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Tensions rise over access to the Nile River

Five African countries assert claim to Nile waters, but Egypt does not want to share.

Children fish in Nile
Children fish in the river Nile near the capital Khartoum on May 04, 2010. (Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters)

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.”