Nile water makes waves among basin countries

Jonathan Spollen
14 Min Read

Conflicts over water resources have grown exponentially in the last 150 years.

Throughout swathes of South East Asia, the Middle East, and North East Africa, burgeoning populations are putting strain on limited water resources, and many analysts believe that water, not oil, will be the biggest source of conflict in the 21st century.

The Nile River, running through 10 countries known as the Nile basin, has been the subject of several historical disputes, and the coming years will be pivotal in determining whether water will be the source of prosperity, or conflict.

In Egypt, the Nile accounts for almost all of the country’s freshwater, providing drinking water and irrigation for agricultural products such as wheat, cotton and sugarcane, and all manner of fruits and vegetables.

Hydropower projects on the Nile supply nearly a fifth percent of the country’s energy. Ninety-five percent of the population lives along the river.

“If I were to rule a country like Egypt, Napoleon famously said, during the short-lived occupation, “not a single drop of water would be allowed to flow into the Mediterranean.

Egyptians historically have lived at the mercy of the Nile, with whole livelihoods depending on the river flooding its banks each year and leaving behind a fertile layer of silt on which they could grow their crops.

Damming projects controlling the flow of water, such as Lake Nasser, and the introduction of manmade fertilizers may have eliminated the dependence on annual flooding, but the country’s population is as dependent on the Nile as it ever was.

And widespread protests over water shortages around the country last summer gave the government a foretaste of what could come should they fail to ensure Egypt’s water security.

The reason behind Egypt’s insecurity over the Nile is that the river’s sources are located in other countries – the White Nile in Uganda, over 1,500 miles away, and the Blue Nile high in the mountains of Ethiopia.

A controversial 1959 agreement known as the Nile Treaty allocates 83 percent of the Nile’s water in entirety to Egypt and the remaining 17 percent to Sudan, even though it flows through 10 countries. Egypt, the treaty states, has right of veto over any intended water use in any of the basin countries.

But in recent years, in the wake of political and economic reforms, many basin states such as Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Ethiopia have become more vocal about their right to draw water from the Nile for irrigation, drinking water and energy projects.

“We shall soon be free to use the lake waters as much as we wish, said Mutua Katuku in 2006, while Kenya’s minister of water. “We shall use it to fill dams and irrigate our farms.

Basin countries outside of Sudan and Egypt argue that the Nile Treaty, originating from an earlier treaty in 1929, was signed under British colonialism and before they had independence, making it defunct.

They say that while Egypt, and to a lesser extent Sudan, irrigate millions of acres of agricultural land, much of it for cash crops and water export, they face droughts and starvation.

“These are people with no water, said the Edward Lowasa in 2004, then Tanzania’s water minister. “How can we do nothing when we have this lake just sitting there?

Such statements by basin countries in the past have drawn angry reactions from Egypt, with the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in the 1970s threatening war against “any action that would endanger the waters of the Blue Nile, and Boutros Boutros Ghali predicting, as recently as 2003, that the next war in the region would be over the Nile.

Moreover, critics have accused Egypt of fostering regional instability in order to maintain its monopoly over the Nile by supporting conflicts in Nile basin countries.

“For half a century Cairo backed rebel groups in Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia, said a report by Strategic Forecasting (STRATFOR), a US-based security analysis firm. The Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs accuses Egypt of “fanning the flames and aggravating the conflicts to serve its own interests.

But cooperation projects in recent years among the Nile basin countries are offering hope that instead of a violent scramble for control over the Nile, its resources will be maximized and shared, and the full potential of the river will be realized, fostering economic growth and peace.

The Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) was launched in 1999 with just that aim.

Based in the Ugandan city of Entebbe, the NBI’s object is to support communication between Nile countries over the river’s use, and help basin countries merge their economic interests through joint agriculture and hydropower projects, as well as maximize the efficiency of Nile water use; if not renegotiating the Nile Treaty, then finding ways around it.

“The concept of benefits sharing will benefit everyone, Fallah Shazali, a water analyst with the NBI in Uganda, told Daily News Egypt.

“Countries with high water demands can sit down with other countries and ask: ‘What crops can be grown elsewhere cheaper?’

Uganda, for example, which enjoys the highest level of rainfall of the basin countries and an abundance of fertile agricultural land, will supply Egypt with water-intensive crops like rice and sugarcane, as it is better able to grow them.

Ethiopia’s planned hydroelectric dams will be used not only to power its expanding economy, but also those of Sudan and Egypt.

