, which has significant agricultural interests in Ethiopia.
Egypt seeks to retain good bilateral relations with all the Nile Basin countries. It supports countries including Uganda with developmental aid and scholarships to train officials, while in January 2015 Egyptian ministers visited Kenya in what was described as a “first step” in building closer trade ties with other African countries.
Kenya has been supportive of Cairo in negotiations over Nile waters, and the nations continue to cooperate in efforts to combat radicalism in the region. Egypt’s support for South Sudan continues, including Egyptian aid in developing the latter’s water resources, and defence cooperation. At the same time, relations with Sudan are slightly more problematic. Khartoum has filed a compliant at the UN over a territorial dispute with Egypt. Nevertheless, Egyptian officials insist that the two countries’ historic ties are stronger than occasional disagreements suggest.
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