It Must Be Something in the Water

The Nile River Basin of Africa marks one of the poorest areas of the world. Population numbers are unsustainable with the current water resources and are only expected to grow. With too many people competing for too little water, the Nile River has become a bastion of controversy. Downstream lies Egypt, the most well-developed of the nations and the one that takes the most water. Upstream, the poorer states are beginning to question the terms of the 1929 agreement that currently governs water distribution, arguing that they need a greater share of the water to support their impoverished population. Ethiopia, in particular, is fighting for greater control over the water. Environmentalists are struggling to find a solution; if the nations would recycle their urban water, claims one activist, the nations would have enough left over for agriculture. Such a solution may be necessary as Egypt continues to demand the dramatic increase in water it would need to reach agricultural self-sufficiency while other, poorer states continue to seek their own water resource increases. – YaleGlobal

It Must Be Something in the Water

The controversy over Nile water distribution is rearing its ugly head
Gamal Nkrumah
Wednesday, March 3, 2004

Rumours about the construction of hydroelectric projects in tandem with statements made recently by certain top-level officials in a number of Nile Basin nations rang alarm bells in Egypt. Kenyan and Tanzanian ministers have openly questioned their obligation to abide by the 1929 agreement on Nile water sharing concluded between Egypt and Britain, then representing its East African colonies.

The nine Nile Basin nations -- Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda -- are collectively among the world's poorest and least developed. Huge swathes of the region have been ravaged by conflict. Economic ruin, political instability and social devastation as a result of prolonged wars have reduced the population to penury and hunger. Unending wars in southern and western Sudan, northern Uganda, Rwanda, and the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and other political tensions in the region call for a coordinated policy of conflict resolution.

On Sunday President Hosni Mubarak reviewed Egypt's programme of technical cooperation with the Nile Basin nations, meeting with Prime Minister Atef Ebeid and five other cabinet ministers -- defense, interior, foreign affairs, information, and irrigation and water resources. Mubarak stated that economic cooperation and development was the surest way to raise the standards of living and reduce tensions in the Nile Basin region.

Egypt has been working vigorously to ensure that peace and harmony reigns in the politically volatile Nile Basin region and Cairo has lobbied hard in order to avoid a scenario where water would emerge as a catalyst for regional conflict.

Egypt, the country furthest downstream, also utilises the lion's share of the Nile waters. In the past some upper riparian nations have accused Egypt of infringing on the rights of other riparian states by guzzling down more than its fair share of the river's water.

Cairo in turn argues that the upper riparian states are not as dependent on the waters of the Nile for agricultural purposes. They all receive plentiful rainfall and are not reliant on irrigation for crop production. With a much more developed economy than the other countries, Egypt is keen to cement economic ties in the Nile Basin. Egypt is especially interested in providing technical know-how and expertise in the fields of agriculture and irrigation. The Egyptian authorities are encouraging the Egyptian business community to invest and set up joint ventures with their counterparts in the private sectors of upper riparian countries.

Drumming up support for Egypt's economic initiative in the region has become the mantra of its policy towards the Nile Basin countries. Cooperation and development are the new buzzwords stressed by Egyptian officials. Mubarak, in accordance with Egypt's vital national interest in keeping or enlarging its share of the Nile waters, urged the Nile Basin nations to respect the current agreements on water sharing.

Mubarak also called on Egyptian investors to seek investment opportunities in Africa. In March Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation Mahmoud Abu Zeid is scheduled to visit three Nile Basin nations -- Uganda, Kenya and Burundi. It is hoped that the visit will strengthen commercial, economic and technical relations between Egypt and the other Nile Basin nations.

Egyptian diplomats, technical experts and officials are collaborating with their counterparts in the Nile Basin countries in bodies such as the Nile Council of Ministers (Nile-COM), the highest decision-making organ of the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI).

But many academics and technical experts have serious reservations about the NBI. "The Nile Initiative is shrouded in mystery. It is a secret affair. The public doesn't know the details. Its success hinges on Western funding," Rushdie Said, a prominent Egyptian expert on water told Al-Ahram Weekly. "It is a post-Cold War initiative designed to exploit the tremendous resources of Africa," he added.

The International Consortium for Cooperation on the Nile (ICCON) and the Nile Technical Advisory Committee (Nile-TEC) are two other agencies where Egyptian expertise shares experiences with personnel from upper riparian states. There are several joint project areas and the Entebbe-based Nile Basin Initiative Secretariat (Nile-SEC) has become yet another focus of Egyptian hope for closer cooperation between the Nile Basin states.

