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South Sudan could shake up Nile River status quo

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Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters

(Read caption) A barge arrives at the Nile port of Kosti at White Nile State on Sept. 21, 2011. Traders from Khartoum have been shipping food and consumer articles to newly independent South Sudan, with at least four container barges serving the trade route bound for the south, leaving Kosti every week.

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Even before South Sudan’s independence, countries like Egypt became nervous about how the creation of the tenth Nile Basin state would affect the region’s delicate water politics. Would South Sudan side, as Sudan had (and still does), with Egypt and promote the status quo (which gives a large share of the Nile to Egypt)? Or would the new country join the upstream countries, led by Ethiopia, that are demanding a larger share of the Nile for themselves?

After independence, South Sudan struck a conciliatory tone toward both Egypt and Ethiopia, but two developments will definitely attract Egypt’s attention. First, South Sudan wants to formally join the Nile Basin Initiative, the organization that is attempting to resolve the disputes over the region’s water. This request will surprise no one and indeed it makes eminent sense, but it is a reminder to Egypt that South Sudan will soon have to develop a more detailed Nile policy, one that will inevitably tilt in one direction or another.

Second, South Sudan has announced plans to build a hydropower dam near the city of Wau. Wau sits on the Jur River, a tributary of the Bahr el Ghazal River which is itself a tributary of the White Nile. South Sudan’s dam is not intended, it seems to me, as an act of aggression, but the move will remind neighbors that this new country has pressing energy, infrastructure, and resource needs.

Egypt’s new government, judging by its outreach to Ethiopia, wants a solution to the Nile dispute. As the case of South Sudan shows, there are many moving parts in the equation, but it does seem that the status quo will have to change, and in fact may be changing already.

Alex Thurston is a PhD student studying Islam in Africa at Northwestern University and blogs at Sahel Blog.


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