Monday, 28 June 2010

Battle for the Nile as rivals lay claim to Africa's great river

For a decade the nine states in the Nile basin have been negotiating on how best to share and protect the river in a time of changing climates, environmental threats and exploding populations. Now, with an agreement put on the table, talks have broken down in acrimony. On one side are the seven states that supply virtually all the Nile's flow. On the other are Egypt and Sudan, whose desert climates make the Nile's water their lifeblood. "This is serious," said Henriette Ndombe, executive director of the intergovernmental Nile Basin Initiative, established in 1999 to oversee the negotiation process and enhance co-operation. "This could be the beginning of a conflict."

The sticking point between the two groups is a question going back to colonial times: who owns the Nile's water? Kitra's answer – "It is for all of us" – might seem obvious. But Egypt and Sudan claim to have the law on their side. Treaties in 1929 and 1959, when Britain controlled much of the region, granted the two states "full utilisation of the Nile waters" – and the power to veto any water development projects in the catchment area in east Africa. The upstream states, including Ethiopia, source of the Blue Nile, which merges with the White Nile at Khartoum, and supplies 86% of the river's eventual flow, were allocated nothing.

However debatable its claim under international law, Egypt strongly defends it, sometimes with threats of military action. For decades it had an engineer posted at Uganda's Owen Falls dam on the Nile, close to Kitra's island, monitoring the outflow.

But in a sign of the growing discord, Uganda stopped supplying the engineer with data two years ago, according to Callist Tindimugaya, its commissioner for water resources regulation. And when Egypt and Sudan refused to sign the agreement in April on "equitable and reasonable" use of the Nile unless it protected their "historic rights" the other states lost patience. Isaac Musumba, Uganda's state minister for regional affairs, and its Nile representative, said: "We were saying: 'This is crazy! You cannot claim these rights without obligations'." Minelik Alemu Getahun, one of Ethiopia's negotiators, said all the upstream states saw the move by Egypt (Sudan has a more passive role) as "tantamount to an insult".

Ugandans endorse this stance. Ronald Kassamba, 24, scything grass along the banks of the Nile near Jinja, 50 miles from the capital Kampala, said: "Egypt is being very unfair. We have the source, so we should also be able to use the water."

Convinced that from their point of view there was no purpose in more talks, Uganda, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Tanzania signed a "River Nile Basin Co-operative Framework" agreement in May. Kenya followed, and Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo look likely to do so – causing alarm and anger in Egypt. When parliaments in six states ratify the deal, a permanent commission to decide on water allocation will be set up – without the two states that need the river most.

To read the full article please go to the Guardian web site, which you can find here.

Menas Associates has recently done a Breakfast Briefing about Sudan, and the disputes surrounding the river Nile. To request more information about Menas Associates' past and forthcoming Breakfast Briefings please contact us.

For more news and expert analysis about Egypt, please see Egypt Politics & Security.

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