Tensions rise over access to the Nile River

NAIROBI, Kenya and ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — A war of words of is threatening to erupt into real fighting as African countries face off against one another in a battle for access to the life-giving waters of the Nile.

Several central African countries where the Nile originates are asserting their rights to use the waters for irrigation and hydropower, but Egypt, where the fabled river is largest and flows into the Mediterranean Sea, has unequivocally stated its opposition to a new division of the Nile's water. There is even talk of war.

The fabled river begins high in the Ethiopian mountains where an ancient monastery watches over the sacred Gish Abbai spring. The waters bubbling out of the ground feed Lake Tana then spill into a gorge to become the Blue Nile.

Carving an immense U-bend across the landscape it makes its way to the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, where the Blue Nile meets the White Nile, which gushes northwards out of Lake Victoria. Together they run on through Egypt to the Mediterranean Sea irrigating farmland, providing
water for drinking and sanitation and driving hydroelectric power stations.

This is the world’s longest river, flowing for 4,130 miles and bringing life to northeast Africa, providing almost all of Egypt’s fresh water and three-quarters of Sudan’s, yet neither control the river’s sources. Both countries have jealously protected their historic access to the Nile but now the balance is beginning to shift and analysts are warning of potentially dangerous consequences.

“In the Nile Basin countries access to water for vulnerable people is not about development, it’s about survival, life and death,” said Steven Solomon, author of "Water: The Epic Struggle for Life, Power and Civilization."

Egypt and Sudan base their claim to almost all the Nile’s waters on two treaties more than half a century old that give Egypt most of the water and the power of veto over its use by upstream countries.

Last month, five of the upstream countries, led by Ethiopia, clubbed together in a new deal that Egypt opposes.

The original Nile treaty was signed in 1929 between Egypt and the then colonial power Britain on behalf of its dominions. Thirty years later it was renegotiated with a sovereign Sudan with Egypt taking three-quarters of the water and Sudan the rest. Neither treaty paid any attention to the needs and wishes of the upstream nations.

Yet the Nile Basin spreads across 10 countries, all of them poor, all of them vulnerable to climate change bringing drought, crop failure and flood, and all of them with populations growing at 2 to 3 percent a year. Today 200 million people rely on the Nile waters for survival, within a generation this number will have doubled.

“We have a big driving force here and it is the demography,” said Professor Salif Diop, a Senegalese water expert. “All along the River Nile this is one of the major issues, and so there is a need for water for irrigation and agriculture, for energy production, and it is not going to go away.”

That means the old treaties need to be renegotiated.

“At some point the historic agreements will have to be altered to take into consideration the interests of the upstream countries, there’s no way around it,” said Simon Mason, a Nile expert at Switzerland’s ETH Zurich Center for Security Studies.

“The best case scenario is that the countries use this opportunity to revisit old agreements, employ new technologies to make better use of the water and cooperate on a regional basis,” said Peter Pham, director of the Africa Project at New York’s National Committee on American Foreign Policy.

In May Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda signed a new agreement granting themselves more freedom to use the Nile waters as they choose, irrespective of Egypt’s wishes. Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo are expected to follow soon.

Egypt responded to the agreement with bellicose rhetoric. Foreign minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit spoke of a “red line” that must not be crossed and of water as a national security issue. Egyptian comments have echoed those made by its former president Anwar Sadat who said in the 1970s, “The only matter that could take Egypt to war again is water.”

Although the tensions are high along the banks of the Nile it is not the only place where water wars loom.

“There’s a long history of conflict over water resources that cross borders going back over thousands of years,” said Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, a California-based environmental and economic research center.

The Pacific Institute has tracked conflicts over water worldwide dating back to 3,000 B.C. Today’s hotspots are the Nile as well as the Indus, Mekong and Tigris and Euphrates.

“The biggest problems tend to be in places where water is very scarce and where there are weak institutions,” Gleick explained.

“The hope is that there will be negotiation and agreement over how to share the waters of the Nile," he said. "But the fear is that the competition over water is going to be so severe that there will be no agreement.”