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Nile water war threats

By Independent Team & Agencies

Was President Museveni right to join the heated exchanges with Egypt?

If a single drop of the Nile is lost, our blood will be the alternative,” Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi warned on June 10, “We are not warmongers, but we will never allow anyone to threaten our security.” President Morsi was warning against the US$4.2 billion (3.2 billion euro) Grand Renaissance Dam being constructed by Ethiopia on the Blue Nile.

Egypt fears that the reservoir created by the giant 6000MW dam which is slated to be the biggest in Africa when complete, could lead to massive loss of water through evaporation and give a lot of power over the Nile waters to upstream Ethiopia.


Three days later, on June 13, President Yoweri Museveni responded: “It is advisable that those chauvinistic statements coming out of Egypt are restrained,” Museveni said, “No African wants to hurt Egypt; however, Egypt cannot continue to hurt black Africa and the countries of the tropics of Africa.”

President Museveni advised Egypt to cooperate with the other 8 countries grouped under the Nile Valley Organisation, possibly meaning the Nile Basin Initiative.

The former colonial power the United Kingdom, the African Union, the World Bank, and other international institutions have all said dialogue not war is the way forward and that Egypt need to agree to negotiate a new order for the Nile waters. Significantly, all have said they will not interfere because the issue is a “hot potato”.  The Independent failed to get a comment from all parties involved in Nile issues in Uganda.

On June 10, Egyptian lawmakers heckled Prime Minister Hisham Qandil after he finished a speech in which he warned the dam would affect the country’s principal water source.

In one of his first steps, Morsi had convened a meeting with party leaders, including those from the opposition, calling for a national front to tackle the dam.

The meeting, aired live on television, backfired as the politicians; apparently unaware they were on air, proposed supporting Ethiopian rebels or sending agents to sabotage the dam.

Egypt is clinging on two colonial period treaties that give it a monopoly on the use of almost 90 per cent of the Nile waters. Together with Sudan and the DR Congo, Egypt has refused to sign a new agreement, the Nile River Basin Cooperative Framework Agreement.

The framework is designed to enable the countries that share the Nile to use the water resources equitably. Experts say the Nile, whose source is largely said to be at Jinja in Uganda, links 11 countries as it flows 6,825km to the Mediterranean in Egypt.

Its basin occupies up to 10 per cent of the African continent and includes Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, DR Congo, Eritrea, and Egypt.

“The Ten members should have signed the Nile River Basin Cooperative Framework Agreement but Egypt has been reluctant,” says Uganda’s minister for Water, Prof. Ephraim Kamuntu, “So if Egypt takes unilateral decisions like those of the Colonial times including the 1929 and 1959 deals between Egypt and Sudan, Uganda should be concerned.”

Total Water Usage

New framework

The new proposed framework attempts to review two agreements signed in 1929 between Egypt and its former colonial power, Britain, and in 1959 with Sudan. The accords give Egypt and Sudan the biggest share of the water, totalling up to 87 percent of Nile flow which is about 300 million cubic meters daily.

Egypt also has the power to veto dams and other water projects in upstream countries. To monitor the water levels, it maintains teams of engineers along the river including at its source in Jinja, and in Malakal in Southern Sudan.

Critics say the agreements are outdated because they were signed before the other riparian states became independent, but Egypt insists they were done to safeguard its interests.

In a 2009 paper quoted by IRIN, University of Nairobi law professor Kithure Kindiki said “neither the unilateral claims of Egypt on maintaining the status quo on the Nile, nor the threat by upstream states such as Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya to obstruct the Nile-Victoria system are supportable in law.

“The legality of the Nile treaties should be understood from the viewpoint of the principles of international law on state succession as and how that affects treaty obligations.

“All these treaties, except the 1959 Agreement, were adopted when all co-riparians of the Nile (except Ethiopia) were ruled by foreign colonial powers.”

According to IRIN, the paper recommends three approaches to resolving the Nile impasse: the conclusion of the negotiations and adoption of a new treaty binding all riparian states; the promotion of ratification of the 1997 UN Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses; and the referral of the issue of the legality of the Nile treaties to a judicial or arbitration forum.

The recent flare up is being blamed on rising demand for water for irrigation and construction of hydropower dams as rising populations create pressure in all countries. There is also urgent need to address the adverse effects of climate change.

President Museveni says the best way to conserve the Nile River basin is to avoid further environmental degradation in the region through dam construction to provide hydroelectric power and substitute wood exploitation for fuel.

“I have seen in the print media statements coming out of Egypt regarding the commendable work of the Government of Ethiopia of building dams for electricity in that country.  This is what the whole of Africa needs to do.  That is one reason the economy of Ethiopia has been growing in double digits.” Museveni told parliament.

Egypt, which receives almost zero rainfall, depends entirely on Nile water for irrigation to sustain its population of 85 million. Ethiopia, Uganda, South Sudan, Sudan, and Kenya want more water for dams and irrigation. Tanzania intends to build a 170km pipeline from Lake Victoria to supply dry areas.

By 2030, experts warn, pressure on the Nile waters will increase as population growth and economic lead to increase water scarcity. Up to 25 countries in Africa will face water stress or scarcity.

Map showing Hydro power dams on the River Nile

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