Home | News    Thursday 18 March 2004

Egypt moves to dispel E.Africa tension over Nile

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By James Macharia

NAIROBI, March 18 (Reuters) - Egypt, long the object of East African mistrust over its control of the Nile, moved on Thursday to dispel tensions over the river saying it favoured fairer distribution of the crucial water supply.

"We are 10 countries. We should have equitable use of the Nile water. It’s that simple," Mahmoud Abu Zaid, Egyptian Minister for Water Resources, told reporters at a meeting of leaders from Nile countries in Nairobi.

"There is no war. This is in the minds of some people. Egyptian President (Hosni) Mubarak is very committed to this new initiative, so we don’t want to talk about conflict."

Sub-Saharan African countries have long pushed for a fairer use of the river among Kenya, Tanzania, Egypt, Uganda, Sudan, Burundi, Rwanda, Congo, Ethiopia and Eritrea.

The rapidly growing nations suffer deforestation, soil erosion and erratic rainfall. They oppose a colonial-era pact giving effective control of the 6,741 km-long (4,189 miles) Nile and its African origins to Egyptian users far downstream.

Egypt, in turn, has long challenged any initiative that would squeeze the flow of the Nile to its frontiers.

Under the 1929 accord between Egypt and Britain, acting on behalf of its then east African colonies, Egypt can veto any use of Lake Victoria water it feels threatens levels in the Nile.

Lake Victoria is a key source of the Nile and its shores stretch along Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.

LOOKING BEYOND TREATY

Edward Lowassa, Tanzania’s Minister for Water and Livestock Development, reiterated that the countries were looking beyond the disputed treaty.

"The treaty is no longer an issue. We are sitting here looking at a shared vision of programmes within the Nile Basin which will help 300 million of our people. There is no problem," Lowassa said during a break in the talks.

Some media commentators have said governments in East Africa fear Cairo will put diplomatic and military pressure on upstream nations to moderate their demands, with some newspapers going so far as to print analyses of Egypt’s military firepower.

Egypt, as well as some sub-Saharan countries, dismiss the reports. "The public is not well informed," Zaid said. "It is so disturbing when you walk down the street, and some people say to me, "you’re taking all the water of the Nile". This is not true."

Zaid said the Arab power was ready to provide technical and financial help to impoverished upstream countries with investment in watershed management, irrigation and water storage systems.

He said the 10 nations were also cooperating on mutually beneficial cross-border power and drainage projects that aim to build interdependence among the Nile countries.

Egypt had no objection to a plan by Tanzania to use Lake Victoria to supply parched northwestern communities through a pipeline project.

"That is for the people to drink. Do you imagine that Egypt would object to that? No," Zaid said.

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