Egypt Ready to Negotiate Nile Waters. (Natural Resources)

By Ford, Neil | African Business, April 2002 | Go to article overview
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Egypt Ready to Negotiate Nile Waters. (Natural Resources)

Ford, Neil, African Business

While Egypt remains the 'gift of the Nile', at least 10 other countries in eastern Africa have a significant interest in its waters. But outdated regulations over the disposal of the waters are becoming an increasing source of friction. Now, as Neil Ford reports, there may be a way out of the impasse.

For almost all of the last century, the Egyptian government refused to reduce its share of the Nile waters but it has now adopted a more conciliatory stance and is discussing the issue with the other states of the Nile Valley.

World Bank loans to Egypt have dropped from $550m in 1999 to $50m for 2001, and the government is keen to promote regional cooperation and stability in order to accelerate economic growth within the country itself.

As one of the oldest hydraulic civilisations, Egypt has a millennia old culture based upon the power and fertility of the Nile. Today, it holds the key to the future of water sector development in much of the eastern half of Africa.

The importance of the Nile in Egyptian politics, economics and culture is underlined by the fact that 98% of the country's population lives on just 4% of the land - almost exclusively in and around the narrow Nile Valley.

The government has jealously guarded its command of the Nile through a series of colonial agreements. With a population growing at around 2% a year, such control would seem to be vital to the future of the country. The government estimates that annual water demand will increase from 66.34bn cubic metres in 1997 to 86.74bn in 2017. Given that 55.5bn cubic metres of the 1997 demand was taken from the Nile, any reduction in its share of the Nile waters seems out of the question.

Outdated water deals?

Water demand is also increasing in the other nine countries of the 4000 mile long Nile Valley watershed: Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi and Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo).

The combined population of the 10 countries in the Valley is 300m. Of these, 160m actually live within the watershed itself but the World Bank estimates that the population of the Nile Valley will double by 2025.

Egypt's modern domination of the Nile waters goes back to an agreement between the then colonial ruler of Egypt, Great Britain, and the Ethiopian government in 1902, whereby Ethiopia guaranteed not to interfere with the river's flow.

Another agreement in 1929 negotiated between the British authorities in Egypt and in the East African countries of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, forbids the East African territories from taking any of the water at all. These agreements remain in force today.

Another agreement was negotiated in 1959 between the Egyptian and Sudanese governments, after the construction of rhe Aswan Dam caused a breakdown in relations. This agreement allocated 55.5bn cubic metres of water per year to Egypt and 18.5bn to Sudan. The other Nile countries were not consulted.

The other governments of the Valley find the current situation untenable and wish to secure their own rights to the Nile waters. The Kenyan parliament has voted to renegotiate the 1929 agreement and is being backed by the Tanzanian and Ugandan governments.

That Ethiopia has been excluded from past agreements is perhaps even more remarkable. Only 15% of the Nile waters actually flow through the White Nile, from the River Kagera and Lake Victoria in East Africa. Almost all the remaining 85% comes from the Blue Nile and River Atbara in the Ethiopian Highlands.

Years of civil war and conflict with Eritrea have caused instability in Ethiopia but the region appears to have settled down somewhat and with or without a renegotiation, Ethiopia is likely to develop the upper reaches of the Blue Nile through irrigation schemes and hydroelectric power plants.

A shared vision'

Egypt's willingness to co-operate, and steadily increasing pressure from East Africa and the Horn have prompted the creation of several new cross border bodies to administer and develop the Nile in the least confrontational manner.

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