EGYPT: University cooperation to ease Nile Basin row

Egypt plans to promote higher education cooperation with seven upstream Nile Basin states in a diplomatic move to strengthen strategic, economic and cultural relations. The aim is to ease tension sparked by a new pact calling for equitable water use, which Egypt perceives as being against its interests.

The higher education cooperation plan was discussed by the Egyptian Supreme Council of Universities on 5 June, before a meeting of ministers in charge of water in Nile Basin states held in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, on 26 and 27 June.

Egypt and Sudan have the greater share of the Nile water, according to a treaty signed with the British during the era of colonialism in 1929 and revised in 1959. Under the treaty, Egypt and Sudan have the right of use of 87% of the Nile waters (around 74 billion cubic metres: 55.5 billion for Egypt and 18.5 for Sudan). A clause in the treaty gives Egypt and Sudan the right to veto irrigation projects along the river that may affect their share of the Nile's water.

It is this clause to which the other seven Nile Basin countries have objected and which saw an impasse at recent talks of the Nile Basin Initiative. The other Nile Basin players are calling for more equitable rights in the water-sharing agreement.

As a result, on 14 May Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania signed a new Cooperative Framework Agreement, or CFA, which was boycotted by Egypt and Sudan, both saying the pact is illegal. Kenya joined the pact on 19 May. Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo have not signed the new CFA.

It is in this context of conflict over water use that Egypt is proposing its cooperation plan.

Morad Ahmed, a professor of medicine at Tanta University, Egypt, welcomed the plan. "Only by using dialogue and cooperation in human resource development and scientific projects through joint higher education and technological initiatives can the Nile water issue be solved without harming the interests of any basin state," Ahmed told University World News.

Under the plan Egypt will respond to the requests of the Nile Basin countries for technical assistance in the fields of agriculture, energy and irrigation.

Speaking to University World News, Magdi Tawfik Abdelhamid, a scientist at Cairo's National Research Centre, said that more than 90% of Egypt's population of around 80 million people rely on the river. He thus emphasised: "Higher education cooperation must focus on the core of the issue - which is how the water use of upstream countries does not affect Egypt's needs."

Abdelhamid elaborated: "This can be done by enhancing cooperation between universities in the Nile Basin states in the field of river engineering, including modelling and GIS applications, flood control, management of limited water resources, sediment transport and erosion, hydropower development, and storage and regulation works.

In terms of the cooperation plan, the Egyptian government will also support efforts by some national universities to establish branches in Nile Basin countries.

In its current effort to implement the national 15-year higher education strategy of creating foreign branches of Egyptian universities to promote technology transfer to other African countries, Egypt will establish a branch of Alexandria University in the southern Sudanese city of Juba and in N'Djamena in Chad.

In addition to promoting joint research projects and staff exchange among higher education institutions, the plan includes offering fellowships for African students. Starting in 2006 and extending to 2015, Egypt already provides 50 scholarships a year for students from other African nations, to cover undergraduate tuition fees, travel expenses and living allowances.

The plan is also intended to organise training programmes for African health workers as well as promoting cooperation in diagnosis of infectious diseases. Currently, an African Union-backed centre for infectious diseases is being established in Egypt to support research into drugs and vaccines against diseases endemic in Africa such as HIV-Aids, malaria, tuberculosis, leishmaniasis, filariasis and bilharzia.

Commenting on the cooperation plan, Abdelhamid further argued for promoting the Nile Basin Research Programme, stimulating research in the Nile region, and contributing to the peaceful utilisation of resources through the Nile Basin University Forum or NBUF - the regional academic network of universities in all the Nile Basin countries.

The forum was launched in Kampala in June 2009 with 18 Nile Basin universities as inaugural members, to promote collaboration, staff and student exchange and joint curricula in the Nile region across language and cultural barriers.