Egypt has designated $2.6 billion for technical and development assistance to Nile Basin countries and Mubarak stressed that Egypt offers assistance in the field of human resource development in the Nile Basin.

Uganda received a grant of $13.5 million from Egypt recently and Egypt has also pledged assistance packages to Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Some of the proposed projects in the Nile Basin nations have already received pledges of aid from public and private sources.

"The Egyptian authorities understand the pressing need of the upper riparian nations to electrify their countryside, develop manufacturing industries and improve the quality of life of their people," explained Major-General Said El- Salehi, professor of politics at the Nasser Military Academy in Cairo.

A 1959 treaty guarantees that Egypt has access to 55 billion cubic metres of Nile water a year. Egypt's population now stands at a staggering 72 million and it is estimated that the country today needs some 80 billion cubic metres of water. "Egypt must preserve its historical share of the Nile waters. It is a matter of national security and survival," El-Salehi said.

Egypt is a net food importer, bringing in 35 per cent of its grain needs. "Egypt cultivates 11 million feddans and the country will need to cultivate 22 million feddans in order to achieve self- sufficiency in grain production. That means that we will need twice as much water as we do today," El-Salehi said.

International experts point to serious conflict of interest in the near future. The intense competition for limited water resources is bound to increase over the next few decades. At current levels of population growth rates, the population of the three Nile Basin countries of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan with a population of 150 million today, will swell to 340 million in 2050. The population of Egypt is expected to reach 90 million by 2020.

Water shortages is the single biggest threat to regional food security. The countries of the Nile Basin are collectively short of water even though a few have potentially vast water resources. Water is very unevenly distributed in the region a fact that might prompt future conflicts over water. The countries of the Great Lakes region are well endowed with water resources, while those downstream have scarce water resources. Water scarcity is defined as less than 1,000 cubic metres of water available per person per year. Other countries have inadequate water resources and unreliable or erratic water supplies.

"We need to do a fundamental rethinking about water," Lester Brown told the Weekly. Brown, formerly the founder-president of Worldwatch, the environmental watchdog, and currently the director of the Washington-based Earth Policy Institute, a leading international environmental think tank, insists that decision-makers and the public at large need to think seriously about their utilisation of water resources.

Brown believes that the solution lies in recycling water supplies continuously. He explained that while it is difficult to recycle water in agriculture, it is very much possible to recycle water in urban centres, even in developing countries. The technologies available, he says, enable city water to be recycled relatively easily in rich and poor countries alike.

In addition to recent criticism of the 1929 treaty from Kenyan and Tanzanian officials, experts believe that Ethiopia will inevitably emerge as a pivotal country in considering the future of water in the region. Ethiopia, which controls the headwaters of the Blue Nile, is the source of no less than 85 per cent of Egypt's water.

Ethiopian officials, including Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, have repeatedly said that if and when Ethiopia does have enough funds to construct dams, that the country then would not only have enough water and better regulated water supplies, but that it would also have more water to pass on to the countries further downstream, i.e. Sudan and Egypt.

"I have difficulty seeing how that could work," commented Brown wryly. "It is convenient for a head of state in Ethiopia to assuage the fears of countries downstream," he added.

"I do agree that the best solution is the construction of the small [dams] contemplated in Ethiopia," Brown said. "But, it will reduce the amount of water reaching Aswan," he added. "It is difficult to argue against Ethiopia's case, against Ethiopia capturing more water for irrigation," Brown insisted. "Ethiopia is a very poor country. Egypt has 10 times more income per person than Ethiopia.

As Ethiopia starts to develop its headwater river, it will become of pivotal importance in considering the future of water in the region. "Egypt will inevitably be getting less water and will have to import an even larger amount of grain," he predicted.

Brown highlighted some of the other serious problems accentuating the water scarcity in the Nile Basin region. A major problem is the relatively higher rates of water evaporation due to the exceptionally low levels of humidity and the high temperatures of the arid zones of northern Sudan and Egypt.

According to official calculations, the evaporation over the course of a year is equal to one tenth of the water reservoir in Lake Nasser. The loss of water through evaporation is very serious in the Nile Basin nations as a whole.

As the meeting of Mubarak and six other cabinet ministers to outline Egypt's Nile Basin policy highlighted, all the countries in the region are entitled to an equitable share of the Nile water and they must devise ways of ensuring that in advancing their own interests they do not cause unnecessary or unprovoked harm to fellow riparian states.

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. Reprinted from Al-Ahram Weekly Online: 678 (Issue No. 26 February - 3 March).