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May 2003

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The Nile: water conflicts

IRIN

From its major source at Lake Victoria in east-central Africa, the White Nile flows north through Uganda and crosses the border into Sudan. After a journey of several thousand kilometres, and in the dusty heat of Khartoum it eventually meets the Blue Nile which, by that time, has made the precipitous descent from the Ethiopian highlands. From the confluence of the White and Blue Niles, the river then continues to flow northwards through the desert, into Egypt and on to the Mediterranean Sea.

Colonial-era agreements outdated

Contained within those voluminous waters, stretching some 6,000 km through some of Africa's most arid lands, is a still largely untapped potential for the development of large swathes of the continent.

According to the World Bank, the Nile River Basin is home to an estimated 160 million people, while almost 300 million live in the ten countries that share the Nile's waters. Within the next 25 years, population within the Basin is expected to double, adding to the increased demand for water generated by growth in industry and agriculture.

In recent years, however, the use of the Nile's waters for development has become something of a bone of contention among the 10 countries that share its basin - Burundi, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan and Egypt.

The contention partly arises from two agreements signed during the colonial era - the 1929 Nile Water Agreement and the 1959 Agreement for the Full Utilization of the Nile - that gave Egypt and Sudan extensive rights over the river's use.

The upstream countries, including the East African countries of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, have expressed concern over the long-standing arrangements, arguing the treaties have served to give Egypt unfair control over the use of the river's waters. None of the colonial treaties involved all the riparian countries and therefore, did not deal equitably with the interests of the upstream countries, they say.

Regional analysts say that Egypt and Sudan, on the other hand, have been reluctant to renegotiate the treaties and this has, at times, strained relations between the upper- and lower-riparian nations.

Recent UN figures highlight the problems of water scarcity in the region. Of 180 countries listed for water availability per person per year in the recently released World Water Development Report, Kenya is ranked 154th, Uganda 115th and Ethiopia 137th. The upstream countries of Egypt and Sudan are ranked 156th and 129th respectively.

During the 1990s, attempts to resolve disagreements surrounding the Nile Basin and develop a regional partnership within which countries of the basin could equitably share the Nile's waters, got under way.

However, real progress has been slow, and Kenyan, Ugandan and Tanzanian legislators have recently sparked fresh debate over the legitimacy of the colonial-era agreements.

Ugandan Members of parliament in particular have demanded compensation from Egypt, which they claim has been able to industrialise by using the Nile's resources to generate electricity and irrigate crops, whereas Uganda has not had this freedom.

Ugandan MP Amon Muzoora in 2002 proposed a motion in parliament for Uganda to renounce the pre-independence Nile water agreements, and made claims for annual compensation of some US $1.2 million.

The Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) 

In the last decade efforts towards cooperation on the Nile have intensified and, in 1993, the Technical Cooperation Committee for the Promotion of the Development and Environmental Protection of the Nile Basin (TECCONILE) was established with the aim of promoting a development agenda.

During that same year, the first in a series of 'Nile 2002 Conferences', supported by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), took place. Within the framework of TECCONILE, the Nile River Basin Action Plan (NRBAP) was prepared in 1995, and in 1997 the World Bank, UNDP, and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) began working as 'cooperating partners' to facilitate further dialogue among the riparian states.

In 1998, all the riparian states except Eritrea, began discussions with a view to creating a regional partnership to better manage the Nile. A transitional mechanism for cooperation was officially launched in February 1999 in Dar-es-Salaam by the Council of Ministers of Water Affairs of the Nile Basin States (Nile-COM).

The process was officially named the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) later in the same year, and in November 2002 a secretariat was established in Entebbe, Uganda, with funding from the World Bank. Burundi, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya and Rwanda are all involved in the NBI, with Eritrea participating as an observer.

According to Antoine Sendama, one of the Nile Basin Initiative's regional coordinators, the 10 countries which share the Nile and its sources met to find a way of cooperating on using the Nile "sustainably and effectively towards development".

Most countries in the region, according to Sendama, share a similar history of poverty, high population growth, environmental degradation, unstable economies and insecurity. "We need to utilise the existing opportunities to have a cooperation where actors will have a win-win gain towards development," he told IRIN recently.

Within the NBI are plans designed to harness the basin's waters for irrigation, and also the establishment of an energy policy to provide power for all the countries in the region, according to Sendama. Some NBI projects, including ones aimed at harnessing energy, and also some designed to make the best use of fisheries resources, are nearing their implementation stage, he said.

It is vital to the success of future developments on the Nile that both Egypt and Sudan are involved in the NBI, Sendama said. "Sudan and Egypt are among the 10 member countries which make up this initiative. By being part of this initiative means they are interested in seeing that it works. They are part of the process," he added.

Geoffrey Howard, who is in charge of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) [Http://www.iucn.org] Eastern Africa programme, told IRIN the main challenge for the region was for upstream countries to find sustainable ways of harnessing the Nile that would not hinder its flow downstream to Egypt. "The real issue here is that Egypt has no other supply of water. Cairo is a major city but depends solely on the Nile," Howard told IRIN.

Philip Kassaija, a lecturer at the Makerere University in Kampala, is full of praise for the Nile Basin Initiative.

He told IRIN that the NBI initiative would help open up negotiations on the equitable use of the Nile, and reduce conflicts over the use of its waters. "At least there is a framework now for negotiations. This is a positive case in which conflict is being arrested before it flares up. The NBI is reducing the potential for conflict," Kassaija told IRIN.

"It is important to renegotiate the colonial treaties. They do not reflect the circumstances that exist today," he added.

Ordinary people ignored

However, critics of the NBI have argued that the initiative has been a closed affair in which only the states involved and the World Bank have had input into decision making, largely ignoring the voices of ordinary people whose livelihoods depend on use of the Nile basin's resources.

Elizabeth Birabwa, a writer on environmental issues, told IRIN there was hardly any information flowing between the NBI secretariat and the media, because the language used by the secretariat was "too technical and distanced from us". "Few journalists know what is happening as far as the Nile is concerned. If you go there, they just give you the colonial treaties and some difficult-to-understand documents. We are hitting a wall," she said.

"Ugandan MPs have raised an issue that affects ordinary people. But the issues are shrouded in secrecy, big moneys being spent, some of it to be repaid by the people who live along the Nile, but the people know nothing," she added.

Civil society groups like IUCN have also criticised the running of the NBI and have formed a parallel initiative they say would enable them to participate in the NBI process.

Howard told IRIN the formation of the Nile International Discourse Desk [http://www.nilediscourse.org], as the initiative is known, did not come easy because governments were initially cautious over the inclusion of civil society groups in the process.

"It has been clear to some of us that decisions made by government are implemented without the actual consultation with the people who live in the Nile Basin," Howard said.

The Nile International Discourse Desk is a loose coalition of non-governmental organisations and civil society groups, and is hosted by the IUCN.

"We are just going to facilitate and organise civil society. We are drafting a social pact to facilitate the work of the civil society," Jean Bigagaza, head of the discourse desk, told IRIN.

"We are trying to get representation from every country. We are talking about a huge investment that will have great impact on people who live on the Nile Basin. We need to get them involved in the process," Bigagaza said.


[This Item is Delivered to the "Africa-English" Service of the UN's IRIN
humanitarian information unit, but may not necessarily reflect the views
of the United Nations. Copyright (c) UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 2003]


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