Courtesy Reuters

The Nile Waters Agreement

THE Egyptian Gazette of May 9, 1929, carried the text of an agreement on the long-debated question as to the use of the waters of the River Nile. The agreement, which recognizes on the one hand.that the Sudan needs more

water for its development, and on the other hand that Egypt has historic rights in the Nile waters, took the shape of two letters; the first was addressed to Lord Lloyd, the British High Commissioner, by Muhammed Mahmoud Pasha, President of the Egyptian Council of Ministers, the second was the High Commissioner's reply.

Explaining his action, the Prime Minister commented on it as follows to the Cairo correspondent of the London Times: "I, as an Egyptian, believe that the agreement on the waters of the Nile fully and completely safeguards Egypt's rights. Had I had the slightest fear that this agreement would deprive Egypt of any right she has hitherto enjoyed, or prejudice any just claim she may make in future, I would not have signed it. I have consulted engineers of the highest standing, technically and otherwise, and I am convinced that the agreement embodies the Egyptian point of view in regard to the waters of the Nile."

But the Balagh, the mouthpiece of the Wafd, as the party now in opposition is called, took a very different view, and on May 18 published a lengthy criticism of the understanding. Parliament was not in session when the agreement was signed, so that one has no authoritative means of telling what the fellah thinks of the matter. A dispassionate analysis seems to show, however, that the accord, whether perfect or imperfect, makes a distinct step forward in the establishment of healthy Anglo-Egyptian relations and registers a net gain for Egypt.

I

The third paragraph of Muhammed Mahmoud Pasha's letter to Lord Lloyd reads as follows:

The Egyptian Government agree that a settlement of these questions (irrigation questions) cannot be deferred until such time as it may be possible for the two Governments (Great Britain and Egypt) to come to an agreement on the status of the Sudan, but in concluding the present arrangements expressly reserve their full liberty on the occasion of any negotiations which may precede such an agreement.

It will be recalled that on February 28, 1922, Great Britain recognized Egypt as an independent sovereign state, with the reservation that certain matters should remain in "the discretion of His Majesty's Government until such time as it may be possible by free discussion and friendly accommodation on both sides to conclude agreements in regard thereto between His Majesty's Government and the Government of Egypt." The Sudan -- the "Black Country," an immense area lying just south of Egypt, between the twenty-second and the fifth parallel -- was the subject of the fourth of these reservations. This territory had been reconquered by Great Britain and Egypt jointly in the campaigns of 1896-8. It is ruled by a Condominium. The flags of England and Egypt fly over it, side by side. The Egyptians claim that the Sudan belongs to them and that it should be incorporated into their kingdom. Englishmen deny this. Since the war Downing Street has vacillated somewhat with regard to its Egyptian policy. It has, however, remained adamant and consistent upon one point: England will not abandon the Sudan. This intention has not been altered. Great Britain's willingness to adjust the Nile Waters question before settling the fate of the Sudan if anything emphasizes the fact.

It emphasizes it because it shows that London does not desire to take an unfair advantage of Cairo in dealing with the "reserved points," and more particularly the Sudan. Egypt may literally be described as "the river which is Egypt," meaning the land formed by the silt-laden annual flood of the Nile. It seldom rains in that fertile area. The Nile is its life. Deprive it of the waters of that stream and it would at once become a desert. Great Britain therefore felt that that "free discussion and friendly accommodation on both sides" referred to in the February 28, 1922, declaration required that the irrigation issue be settled before the "reserved points" were examined.

The letters exchanged on May 7, 1929, reserve to both England and Egypt "full liberty on the occasion of any negotiations which may precede" any agreement covering the Sudan and analogous issues. Egyptian statesmen, then, can reopen the Nile Waters question, and will be able to discuss it without the nemesis of starvation staring them in the face.

II

The second paragraph of the letter addressed by the Prime Minister of Egypt to the British Resident is couched in these terms:

It is realized that the development of the Sudan requires a quantity of the Nile Water greater than that which has been so far utilized by the Sudan. As Your Excellency is aware, the Egyptian Government has always been anxious to encourage such development, and will therefore continue that policy and be willing to agree with His Majesty's Government upon such an increase of this quantity as does not infringe Egypt's natural and historical rights in the waters of the Nile and its requirements of agricultural extension, subject to satisfactory assurance as to the safeguarding of Egyptian interests as detailed in later paragraphs of this note.

It will be observed that Muhammed Mahmoud Pasha speaks of "Egypt's natural and historical rights in the waters of the Nile and its requirements of agricultural extension." Lord Lloyd's reply is attuned to the same note. It says, in part:

In conclusion, I would remind Your Excellency that His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom have already acknowledged the natural and historical rights of Egypt in the Waters of the Nile. I am to state that His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom regard the safeguarding of those rights as a fundamental principle of British policy, and to convey to Your Excellency the most positive assurances that this principle and the detailed provisions of this agreement will be observed at all times and under any conditions that may arise.

Clearly, then, the essence of the agreement is the safeguarding of what is described as the "natural and historical rights of Egypt in the Waters of the Nile." That stream has, from the dawn of history, been Egypt's river. The recent accord tends to perpetuate this relationship. It contemplates that the Sudan shall be permitted to draw from the Nile such a quantity of water as will not impinge upon this traditional prerogative or infringe the "requirements of the agricultural extension" of Egypt.

The Egyptian Premier's letter fixes the amount of water which the Sudan may be permitted to withdraw. It also establishes how and where this quantity shall be registered. The Wafd criticism attacks these latter details. It argues that they defeat the spirit of the agreement. No attempt will here be made to pass upon the controversy thus presented. Its practical solution will largely depend upon the good faith with which the accord is carried into effect. In the light of present knowledge this good faith should be assumed.

