Water-Short African States Near an Ancient, Elusive Goal: A Pact to Share the Nile

After three years of closed-door talks, nine nations are quietly edging toward a deal to jointly oversee the waters of the Nile, an agreement that has eluded lands along the great river since the days of the pharaohs.

ENTEBBE, Uganda — After three years of closed-door talks, nine nations are quietly edging toward a deal to jointly oversee the waters of the Nile, an agreement that has eluded lands along the great river since the days of the pharaohs.

An expected meeting of water ministers next month may produce a preliminary accord, officials say. "I hope we'll reach a very good result, but I cannot guarantee it," Egyptian negotiator Abdel Fattah Metawie said in Cairo, the likely site for the session.

Such a pact would right a colonial-era wrong that reserved the world's longest river for irrigation in Egypt and Sudan, effectively denying its waters to Uganda and other upriver countries.

Nature may be pushing political leaders toward compromise, said Gordon Mumbo of the Nile Basin Initiative, an umbrella office here for joint activities among the riverine nations.

Drought and heat have lowered the level of nearby Lake Victoria, the vast lake that spills an outlet stream northward to start the Nile's 4,000-mile meander -- from this region of jungle and crocodiles to the camel-crossed deserts of Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea.

"One of the greatest realizations is that the waters of the Nile of Lake Victoria are finite. They can be depleted," said Mumbo, a regional project manager. "The issue is how can people come together and best manage them today and tomorrow."

The long-term vision sees irrigated crops from central Africa feeding Egypt, for example, and Ethiopian dams supplying hydroelectric power across the region.

Even millennia back, Egypt's pharaonic empire tried to push its rule south to ensure no one would block their Nile lifeline.

The dispute today, when almost all Egypt's water comes from the river, is rooted in a 1929 treaty that -- with a 1959 side deal -- guarantees 89 percent of the river flow for Egypt and Sudan, and forbids people upriver to build, without Egyptian approval, irrigation or other projects that might significantly reduce water volume. Egypt maintains river inspectors in Uganda even today.

That original treaty was negotiated between Egypt and Britain, colonial ruler of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, now independent nations at the headwaters of the river's White Nile branch. London wanted water guaranteed for British cotton plantations in Egypt.

"They were taking care of people who knew what they wanted. We were not consulted," said Uganda's water minister, Maria Mutagamba. "We are now independent. We can sit at the table and negotiate."

The 1929 treaty didn't cover sovereign Ethiopia, source of the Blue Nile, which merges with the White Nile in Sudan. But Ethiopia's deep poverty, and Egyptian diplomatic pressure and military threats, kept it from diverting the waters.

In addition, the World Bank, prime lender, refrains from financing projects that might harm downriver countries without their approval.

"For us it was a question of financial capacity," Ethiopian negotiator Teferra Beyene said by telephone from Addis Ababa. "We hope this agreement may remove some of these constraints."

The agreement among Nile nations -- also including Rwanda, Burundi and Congo, all of which contain remote river sources -- won't assign shares of river water, but will formalize the principle of equal voices and establish a nine-nation commission to tackle detailed issues later.

The need for consensus -- giving Egypt a veto -- will protect what Metawie called his country's existing rights to 1.9 trillion cubic feet of water per year. But there can be plenty of water to go around, he said, since so much today is lost to waste and poor rain catchment upriver.

"The problem is more of management than of resources," he said.

Negotiators have focused on developing "win-win" projects benefiting multiple nations -- via Egyptian technical help, trade deals and other regional approaches.

"Instead of the Egyptians growing oranges where they have to irrigate every field," Uganda's Mutagamba said, "they can grow oranges here," where rainfall makes irrigation less vital.

Ethiopian and Egyptian engineers point to another possibility: Replacing Egypt's Lake Nasser, a desert reservoir that loses huge amounts of water to evaporation, with a less wasteful reservoir in Ethiopia's cooler highlands. In an even grander vision, planners see an electrical grid sending Ethiopian hydropower everywhere.

Even with a framework agreement, however, the way ahead isn't clear. "The feasibility studies have been done, but the finances aren't there," said the Nile Basin Initiative's Mumbo.

An observer of Nile diplomacy, Cairo political scientist Sharif S. Elmusa, said something else is missing, too.

"There isn't that kind of trust yet between Egypt and Ethiopia -- to say, 'OK, build the dam for electricity,' when you can't guarantee that Ethiopia won't use it for other purposes," he said.

Trust may soon face new strains on the Nile, as water demand rises and water volume falls.

United Nations experts say populations in the river basin may double by mid-century. The U.N.'s climatologists, meanwhile, say computer scenarios show global warming decreasing water flows in the Nile by up to 40 percent.

Source: Associated Press

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