Precious Resource Basins: Facilitating Regional Transboundary Cooperation In The Eastern Nile Basin Beyond The River Flow

Cooperation among countries sharing a water basin is often difficult due to historic rivalries, conflict legacies, and the increased utilization of water flow. In order to improve state cooperation, academics and policymakers tend to overemphasize the allocation rules of water resources confined to the river. However, a river basin cooperation is more than water sharing.

River basins harbor other resources like land and energy whose use is closely linked to the river and to other water bodies within the boundaries of the basin. The incorporation of such an integrated perspective “beyond the river” and “beyond water” into water diplomacy can enrich transboundary cooperation among river riparian countries.

The Nile basin represents an illustrative example of emerging conflicts around issues such as hydropower and providing resources for growing populations and economies. Since independence from colonial powers, upstream states are developing national and economic aspirations while challenging the old rights of downstream countries. Egypt was given the right to most of the Nile waters by the British who envisioned that any river development upstream should not be done without Egypt’s approval. In the Eastern Nile Basin, the major contributors to the Nile water, Sudan and Ethiopia, are challenging Egypt’s rights from past times.

A highly contentious issue nowadays is Ethiopia’s construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), one of the largest dams in the world. The dam is important for power needs of Ethiopia and for controlling floods and sedimentation flow in Sudan. However, river flow might be affected, which threatens to impact Egypt, a country almost entirely dependent on the Nile waters. Despite this, some are optimistic about reaching a beneficial agreement for this dam.

Stressors such as climate change, water degradation and depletion, as well as poor management increase instabilities in transboundary basins such as the Eastern Nile. They can, however, lead to an appreciation at the regional level for cooperation on common pool resources.

Scholars have advocated several tools to enhance water cooperation. Concepts such as water diplomacy and hydro-diplomacy emphasize peaceful cooperation through negotiations, transboundary institutions, and conflict resolution. A similar but broader concept is that of benefit-sharing. Benefit-sharing focuses on the “benefits” as outputs of water use that can be negotiated and shared instead of having disputes over water quantities. In theory, these benefits can arise “in” the river basin or “within” it. However, in practice, these concepts remained centered on states negotiating water issues.

The basin level is a suitable scale for negotiating many resource-use issues, especially if strengthened through inclusive and effective basin institutions. The basin is, however, not only a management scale or a water-resources delineation. Moreover, it can be purposefully conceived as a “resource basin,” in the sense of an integrative entity with a common set of development goals and, to a certain extent, as a coherent socio-economic community.

Such an understanding of water basins as a resource basin extends the cooperation issues and leverage in transboundary water cooperation. Within such fictive socio-political boundaries, we can analyze direct and non-direct water values. At the same time, other natural resources such as land and energy that are connected to the river basin or to other to water bodies within the basin can be considered for basin development and cooperation among stakeholders.

In the Eastern Nile basin, the argument for extending cooperation issues beyond the water sector has been discussed for some time now. Recently, academics are exploring the benefits of regional cooperation by interlinking water, energy, and food security issues, the so-called WEF-Nexus. However, the history of negotiations, conflicts, and agreements has been dominated by the control of the river.

The Nile Basin Initiative, established in 1999,  attempted to outline broader basin-wide development and benefit-sharing projects. However, these projects did not institutionalize “beyond-the-basin” or regional cooperation approaches, while water sharing remained the dominant topic in the negotiation track. Common challenges in the region were thus not adequately emphasized. These include for example the promoting regional trade, combating climate change, addressing the low resource-use efficiencies or protecting vulnerable eco-systems.

In a survey of experts regarding the most feasible and beneficial cooperation issues in the Eastern Nile basin, most identified issues were not connected to the river flow. Technical cooperation, food and energy trade, eco-tourism, mechanization of agriculture, and water resource protections can help address common economic and environmental challenges in the region. Interestingly, they are cross-sectoral and represent regional or bilateral issues rather than water-basin ones.

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Nile Basin experts regard trust and political will as the most relevant challenges for water cooperation. Although the post-1990 era brought more cooperation mechanisms, participation and thus a sense of fairness, the current mechanisms are seen as not adequate to resolve the current conflicts or address broader challenges. Expanding transboundary cooperation issues by incorporating regional issues and integrating resource-use issues within the basin boundaries or between states can to added into future cooperation processes.

While increasing cooperation issues and broadening the agenda results in more trust, it can increase the complexity and coordination costs. Therefore, Eastern Nile states need to consider the optimal space of beneficial cooperation and diplomacy by questioning and reforming current frameworks, and learning from other experiences across the African continent. For example, regional integration in western and southern parts of the continent is increasingly linking the regional and basin levels together while treating water issues on the same scale as other sectors. The valuable experiences of basin-level cooperation can thus help lead to a deeper regional interdependence and a needed integration of issues beyond the water sector.

These findings are described in the article entitled Institutional arrangements for beneficial regional cooperation on water, energy and food priority issues in the Eastern Nile Basin, recently published in the Journal of Hydrology. This work was conducted by Mohammad Al-Saidi from the Center for Sustainable Development at Qatar University and Amr Hefny from Institute for Technology and Resources Management the Tropics and Subtropics Center for Sustainable at TH-Köln – University of Applied Sciences Development.