III

In dealing with the larger problem which hinges upon the general terms of the agreement it is well to recall that:

(a) the combined area of all the Nile lands of Egypt totals about 7,300,000 acres, of which 5,200,000 are now under cultivation;

(b) 200,000 acres in the lake zone of Lower Egypt should be reserved for pisciculture;

(c) Egypt has, therefore, 1,900,000 acres which still await water and the plow;

(d) from the southern boundary of Egypt northwards, the configuration of the Nile Valley is such that there is no area available for the construction of irrigation works capable of looking after these 1,900,000 arable but uncultivated acres; and

(e) the irrigation works necessary for bringing all of these 1,900,000 acres under the plow must remain unbuilt or be constructed within the Sudan.

The problem of the allocation of the waters of the Nile is not a new one. It is very complicated, and has been in a chronic state of effervescence for a number of years. In a note dated January 10, 1920, the Council of Ministers of the Egyptian Government approved the appointment of a Commission to report on the projects for the control of the Nile. The terms of reference were as follows:

The Commission is requested to give to the Egyptian Government its opinion on the projects prepared by the Ministry of Public Works with a view to the further regulation of the Nile supply for the benefit of Egypt and the Sudan. In particular the Commission is requested:

(1) to examine and report upon the physical data on which the projects are based.

(2) to report upon the propriety of the manner in which, as a result of these projects, the increased supply of available water provided by them will be allocated at each stage of development between Egypt and the Sudan, and

(3) to advise as to the apportionment of the costs of the proposed works and of this inquiry between Egypt and the Sudan.

The Commission consisted of a nominee of the Indian Government (Chairman), a nominee of Cambridge University and a nominee of the United States Government. The latter was H. T. Cory, of California, an engineer of world renown.

The body thus chosen submitted its report on August 25, 1920. It was unanimous except in regard to the question of the allocation of the increased supply of available water provided by the Nile projects, and the apportionment of the cost of the proposed works. The Chairman and the nominee of Cambridge ruled that:

At present it is difficult to form any reliable estimate of the relative proportions required by Egypt and the Sudan of the water to be furnished by the construction of the other works[i] contemplated in 'Nile Control,' but it is recognized that when the time comes the Sudan shall share in the water derived from these sources. The Sudan Government will then be called upon to pay an equitable share of the cost of the new works proportionate to the volume of the water used.

The American nominee, H. T. Cory, preferred to come to closer grips with the issue. After analyzing the situation at some length, he established the "appropriated" supply of Egypt at 40,000 millions of cubic metres and that of the Sudan at 1,855. After having fixed this postulate he sought to allocate the "unappropriated" water which would be obtained from the projected new works. His study is well worth the attention of anyone interested in irrigation problems, whether viewed from an engineering, legislative or a judicial angle. In concluding his review, Mr. Cory formulated the principles that the present use of Nile water by Egypt and the Sudan should be adopted as vested rights to the natural flow; and that the excess water over and above such vested rights should be divided equally between Egypt and the Sudan.

IV

It will be seen from the foregoing excerpts that neither the British experts nor their American colleague said anything about "Egypt's natural and historical rights in the Waters of the Nile and its requirements of agricultural extension." The majority report left the entire problem for the passage of time to solve. The minority finding refrained from admitting that Egypt had a vested right to the "unappropriated" waters of that stream. Notwithstanding the tenor of these recommendations, the British Government has refused to allow anything to be done which might hamper the redemption of all of these 1,900,000 arable but uncultivated acres.

Speaking in the House of Commons on July 10, 1924, Mr. Ramsay MacDonald, then Prime Minister, went so far as to say that: "The Egyptian cultivator may rest perfectly content that, as a result of the agreement which we are prepared to make, the independence of the Sudan will not mean that he is going to enjoy a single pint of water less than if he had it and was himself working it." The letters exchanged on May 7, 1929, must be interpreted in the sense of this pronouncement. They assuredly register a net gain for Egypt. They do so in the teeth of an impartial neutral expert opinion which did not declare that Egypt had any warrant in law or in fact, in equity or according to custom, to claim as its own all of the "unappropriated" water which might be necessary to give fertility to its unredeemed 1,900,000 acres.

It does not follow as a corollary from this correspondence that what is known as the "Gezira" development of the Sudan will be arrested. What the agreement emphasizes is that the Black Country must subordinate its requirements to those of Egypt. The latter land is given a vested right to satisfy its needs out of the "unappropriated" waters of the Nile. It is believed that there will be a surplus which will enable the Gezira Plantations Company to carry through their plans. But the risk is theirs.

It is, therefore, clear that while the world at large will applaud the statesmanship which has assured to the Egyptian fellah that the Nile will remain primarily his river and that that stream will be primarily dedicated to making his fields productive, the settlement in no sense furnishes a precedent for the Colorado or other problems. Political considerations have forced the Sudan to subordinate its interests to those of Egypt. The great legal problem which means so much to irrigation experts all over the Western World has not been brought any nearer settlement by the Nile Waters agreement. But Egypt's difficulties have been surmounted, at least for the moment. And that, not the creation of a world precedent, was the task which confronted London and Cairo.

[i] By "other works" were meant works other than the Upper Blue Nile Dam which the report held to be necessary for the early requirements of the Sudan.

Related Articles

This site uses cookies to improve your user experience. Click here to learn more.

Continue

Close We are offering free and open access for a short period of time. Read more about why we are doing this.

Days
Hrs
Min
Sec