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Egypt Employs Soccer to Assert Its Nile Basin Water Rights

By James M. Dorsey

If soccer is the yardstick, Egypt has won a round in its battle to maintain control of the waters of the Nile basin.

Egypt’s national team emerged on Monday the victor of the first annual Nile Basin Football Tournament by beating Uganda 3:1. The championship groups the Nile’s ten littoral states, most of which are demanding a more equitable distribution of the water resources of the world’s longest river. The tournament’s final pitted the Nile Basin state most dependent on the river for its water against one of the Nile’s foremost water providers.

Initiated and funded by the Egyptian Football Association (EFA), the 12-day tournament was designed to repair Egypt’s relations with many of its fellow littoral states, strained as a result of calls by Ethiopia, Burundi, Congo, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda for a fairer allocation of the river’s water resources. “The tournament aims to create awareness among all countries sharing the Nile Basin, to safeguard the water resource for the benefit of future generations,” said a senior Egyptian official.

EFA President Samir Zahar said the tournament is “for us purely football and good relations with our neighbors. But for politics, that is the ministry of petroleum’s concern.” Egypt’s oil ministry backed the EFA in its organization of the tournament.

The dispute over usage of Nile water erupted as a result of calls by Ethiopia and its allies for a renegotiation of the allocation of water shares under a 1929 agreement arranged by Britain, the colonial power that at the time controlled much of the Nile Basin. The agreement gives Egypt that depends for virtually all of its water on the Nile the right to veto any large-scale usage of the river’s resource that it deems detrimental to its national interest.

Tensions peaked last May when Ethiopia, Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania signed a treaty in the Ugandan capital of Kampala that allows them to use their share of Nile waters for irrigation and other development projects. Kenya joined the treaty within days of the signing. The treaty effectively abrogates the 1929 agreement and recognizes the right of all littoral states to an equal share of the Nile’s water.

In response, Egyptian Water Resources and Irrigation Minister Mohammed Allam warned that Egypt and Sudan would defend their “historical right to their share of the Nile as they have done throughout history.”

The tournament served to at least temporarily divert attention from the conflict and to move Egypt into damage control mode after it failed to impose its will on a majority of the Nile Basin states. It also allowed Egypt to signal that it realized that resolution of the water dispute would have to involve a degree of compromise.

That however may not be enough for Egypt to retain its privileged position. Nor is Egypt likely to be able to leverage its victory on the soccer pitch. Nonetheless, by organizing and funding the tournament, which is little more than a copycat of the already existing Council for East and Central Africa Football Association (CECAFA) Senior Challenge Cup that groups virtually all of the Nile’s littoral states, Egypt hopes to reassert itself as the dominant power in the region. “Let’s face it, football is politics. That’s why countries pour money into hosting tournaments,” an Egyptian official said.

Nonetheless, in pure soccer terms, the tournament served the needs of all the competing teams. For Egypt, it was a warm up for its African Nations Cup qualifiers. For Uganda, Burundi, Tanzania, Kenya, Sudan and Congo -- Eritrea, Ethiopia and Rwanda opted out of this year’s tournament -- which don’t rank among Africa’s foremost powerhouses, it constituted an opportunity to compete against the king of African soccer. EFA President Zahar said he expected “the tournament to help raise the standard of football in the Nile Basin states.”

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