Southern Sudan is set for independence.  Baring some unforeseen upset, it will join the community of nations in July 2011 as the 154th country in the world.  It faces a number of severe challenges, but one thing it has in abundance – water.  Or does it?

The use of the Nile waters is a particularly tricky issue.  Egypt relies on Nile water as it has almost no rain fall of its own to call upon.  And by long standing convention (set in stone by a decades old treaty), Egypt has the right to the majority of the water in the river.  Essential to Egypt’s economic survival, the bulk of the water comes from other countries in the region, particularly Ethiopia.  Egypt’s insistence on its rights is an obstacle to economic development upstream – a source of extreme irritation to the countries along the Nile’s course.

From time to time, the argument over how best to share the Nile water’s threatens to turn violent.  Some of the countries in the Nile Basin have begun to collaborate in order to demand a greater share of the river’s water.  They need to generate power, reduce poverty and drive economic growth.  The negotiations have gone on for years, and seem far from close to a resolution.

But thanks to Southern Sudan’s impending independence, the balance of power amongst the countries of the Nile Basin just might be shifting.  The amount of water allocated to North and South Sudan will have to be shared by the new country in the south and its new neighbour in the north.  But perhaps more importantly, Southern Sudan seems likely to fall in with Ethiopia and the countries of East Africa.  (A glance at a map shows the dividing line between the fertile south and the desert north starkly.)  The amount of water the countries agitating for change can draw upon between them won’t change a great deal by including Southern Sudan in their group.  But it gives the group an extra member and potentially a stronger position in the negotiations.

In many respects, this argument may not matter very much to Juba at the moment.  (After the Nile is where it has always been.)  But countries such as Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia will be keen to embrace the world’s newest country – as much for trade and regional security as for its added weight in negotiations over the use of the Nile’s waters.  Juba will need to be wary of East Africans bearing gifts if it doesn’t want to disrupt a very delicate regional security balance.  One which, given the vital importance of Nile water to Egypt’s future, offers at least the potential for violent and destructive conflict.