Water: Whose Nile Is It Anyway?

Article excerpt

Almost imperceptible but critical changes are taking place in the approach of Nile-basin states to their water supply. As The Middle East observed in its February issue, there is considerable concern throughout the region about the potential for conflict posed by scarce water resources. Brian Scudder and Jon Wild report that the waters of the Nile may yet be equitably shared without bringing the countries through which it runs to armed confrontation.

INFLAMMATORY STATEMENTS made over the past few years (particularly by Egypt and Ethiopia) have suggested to many commentators that war over Nile water is inevitable. The reality is that although still fiercely outspoken these governments are letting slip their pretence to war readiness, and are slowly and quietly developing closer contacts. Confrontation over water is nothing new, but despite dire predictions it may yet be resolved diplomatically.

The Nile 2002 Conference held in Khartoum at the beginning of February was attended by nine of the ten Nile-basin states ranging from Egypt to Tanzania. It takes its name from the hope that a new multilateral agreement on Nile water use will be reached by 2002. Previous conferences made little headway, but this time there are signs that entrenched positions are shifting.

Egypt has always argued that the 1959 Nile Waters Agreement between itself and Sudan is irrevocable. The treaty allocates Egypt 55 cubic kilometres of Nile water per year of which it uses all. The Sudan receives the remaining 18.5 cubic kilometres from the total of 74 cubic kilometres, leaving other Nile-basin states (notably Ethiopia which is the origin of over 80% of Nile water) without specific allocations.

The Egyptian state governs 55m people, and with population growth set to double that figure by 2025 politicians and engineers often argue that access to this volume of water is vital to their ability to support the population. Such hard-nosed facts would seem to add strength to their arguments and increase the likelihood of armed conflict.

However, such a scenario disregards the possibility of an industrially powerful Egypt which could contemplate using less water, and feeding its population (as it already does to a large extent) without relying on indigenous food production. Some experts believe this could happen if it were to receive the right kind of international assistance, assistance that an overarching Nile-basin agreement would certainly unlock.

Such arguments may go some way to explaining why Nasir Ezzet, an Egyptian representative, said at the Khartoum conference: "We recognise the needs of other Nile-basin countries. Each riparian state could have an equitable share of the waters of the Nile." For the first time, Egypt has publicly shown flexibility in its approach to water allocation.

Egypt may be moving towards the realisation not only that a war over water would be too costly in terms of manpower and resources, but also that the benefits of a new agreement could be enormously important for Egypt's international standing. …