David Grey, a water analyst with the World Bank who has been involved in the NBI since its inception, told Daily News Egypt about the “superhuman effort that has gone into the initiative, and said that communication between basin countries was the key to its success.

“There has been no history of communication and consultation – that’s the problem, he said. “The NBI is trying to change thousands of years of history in just a few years, and it is practically finished.

But the completion of an NBI agreement is just the beginning of where the work starts. Massive projects will have to be undertaken on the ground in order to ensure efficient use of Nile water.

In Egypt the government will need to improve distribution of water, introduce new canal and irrigation systems, and provide technology designed to maximize water efficiency.

Systems to better recycle and treat drainage and sewage water will need to be augmented in places, and established in others.

“There is so much we have to do, Dr Taha Mustafa Hussein, the deputy director of the Water Management Research Institute in Cairo, told Daily News Egypt.

“So much water goes to waste in Egypt. But the [water] ministry has plans to improve all of this.

At a grass roots level, awareness campaigns educating farmers on water usage will be integral to the initiative as between 70 percent and 80 percent of Egypt’s freshwater is used for agriculture.

And until new networks are established in water scarce areas, particularly on the outskirts of Egypt’s cities and in the countryside, everyone will need to learn about water efficiency, beginning in school. Otherwise scenes like those witnessed last summer will become more frequent, and probably more violent.

Water awareness, said Dr Radwan Weshah, regional water adviser at UNESCO’s Cairo office, involves making people understand that they – not just the government – are responsible for their water security.

“People tend to think of this issue as something that does not concern them directly, Dr Weshah told Daily News Egypt. “They think the government takes care of everything.

“You can’t police people. You need the individual to value water in his own ethics.

On a regional level, the benefits of NBI cooperation are already being felt.Just last summer Sudan and Egypt peacefully agreed to a large-scale irrigation project in Ethiopia funded by a World Bank loan. In the days before the NBI, this could have been a cause for war.

A new technical office has been launched in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa for cooperation between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia in utilizing Blue Nile water.

Egyptian engineers are working on
and supervising water projects right throughout the basin.

“We have joint projects with Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania right now, the Minister of Water, H.E. Mahmoud Abu Zeid told Daily News Egypt.

But the NBI is not complete, and how close it is to completion depends on who you speak to.

While many, like David Grey of the World Bank, believe it is on the verge of producing a fully fledged treaty that can be signed into international law, others are less optimistic.

They point to the fact that, despite the apparent progress, nothing has been finalized yet after years of talks and declarations, and that is not taking into account that the population of the Nile basin is projected to double by 2050, which will jeopardize any possible treaty down the line.

Ashok Swain, professor of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University and author of “Ethiopia, the Sudan and Egypt: the Nile River Dispute, told Daily News Egypt, that he expected an escalation in tension between Ethiopia and Egypt in the coming years, as both countries’ populations and economies grow rapidly.

“Almost certainly there will be open hostilities, he said. “A World Bank project here or there is not enough to provide Ethiopia with the irrigation and electricity it needs to provide to its population.

“All of these basin countries agreeing to Egypt’s demands is not a realistic expectation.

Apart from Sudan, the Nile basin countries are waiting for Egypt to relinquish the 1959 treaty before they agree to a final framework, which will be formulated through the NBI.

However, Minister Abu Zeid told Daily News Egypt that this would not be part of the final agreement; because it would not need to be.

At present, he said, the countries of the Nile basin only use five percent of the available water due to inefficient use, so the Nile Treaty only applies to that 5 percent.

“The goal, he said “is for other countries to use more Nile water that is going to waste.

But irrespective of how long it takes to formulate a new treaty, anyone following or involved in developments in Nile basin diplomacy agrees that continued cooperation and dialogue are essential to preventing conflict and ensuring the water security of the countries involved.

“The Nile basin countries can avoid conflicts over water resources if they cooperate, take a basin-wide perspective, and work together on joint water resources development, Dale Whittington, a Nile water management expert at the University of North Carolina, told Daily News Egypt.

“But if each country pursues its own unilateral projects without considering the consequences of their actions on the other countries, I feel that conflict is ultimately very likely.

Dr Weshah of UNESCO agreed.

“It can be a source of conflict or it can be a good means of cooperation. In the end of the day, the Nile connects, not separates.

“As a scientist, he said, “I like to think that water puts out fires, it doesn’t make them. s

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