Tension is building over the utilisation of the waters of River Nile, Africa’s longest river, whose flow affects the interests of nine countries in the eastern, central and northern parts of the continent.
Ten days ago in Kampala, four of these nations signed a new deal creating a permanent commission to manage the flow of these waters, putting them on a potential collision course with Sudan and Egypt. Those who signed were host Uganda, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Tanzania.
Late last week, Kenya also signed the accord. Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are expected to sign within the 12 months allowed by the accord, perhaps hoping that more diplomatic efforts will help defuse the potential crisis. Last Tuesday, Egypt insisted it can block dams and other projects built upstream the Nile.
A more ominous development, though, was the inauguration by Ethiopia of a new hydro-power dam on the source of the Blue Nile river — the Tana Beles.
Ethiopia contributes 86 per cent of the Nile water. The words used by Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi at the launch was unequivocal: The Tana Beles marks the realisation of Ethiopia’s 100-year effort to utilise its resources on the Nile.
The Nile Basin treaties are another relic of the cavalier attitude adopted by Britain towards its occupied territories in Africa during its imperial days. The agreements signed in 1929 and again in 1959 between Britain and Egypt had little regard for the interests of the other riparian nations of the Nile.
The treaties were so lopsided as to beggar belief. Even Ethiopia, then a sovereign state, was not consulted. Under the 1929 treaty, Egypt and Sudan were entitled to 55.5 billion cubic metres a year, the lion’s share of the 84 billion cubic metres of water flowing through the Nile.
The 1959 treaty stipulated that the Sudan would also be allowed to undertake a series of Nile development projects, such as the Rosieres dam and the Jonglei Canal. In exchange, Egypt would be allowed to build a huge dam near the Sudanese border, which would regulate the flow of the river into Egypt and provide water during droughts.
The treaty also formed a joint committee, which would be in charge of supervising and directing all development projects which affected the river’s flow. This was a bilateral agreement between Britain and Egypt and did not include any of the other riparian countries of the Nile, and no water was even allotted for future use by any of these upstream countries except Sudan.
Even more telling was a provision that Egypt had to approve any major developments on the Nile, meaning that a sovereign state would have a resource within its national borders sanctioned by another state —not through negotiations, but through imposition of arbitrary force.
Some sources have it that Egypt has intimated she will “be willing and able to intervene militarily in order to maintain the status quo; meaning the arbitrary treaties. After the Kampala meeting — which Sudan and Egypt boycotted — Egypt’s Water Resources minister Mohammed Nasreddin Allam said Egypt would take all legal and diplomatic measures necessary to maintain its water rights.
“Any unilateral agreement signed by the upstream Nile basin countries is not binding to downstream countries, Egypt and Sudan, and lacks legitimacy,” he said.
It's worth noting that the Nile is not the only major river in the world that traverses various national boundaries. We have the Rhine and the Danube in Europe, and the Amazon in South America, to name but a few. The utilisation of their waters and free passage is facilitated through negotiations. This is the way to go for the Nile Basin countries.
There is a soft spot for Cairo in the hearts of the nations involved in the controversy over the role that Egypt played in the African liberation struggle, and a special liking for the towering figure of the late President Gamal Abdel Nasser. It would be tragic if at any time in the future, all these countries were to be at daggers drawn over an issue they can resolve in a conference.
Mr Nugi is a veteran newspaper editor. ([email protected])