Positive Environment News

Africa's Struggle for Nile Water Grows Turbulent

Date: 09-Feb-04
Author: Daniel Wallis

Increasingly, the mighty river also provides fertile ground for dispute.

The 4,189-mile-long Nile and its African origins are governed by a colonial-era pact that angers upstream nations by giving effective control to Egyptian users far downstream.

In the lands where the Nile originates - home to some of the world's most arid corners - tempers are rising.

"Egypt can go to hell," said Julius Juma, a Kenyan father of two who runs eight fish ponds in the village of Chemelil near Lake Victoria, the source of the White Nile.

"If Egyptians try to invade Kenya because of our waters, then we are ready to die for what is rightfully ours...Kenya should forget the Nile Treaty and revert to the commercial consumption of Lake Victoria waters."

Such views are spreading among Kenya's neighbors as black Africa pushes for a fairer share of the river among the 10 countries of the so-called Nile Basin, which include Ethiopia, origin of the river's other main source, the Blue Nile.

Of the countries' 300 million population about 160 million live in riverine "basin" areas dependent on Nile waters.

But under a 1929 pact 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.

Kenya, which like Tanzania suffers recurrent droughts caused by inadequate rainfall, deforestation and soil erosion, says it needs water for irrigation and developing hydroelectric plants.

Uganda also wants to make use of the water.

"Egypt can't enjoy the benefits of having access to the sea, while blocking a land-locked country like Uganda from profiting from the fact that it sits at the source of the Nile," wrote Ugandan commentator Charles Onyango-Obbo.


Pressure from east Africa's farmers, fishermen and burgeoning urban communities has forced regional leaders to start talks with Cairo aimed at reviewing the treaty.

Kenya plans a conference in March of governments belonging to a so-called Nile Basin Initiative of Kenya, Tanzania, Egypt, Uganda, Sudan, Burundi, Rwanda, Congo, Ethiopia and Eritrea that will try to hammer out a peaceful solution between its members.

Many view the 1929 agreement as an outdated relic of the colonial era and say it is non-binding because it was negotiated by foreign rulers without their best interests at heart.

"How can you follow a treaty that was agreed with a colonial power against our interests?" Tanzania's water minister Edward Lowasa told Reuters. "How can you tell people living by Lake Victoria who have nothing (that) they cannot use the water?"

After Tanzania's independence from Britain in 1961, then-President Julius Nyerere said his country would not be bound by the treaty. "We can use the water, and we are just following what he said in 1962," Lowasa added.


The problem facing many countries that would like to use Nile headwaters is paying for irrigation and hydroelectric projects. Analysts say the World Bank in effect enforces the 1929 treaty.

"The World Bank will not give an upstream country money and a loan to build a dams unless it has an agreement with the downstream country," said Sharif Elmusa, head of the Middle East program at the American University in Cairo (AUC).

Black African countries cannot match Egypt's diplomatic clout. The United States sees Egypt as a strategic ally in the Middle East, and as a political and cultural leader in the Arab world. Its Suez Canal is also a critical bottleneck for shipping between the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean and beyond.

Egyptian officials say the Nile is crucial for Egypt's survival, and any change in its level could be disastrous. Most Egyptians live in the Nile valley on 4 percent of the country's land. Over 95 percent of Egypt's water resources come from the river.

"This is the main source for our life here," Abdel-Fattah Metawie, head of the Nile water depart

© Thomson Reuters 2004 All rights reserved

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