Nile states look to new division of waters




Mark Huband reports on an attempt to co-ordinate sharing of one of Africa’s great resources

By Mark Huband in Cairo

Financial Times, 27 February 1997

All the states through which the waters of the Nile flow have disputes with at least one neighbour but, when it comes to sharing the water, there is more than a glimmer of hope of co-operation.

Zaire accuses Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi of backing rebels who have seized the east of the country. Burundi has faced tough sanctions from all its neighbours since a coup brought the army back into power last year. Sudan accuses Uganda, Eritrea and Ethiopia of supporting rebels trying to overthrow the Khartoum government. Egypt, for which the Nile flows as a majestic lifeline, has rarely had such bad relations with Sudan, which it accuses of harbouring anti-government Islamic militants.

But the 10 states, which include the above as well as Kenya and Tanzania, appeared to put political differences aside at a conference in Cairo last week, in an effort to secure $100m in aid for 21 projects intended better to exploit the 6,750km river’s economic potential and ensure fair distribution of the resource.

Donor countries – notably Canada and Denmark, which intend to finance three of the projects – have made aid conditional on the states co-operating. In spite of the worsening political situation, 10 ministers responsible for water supplies and the management of the Blue and White  Nile rivers believe that establishment of a region-wide action plan is now likely.

“If there’s no common political agreement then there’s no climate for investment,” said Mr Aly Shady, senior policy adviser to the Canadian International Development Agency, which has played a key role in bringing the 10 states together.

Pressure for a new approach is intense. The only legal water-sharing agreement in force is a 1959 bilateral accord which allows Egypt to extract 55.5bn cubic metres a year and Sudan to extract 18.5bn cubic metres. Both draw from waters largely sourced in Ethiopia, which is not legally allowed to extract any water at all.

Egypt’s current economic take-off has been accompanied by 3.5 per cent annual population growth since the late 1980s, the lowest of the Nile basin states and a quarter that of Tanzania. Nevertheless, by 2050 Egypt’s population – the largest in the region – will have doubled to 118m. Mr Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s president, in January launched a $223m canal project to bring water to Egypt’s Western Desert in an effort to attract $4bn of private investment in new urban settlements. Diversion of Nile waters is essential to the project.

Sudan uses 75 per cent of its allowance, while Ethiopia has yet to demand a legally-based allocation. Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi all enjoy heavy rainfalls, as do parts of Kenya, Tanzania and Zaire. But the Nile’s bounty can no longer be taken for granted.

“There are 250m people living in the Nile basin and this will become 1bn by 2050. But the amount of water is exactly the same,” said Mr Shady, citing World Bank estimates. “More people will die very soon if they don’t start to co-operate. The water those states receive is less than they need to live on, and this has been so since the 1950s.”

Egypt is expected to see increasing urbanisation and industrialisation, which historically cuts water usage as less is used for irrigation which accounts for 85-95 per cent of overall consumption, Mr John Waterbury, professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, wrote last year in a study of the current negotiations.

“The international community has grown comfortable with the 1959 status quo, not because it is equitable, but because none of the nations most affected by it have consistently called it into question. Ethiopia may change that situation in the coming years,” Prof Waterbury said.

Changing quotas would force Egypt to alter its remaining agricultural output – moving away from rice in particular – as well as further expand re-use of drainage water.

“We are not asking for more water. We are looking for co-operation,” said Mr Youssef Waly, Egypt’s deputy prime minister. “Egypt is the gift of the Nile, but it is using the water efficiently.”

The need for a regional approach is vividly illustrated: worsening erosion in the Ethiopian highlands affects Egypt’s water supply by silting-up the river hundreds of miles downstream. “The co-operative framework will lead to an equitable distribution of the water,” said Mr Yagoub Abu Shora Musa, Sudan’s minister of irrigation and water resources. “The political considerations which arise from time to time I don’t think are hindering us from looking ahead at the things which are lasting.”

A similar view is held by the military government of Burundi, where the White Nile rises, in spite of sanctions enforced by its neighbours. Such equanimity has impressed donors. The World Bank, which has no plans to lend its own funds, now appears willing to convene a meeting to co-ordinate donations for the $ 100m being sought for the projects –  called the Nile River Basin Action Plan – and create a basin-wide authority to co-ordinate the water’s use.

“We believe that the level of dialogue has improved. Talking has changed the tone. But it’s at a very technical stage, which stems from bringing so many countries together,” said Mr David Grey, senior water resources management specialist at the World Bank. “The river passes through some of the poorest countries in the world. There are emerging economies with growing demands. We want to avoid one person gaining by another person losing.”

© Financial Times