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East Africans consider pulling out of Nile water treaty


CAIRO/ADDIS ABABA, Jan 15, 2004 (IPS/GIN) — The 75-year-old water-sharing treaty that has kept Nile Basin countries from warring over the region’s most precious resource is in jeopardy as East African signatories consider pulling out.

The 1929 Nile Basin Treaty regulates Nile water usage among the 10 countries that share the Nile River’s watershed. Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Congo all have an interest in the waters.

The 1929 agreement was concluded between Britain on behalf of Sudan and Egypt. Britain pledged on behalf of its colonies then not to undertake works that would reduce the volume of Nile waters reaching Egypt.

The 10 riparian states of today came into the picture in 1959 after Sudan gained independence in 1956 and called for revision or abrogation of the 1929 Anglo-Egyptian agreement. Sudan demanded a more rational and fair distribution of the waters.

The total annual discharge of the Main Nile between Egypt and Sudan was measured in a new agreement in 1959 at 74 billion cubic meters. Of this Egypt was allocated two-thirds, which meant 55.5 billion cubic meters, while Sudan was allowed to use the remaining 18.5 billion cubic meters.

The 1959 agreement provides little for the riparian states. It says only that "once other upstream riparian states claim a share of the Nile waters, both countries - Egypt and Sudan - will study together these claims and adopt a unified view thereon. If such studies result in the allocation of a specified volume of Nile water to one or the other of the upper riparian states, then the amount shall be deducted in equal shares from the share of the two countries."

The 1959 meanwhile forbids upstream nations from conducting any activity that threatens the water quotas of Egypt and Sudan.

The biggest fear is that Ethiopia will develop its water resources.

According to water researchers, Ethiopia contributes about 86 per cent of the waters of the Nile but utilises less than one percent of it - 0.65 billion cubic meters of water annually. The total irrigated land in the Ethiopian portion of the Nile basin now stands only at 8,000 hectares — which is 0.4 per cent of the basin’s potential, presently estimated at 2.3 million hectares.

The picture is not that different when one looks at the tapping of hydropower. Of the country’s hydropower potential of about 60 billion kilowatts-hour per year, the bulk of which is embedded in the Ethiopian Nile Basin, Ethiopia has managed a power production capacity of only two percent of the potential.

A water row between Cairo and Addis Ababa has been simmering for years. Ethiopia’s minister for trade and industry Ato Girma Birru accused Egypt last August of using devious tactics to prevent Ethiopia from developing its water resources.

"Egypt has been pressuring international financial institutions to desist from assisting Ethiopia in carrying out development projects in the Nile basin," he said. "It has used its influence to persuade the Arab world not to provide Ethiopia with any loans or grants for Nile water development."

Ethiopia’s stance seems to have "softened" since then, according to official sources. Addis Ababa is keen to resolve the problem bilaterally, they say.

Egyptian foreign minister Fayaza Aboulnaga said on a visit to Ethiopia last month that Cairo was willing to help develop Ethiopia’s irrigation systems for agriculture. She spoke of Egypt’s readiness to provide technical assistance to Ethiopia on utilisation of Nile water resources.

Egypt wants a strong say in Ethiopia’s efforts to develop its hydroelectric and irrigation projects in the Nile River Basin, officials in Addis Ababa say.

At the same time East African countries at the source of the world’s longest river have grumbled for years about the treaty. They say it was crafted to serve British interests in Egypt.

The treaty requires Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda to seek permission from Cairo, 6,000 kilometres away, before drawing water from Lake Victoria to cultivate their parched fields.

"Kenyans are today importing agricultural produce from Egypt as a result of their use of the Nile water," member of parliament Paul Muite said in the Kenyan parliament recently. "Why shouldn’t we use the same water to grow fruits in our country?"

The grumbling became a roar last month when Kenya’s assistant minister for foreign affairs Moses Wetang’ula said his government considers the Nile Basin Treaty invalid and is seeking a new arrangement.

"Kenya will not accept any restrictions on the use of Lake Victoria or the River Nile," he said. "It however does not wish to be a lone ranger in deciding how to use the waters, and has consequently sought the involvement of involved countries."

Egypt reacted swiftly. A Kenyan daily quoted Egypt’s minister for water resources Mahmoud Abu Zeid as saying Kenya’s statements were "a declaration of war" against Egypt. He threatened political and economic sanctions against Kenya, and said Nairobi could "not lay claim to sovereignty to protect itself from any action that Egypt may want to take."

Egypt relies on the Nile for 98 percent of its irrigation water. Its population of 70 million already uses considerably more than its annual quota. With the population expected to grow to 86 million over the coming 25 years, securing the Nile’s waters is for Egyptians literally a matter of life and death.

"The Nile is Egypt’s lifeline, so it can’t accept any decline or decrease of water," says Ahmed El-Naggar of the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. "Each country has water rights, but if any country takes more than its rights, Egypt will not forgive it."

Kenya’s contribution to the Nile waters is negligible but Egypt fears that if Kenya disregards the Nile Basin Treaty others will follow.

Uganda’s parliament recently proposed to drop the treaty in favour of a water-sharing scheme in which it would charge Egypt and Sudan for water use. In Tanzania, currently in the midst of a severe drought, legislators have tabled similar proposals.

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