Al-Ahram Weekly Online   8 - 14 April 2004
Issue No. 685
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Who runs the river?

Neither Egypt nor the downstream Nile Basin nations are messing about on the river, writes Gamal Nkrumah

The sharing of the Nile River waters has recently thrown the officials of the Nile Basin into a flurry of diplomatic activity. Egypt has been host to a series of high-level visitors from Nile Basin countries -- ministers, MPs and technical experts.

The Monday visit by Ugandan Minister of State for Water Maria Mutagamba comes at a time when Egypt and Uganda are trying to strengthen economic and commercial ties. "Mutagamba is in the country to learn from Egypt's experience in water management," Ugandan Ambassador to Egypt Ibrahim Mukiibi told Al- Ahram Weekly.

Mutagamba met with Egypt's Minister of Water and Irrigation Mahmoud Abu Zeid, Minister of State for Foreign Relations Faiza Abul-Naga and Fathi Surour, speaker of the People's Assembly. They discussed ways of enhancing cooperation in irrigation, agriculture, power and other issues related to water. Uganda, for example, has a serious problem of water hyacinths clogging Lake Victoria.

Last month, a high-level Ethiopian parliamentary delegation visited Egypt to promote economic cooperation. "Let us coordinate economic activities and identify areas where we can work more closely together," Haile-Kiros Gessesse, chairman of the Foreign, Defence and National Security Standing Committee in the Ethiopian parliament, told the Weekly.

On the shores of Lake Victoria, technical experts and officials from 10 Nile Basin countries met to iron out differences and work out solutions to the many challenges facing Nile Basin nations. Details of how the meeting went remain frustratingly fuzzy. They met in the Ugandan port city of Entebbe, where they discussed the legal and institutional framework of the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), a regional grouping that deals with riparian and development concerns.

Barely a week later representatives of Nile Basin nations met in Kenya to thrash out issues pertaining to the river not touched upon at the Entebbe meeting.

"The discussions were conducted in good spirit. They were frank and open, but the spirit of compromise predominated," Ethiopian Ambassador to Egypt Amare Girma, who attended the Entebbe meeting, told the Weekly. "The talks aimed at finding long-term solutions to the challenges of the Nile," he added.

Ambassador Girma decried the "distortions" often conjured up by the media which unnecessarily poison relations between Nile Basin countries. "There were of course several unresolved hard-core contentious issues, but the important fact is that the Nile Basin countries are engaging in dialogue in the spirit of cooperation," he stressed. "The papers are full of speculation. It is vitally important that the media stop distorting the facts."

NBI Executive Director Maraji Msuya pointed out that there is a pressing need to re-evaluate certain aspects of the treaty. "The most important thing for everybody is that all countries are genuinely ready and willing to discuss the issues."

Water shortages are the single biggest threat to regional food security. The already fierce competition for limited water resources is bound to intensify over the coming decades. At current 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 Egyptian media often propagates the myth that Ethiopia has a hidden agenda with regards to the Nile. We are here in Egypt to dispel such myths," Gessesse told the Weekly. He said that Egypt and Ethiopia should be partners in development, stressing, "Ethiopia doesn't want to endanger the access of the water to Egypt." However, Gessesse conceded that Ethiopia was proceeding with plans to construct the Chara Chara Dam, primarily to provide hydroelectric power.

"Today, there is no starvation in Egypt. But, we do have starvation in Ethiopia. We have recurrent droughts, we have a situation where one child of the river (Egypt) enjoys the benefit of the river and another (Ethiopia) is starving in spite of the river. That is not fair," argued Gessesse. 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.

The meeting was attended by representatives of Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda. The talks were held under the auspices of the NBI, an inter- governmental body launched in 1999. The focus of the talks was closer collaboration, but the controversy surrounding the 1929 Nile Basin Treaty, which governs relations between the relevant nations on questions of Nile waters sharing, formed the basis of a strong undercurrent underlying discussions.

The optimistic tone of the Entebbe talks was set by Msuya who pointed out that even though there was a pressing need to re-evaluate certain aspects of the treaty the main object was fruitful dialogue and closer cooperation. "The most important thing for everybody is that all countries are genuinely ready and willing to discuss the [Nile waters] issues."

Reports of the construction of hydroelectric projects in tandem with statements made recently by certain top-level officials in a number of Nile Basin nations has put Egypt on the defensive. Kenyan and Tanzanian ministers are openly questioning their obligation to abide by the 1929 agreement on Nile waters sharing concluded between Egypt and Great Britain, then representing its East African colonies.

Behind the diplomatic niceties, an underlying current of tensions exist. Egyptian officials have made it clear that they will challenge any attempt to change or violate the 1929 treaty. Last week at a water conference in Alexandria, Egypt's Minister of Water and Irrigation Mahmoud Abu Zeid reiterated his warning that any unilateral change in the 1929 treaty would be a breach of international law.

Meanwhile, the other countries question why they should abide by the colonial-era agreement. Furthermore, the problems posed by the Blue Nile are different from those posed by the White Nile, mainly fed by Lake Victoria.

Egypt, the country furthest downstream, also utilises the lion's share of the Nile. In the past, some upriver countries have accused Egypt of consuming more than its fair share of the river's waters.

But Egyptian officials are careful to cultivate close economic and political ties with their neighbours to the south. They believe that closer cooperation between Nile Basin nations is the surest guarantor of peace and stability in the region. Sustainable socio-economic development and the collective management of Nile Basin water resources is the key to easing tensions. Cairo argues that the upper riparian states are not dependent on the waters of the Nile for agricultural purposes, but realises that those same states are entitled to utilise the resources the river provides.

Eritrean Ambassador to Egypt Mahmoud Omer Chirum concurred. "The official Eritrean stance is that water is a gift that all of us in Nile Basin must learn to conserve and wisely utilise -- the precious gift of water we share together. Water must become a means of regional cooperation," he told the Weekly. Chirum expressed his belief that the future will not bring wars over water resources.

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