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May/June 2011
Vol. 36, No. 3


Africa: Tension swirls around Nile water

Water is an issue of great concern in many parts of the world, but negotiations over the use of water from the Nile river are exceptionally delicate. South Sudan is approaching independence and needs to develop policies that address extreme poverty, protect access to basic resources, including water, and preserve fragile ecosystems. Ethiopia, with very high levels of poverty, is looking to hydroelectric generation as a source of export income. Egypt is seeking new sources of water, as are communities in many countries - and climate change is threatening the stability of water sources throughout the region.

An article in The East African (April 4) predicted diplomatic problems for Tanzania over its plan to draw water from Lake Victoria, which is a major source for the Nile and thus of great interest to Egypt and Sudan. The water would be used, beginning in 2014, in the Tabora region and would also benefit other regions and villages situated along the pipeline. An earlier project drew water from Lake Victoria for Kahama and Shinyanga.

During the colonial era, Britain and Egypt signed two treaties that "restricted the carrying out of any project on the Nile river tributaries or their lakes that could adversely affect its water level without Cairo's consent," giving Egypt dominant rights to Nile water. But seven countries – Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo – argue that the two treaties are illegal, since they were negotiated and signed before independence for Tanganyika [Tanzania], Kenya, Uganda and the other states. In May 2010, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania and Ethiopia signed the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), in an effort to curb Egypt's water rights. Kenya and Burundi also signed within the time limits established. Egypt obviously disagrees and Sudan has supported Egypt.

Ethiopia is planning to build a massive $4.8 billion hydroelectric dam in the Nile river basin near its border with Sudan. The Blue Nile, which begins in Ethiopia, meets the White Nile in Sudan's capital Khartoum. Ethiopia hopes to address its own serious poverty by exporting electricity, but has run into strong opposition to its new project from environmentalists and from Egypt, which depends entirely on the Nile for its water. Ethiopia is thus far not attracting the necessary funding from donors and lending agencies, but intends to go ahead with the project regardless, claiming it is essential to addressing Ethiopia's poverty.

Voice of America reported in late March that Ethiopia is discussing with Egypt and Sudan the possibility of joint ownership of the project, which will have an electrical generation capacity that will more than triple Ethiopia's current capacity. The project will create a reservoir of water twice as large as Lake Tana, presently Ethiopia's largest body of water, but Ethiopian authorities claim it will not displace any people because it will be contained in the existing river gorge.

Meanwhile, the Government of Southern Sudan (GoSS) has assured Egyptian officials that, once it is independent, the new country will honor the agreements already in place regarding the allocation of the Nile waters. Cairo was concerned that the secession of Southern Sudan would impact allocation of the Nile waters, particularly if the South decided to join the NBI, but, apparently, South Sudan intends to sustain its positive relationship with Egypt.

At the same time, Egypt is hoping to restart the unfinished Jonglei Canal project in South Sudan, which would channel swamp water back into the Nile. Egypt desperately needs more water, and the Jonglei Canal appears to be the only way to achieve that. However, according to analyst John Ashworth, there are serious concerns about the impact of the canal on the climate of South Sudan, as well as on migration routes for livestock and wildlife.


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