Egypt’s Age-Old Control of Nile Waters Challenged

Five thousand years ago, ancient Egyptians believed their kings were gods because they held sway over the waters of the Nile. Today’s Egypt too, guided by the mystic belief that the state and the longest river in the world are synonymous – and a strong sense of self-preservation – refuses to relinquish a single drop of the water that nourished Cleopatra’s asp.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Cairo sources stress: The fact that the Nile’s course and sources are located in ten different countries has little impact on modern-day Egyptian consciousness – particularly when a gap in international law leaves colonial treaties in place as the only benchmark for water-sharing among riverside nations.

(See attached map of Nile Basin)

The last of a long line of riparian rebels to try and overturn Egypt’s aggressive Nile exclusivity is Kenya. Its target: the Nile Basin Treaty signed in 1929 between Britain and Egypt, which bars nine of the ten countries across which the Nile River basis spreads – Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Burundi, DRCongo, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Rwanda and Sudan – from undertaking any project that might diminish the flow of Nile waters to Egypt. Kenya is prevented therefore from using desperately needed Lake Victoria waters because it is the main source of the River Nile.

On December 12, Kenya announced its intention of withdrawing from the 1929 Nile Basin Treaty calling it a colonial relic. Egypt’s minister for Water and Natural Resources, Mahmoud Abu-Zeid, reacted strongly. Describing the move as “an act of war” and “a breach of international law,” he threatened that Kenya could “not lay claim to sovereignty to protect itself from any action that Egypt might want to take.”

The argument flared at a water conference in Ethiopia from which Kenya’s Water Minister Martha Karua walked out. Uganda shared Kenya’s concern but hoped the treaty could be renegotiated. Nairobi subsequently agreed to talks with the Egyptian government, but insisted that Egypt must understand that the time has come to give way on this point.

Eight main rivers in Kenya pour into Lake Victoria, the second largest freshwater lake in the world, and the Nairobi government is demanding a renegotiated treaty that guarantees the country its fair share.

Kenya leads the challenge

Last summer, a Kenyan Catholic archbishop, Zachaeus Okoth, raised Egyptian hackles when he asked why Kenya does not consider pumping out water from Lake Victoria to the dry parts of the country to boost food production through irrigation. “If we can do this…with petrol, why can’t we do the same with water?” he asked.

In February 1999, the Nile Basin Initiative brought together the riparian nations for a joint effort to work together to fight poverty through the “equitable utilization of, and benefit from, the common Nile Basin water resources.” So far, though drought and armed conflict rage and exacerbate hardship and poverty in an entire arid slice of Africa, nothing has been done to divert a single gallon of Nile water from its immemorial one-way flow to Egypt.

According to DEBKANet-Weekly‘s political analysts, the issue is approaching crisis point – and not for the first or last time.

A UN Development Program report describes water scarcity as the single biggest threat to global food security. Nearly one in two people in Africa will live in countries facing water scarcity in 25 years. By 2025, 12 more African countries will join the 13 already suffering from water stress or scarcity (defined as less than 1,000 cu.m of water per person per year). If the population of only three Nile countries, Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt, rises from 150 million today to 340 million in 2050, as estimated, the competition for diminishing water resources will intensify much before then. Water is already a catalyst for regional conflict.

Surrounded by forbidden water

The growing awareness of the unequal share-out of Nile waters is generating intense animosity on the part of the upstream nations, all poorer than Egypt. In Eritrea, traditional huts are built around the village pump. But after four years of drought, the village well has dried up and there is little if any food for people and animals. Without irrigation water to grow food and sustain farms, Eritrean children are starving except for the small proportion that is fed by international programs.

The immense power Egypt holds over the entire nearly 6,648 kilometers river up to its furthest streamhead, the Kagera River near the northern tip of Lake Tanganyka, derives from an accident of geography. When the British-Egyptian Nile Basin Treaty was signed in 1929, Lake Victoria with Lake Albert was thought to be the only sources of the Nile River proper. Nine countries were barred from using lake waters without Cairo’s permission. Egypt was allocated the exclusive right to use 48 billion cubic meters of water per year and Sudan some 4 billion cubic meters. In 1959, a new agreement set Egypt’s share at 55.5 bcm per year to Sudan’s 18.5 bcm. Other riverside nations were not asked to join or included in the distribution.

Today, the Nile is known to rise in the basins of the White and Blue Niles. Although 85 percent of the total Nile volume comes from its highlands, Ethiopia like Kenya owns no rights to its waters under present agreements, any more than Burundi does in relation to the Kagera River.

Ethiopia has tried before and is like to try again to obtain some of the Blue Nile waters for itself. According to one authority, if Ethiopia were to use Nile water to irrigate even half of its potentially irrigable area, the Nile flows downstream to Egypt would fall by 16 percent. In 1980, when the Addis Ababa government proposed to dam the Blue Nile, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat declared: “If Ethiopia carries out its plan and blocks our right to the Nile waters, there will be no alternative for us but to use force.”

Ten years later, Boutros-Ghali declared: “If Uganda and Sudan were to build their own high dams (As Egypt did on the Aswan in the 1960s), these would greatly cut down the amount of water available for Egypt. This would be catastrophic for Egypt and would kill us. People have gone to war for less.”

Nine Nile nations, led by Kenya, may be preparing to overturn a 5,000-year old fact of Northeastern African life to alleviate the harsh conditions of their peoples. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s African sources cite the frustration of the deprived countries and a new awareness: The Sudanese government and rebels have managed to share out the nation’s oil wealth after 20 years of bloody conflict, some are saying. So why not the equitable distribution of Nile water?

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