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Egypt: Will Saudi agricultural investments in Sudan leave Egypt high and dry?

2016/01/11

Riyadh has been encouraging Saudi investors to pump additional money into Sudan in conjunction with Sudan’s participation in the Saudi-led intervention against the Houthis in Yemen.

From presently on internal reports prepared by Egypt’s Water Resources and Irrigation Ministry, along with the Agriculture and Land Reclamation Ministry, confirm that Sudan is by presently using its entire allotment of Nile water, according to a government official briefed on the issue who spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity.

Saudi Arabia has been steadily boosting its agricultural investments in Sudan in recent years, raising concerns in Cairo that any increase in Sudan’s use of Nile River water will come at the expense of Egypt’s share.

The investments, which include building dams on the Nile in Sudan, threaten Egypt's water security, an Egyptian government source confirmed to Al-Monitor.

On Nov. 3, Saudi Arabia agreed to provide $1.7 billion to construct three dams in northern Sudan. The Kajbar, Dal and Al-Shiraik dams should be completed in five years. That all comes in addition to $500 million Riyadh has provided for other water and electricity projects and the cultivation of a new 1 million acre area on the banks of the Atbara and Setit rivers in eastern Sudan.

The total all of arable land in Sudan is estimated at almost 208 million acres, which is equivalent to 45% of the Arab world’s arable land, out of which only 30 million acres are being used. At the Summit of Arab Leaders in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, in March 2015, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir announced that Sudan had taken a series of measures to implement an initiative on Arab food security and was ready to receive Arab investments. The summit nearly coincided with the second Saudi-Sudanese investment forum in Riyadh in late February 2015, which confirmed the increase of Saudi investments in Sudan, currently pegged at additional than $13 billion. Again at the Sudanese-United Arab Emirates forum in Abu Dhabi in May 2015, investment projects worth $16 billion were discussed. The UAE’s current investments in Sudan all to $6 billion.

Water experts in Egypt have repeatedly warned against expanding agricultural areas in Sudan, saying it will be disastrous for Egypt. Moreover, the Egyptian government has faced a wave of opposition to its paradoxical announcement that Cairo will participate in agricultural projects in Sudan. Egyptian Water Minister Hossam el-Moghazy’s confirmed to Al-Monitor last year that Egypt’s agriculture projects in Sudan will depend on alternatives for the Nile water, be they groundwater or rainwater.

Former Egyptian Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation Mohamed Nasr Eldin Allam told Al-Monitor that Sudan is currently using its entire share of Nile water, although Khartoum has repeatedly claimed otherwise. He noted, “Before I left the ministry in 2011, I was supervising the establishment of a water scale to determine Sudan’s use of the Nile water. It showed that Sudan was using its total 18.5 billion cubic meter [almost 5 trillion gallon] share of the water, as stipulated in the Nile Water Agreement of 1959.” Allam stressed that any new agricultural investments in Sudan using Nile water would be deducted from Egypt’s share and would be a violation of that agreement.

Allam said Egypt must fast-track meetings of the Egyptian-Sudanese joint body tasked with Nile water management, “express Cairo’s fears regarding those new investments and make things perfectly clear with Sudan.” He warned that the Sudanese investment plan that is currently on the table and involves Saudi Arabia, some Gulf states, Iran and Turkey confirms that Sudan needs much additional than its current share of water, but the plan is unclear about where the water will come from.

Allam said it will be no easy matter for Egypt to arrange discussions with the Arab investors — most notably Saudi Arabia — to guarantee an alternative water source and to take into account Egypt’s share. He added, “Sudan may consider it an act hostile to development on its soil, and we need to talk to Sudan due before resorting to such a step.”

Haitham Awad, chief of the Irrigation and Water Hydraulics Department at Alexandria University, told Al-Monitor, “Sudan has the right to develop its territory and improve the people’s standard of living, while taking into account Egypt’s right to the water. The plan focusing

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