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EA in New Talks With Egypt, Sudan Over Nile Waters


Egypt has reacted with over-sensitivity to any attempt by upstream countries to use the Nile waters for their needs

By JOHN MBARIA , The East Africain

NAIROBI, Oct. 13, 2003 — THE REVELATION by Kenya and Egypt that the Nile Treaty is no longer in place and will be reviewed to allow the region to sell water to Egypt and Sudan is expected to ease the controversy surrounding the issue.

The declaration was made in Nairobi last week by Kenya’s Minister for Water Resources, Martha Karua, in the company of the Egyptian Ambassador to Kenya, Mermeen Wafik. Ms Karua said that the five riparian states of Lake Victoria and other water bodies along the River Nile - Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Sudan and Egypt - were now engaged in a discussion over a new arrangement on the use of the waters.

Discussions on the contentious treaty had been proceeding on and off over the past three years, with members of the East African Legislative Assembly demanding in June this year that it be reviewed to allow the region to sell water to Egypt and the Sudan, the same way the two countries sell their oil.

This declaration also eases the restrictions placed on the other states by the controversial 1929 treaty.

Although the treaty was first signed in 1929 by the Egyptian Prime Minister and the British High Commissioner in Egypt, it bound seven other countries - Ethiopia, Sudan, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo - that had no input into its making.

The treaty, which was a culmination of previous agreements made in 1889, 1891 and 1902 between the British and the Italians, and later the Ethiopian government, merely acknowledged Egypt’s natural and historical rights to the Nile waters.

A section of the treaty says, "Without the consent of the Egyptian government, no irrigation or hydroelectric works can be established on the tributaries of the Nile or their lakes if such works can cause a drop in water level harmful to Egypt."

Apart from this, it secured for the Egyptians the use of 48 billion cubic metres of water each year, while Sudan was given 4 billion cubic metres, with the other countries getting nothing.

Unsatisfied with its share, Sudan withdrew from the treaty when the late President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt commissioned the Aswan High Dam in the mid-1950s. Around the same time, there was a coup in Sudan and the new government renegotiated the treaty, resulting in the 1959 agreement which increased Egypt’s share to 55.5 billion cubic metres (or 82 per cent of the annual flow) while Sudan’s share was increased to 18.5 billion cubic metres (18 per cent).

Even in this later agreement, Kenya and the rest of the East African countries’ water needs were ignored as the two sole beneficiaries went ahead to irrigate 6 million acres of land in Egypt and 2.75 million in Sudan.

Ever since the two agreements were made, Egypt and Sudan have continued to use force or the threat of force to sustain them. For instance, in June 1980, Egypt nearly went to war with Ethiopia after the latter opposed attempts by the late President Anwar Sadat to divert the Nile waters to the Sinai Desert. President Sadat had promised Israel that he would irrigate the desert after the historic peace agreements made in Camp David under the brokerage of the US. To demonstrate its objection to this possibility, Ethiopia threatened to obstruct the Blue Nile, which made Egypt prepare for war.

Apropos this threat, Egypt’s former Minister for Foreign Affairs Boutros Boutros-Ghali (who later became UN secretary general) commented in early 1988, "The next war in our region will be over the waters of the Nile, not politics." Egypt has also placed hydrologists along the 5,584 kilometre-long course of the river to monitor its volume constantly.

Egypt has reacted with over-sensitivity to any attempt by upstream countries to use the Nile waters for their own needs. Although Kenya contributes two-thirds of the water flowing into Lake Victoria, a senior Egyptian official was quoted in the Financial Times in January 1988 as saying, "The day that Kenya decides to use water from Lake Victoria, we will have less water in Egypt ... one litre of water used for their irrigation will be reduced from water received in Cairo."

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