Aug 26, 2004, 00:37
For now, a river runs through it. And it seems like it always
has; at least as far back as our evidence goes, the Nile River has been
the source of life in northeastern Africa. And it still is — for now.
But the taps are beginning to run dry.
Historically, we know that the Nile has flooded annually and provided
sufficient water for a narrow band of arable land along its shores to
produce enough food for local populations. In some years, there are
actually excess crops.
When we think ‘Nile’, we generally think of Egypt, of Cleopatra, and
the pyramids. When Egypt was the master of the Nile, the water was theirs
and control of the river was virtually unchallenged. But with the rise
of nations, mainly formed by negotiation among European powers with
little regard for local inhabitants, the river took on a new importance.
Today, there are actually 10 nations who draw on the Nile for water.
In 1929, Egypt entered into an agreement with Britain, who was acting
on behalf of its African colonies, some of whom now constitute the nations
of Tanzania and Kenya. The agreement governed the use of the water that
flows down the Nile each year and was meant to ensure that upstream
nations couldn't siphon off too much water from the downstream countries,
The agreement was amended in 1959 by renegotiation among several nations.
The revised agreement gave Egypt, for example, 55.5 billion cubic meters
(bcm) of the Nile's water each year. This flow is all the water Egypt
has to meet its domestic, industrial and agricultural needs, since it
receives no rainfall.
In 1959, the water allotted to Egypt represented about 2,100 cubic meters
per person each year and probably seemed like plenty. But with an increase
in population, presently rising at about 2% per year, the figure is
now down to just 792 cubic meters per capita. General international
consensus defines "water scarcity" as anything below 1,000 cubic meters
But while Egypt is trying to grapple with this shortfall, it is also
hearing the sabre-rattling of its neighbours who claim that Egypt already
takes too much of the water. It is imperative, then, that new negotiations
go forward to reallocate and maximize the use of the river. Egypt needs
to take a bigger slice of the Nile pie.
Upstream, the situation generally improves because most of those nations
receive rainfall, some of them quite a lot, which they can manage with
proper irrigation and retention techniques. But in the Lower Nile area,
the Arab lands, the situation is similar to what is occurring throughout
the Arab world where there is almost no rainfall and 67% of water needs
are met by imports.
Egypt has started to plan for what seems inevitable: a major water and
food crisis within the next 20 years or so if the management of the
quality and scarcity or water is not properly handled. Despite the obvious
need for water and the potential peril ahead, the Ministry of Irrigation
and Water Resources has been a relatively low-priority file in Egypt.
But the minister in charge, Mahmoud Abu Zeid, is not letting his ministry’s
low profile stop him from trying to address this most basic of human
issues: the supply of sufficient water to maintain life. He says: “If
issues concerning water scarcity, quality and management are not properly
addressed, Egypt will be confronted with a major food and water crisis
by the year 2025. If the status quo remains, it’s not difficult to see
where we are headed.”
Abu Zeid has finally been sufficiently persuasive that access to fresh
water has now been raised to an issue of top national security.
He also has been lobbying the members of the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI)
— the 10 nations who share the Nile Basin: Burundi, Democratic Republic
of Congo, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania and
Uganda — to renegotiate the current deal in a way that will avoid future
difficulties. The upstream nations claim Egypt uses too much of the
Nile’s water while Egypt retorts that its needs and its resources are
significantly different. Egypt points out that the downstream nations,
Egypt and Sudan, are at a greater disadvantage since they receive no
rainfall and must rely entirely on the river, while the other countries
have rainfall they can manage.
NBI was formed in 1995 but has so far proved to be very ineffective;
it is criticized for relying too heavily on outside donors to resolve
watershed problems and of moving to implement projects, which have been
studied repeatedly, at a slowness rivaled only by evolution. The other
NBI members can afford to be lethargic about change since they have
alternate water sources, but a crisis is rapidly approaching for Egypt
Director of the Nile Research Institute, Dr. Ahmed Fahmy, says: “Apart
from the Nile, there is no other surface water in Egypt to speak of.”
In response to criticism from other NBI countries that Egypt overuses
the Nile, Fahmy says: “These claims are absolutely not true. The water
in the Nile is the result of heavy rainfall in several of the Nile basin
countries. The heaviest amount of rain falls in Ethiopia, Uganda and
Tanzania. The 55.5 bcm that Egypt uses represents a mere 3% of the total
rainfall in the region.’
Also according to Fahmy, the Upper Nile countries doing the loudest
complaining are those who actually receive the greatest rainfall. “They
are not dependent on the Nile for agriculture,” he says. “It is not
our problem that they are not utilizing the rainfall properly. Egypt
was the first to establish a system for properly utilizing the Nile
waters. We use the river to feed 70 million people, while some states
have both the Nile and abundant rainfall, but still can’t manage to
feed 10 or 15 million.”
And the bickering among the NBI nations is getting louder. Opposition
politicians and members of parliament in Tanzania and Uganda have pondered
out loud about war and have suggested that the Upper Nile countries
unilaterally dam the river to prevent Egypt from unfairly overusing
Figures show that about 84 bcm flow downstream to the Aswan High Dam
every year, where it is available for Egypt and Sudan. Egypt takes 55.5
bcm, Sudan takes 18.5 bcm, and around 10 bcm is lost to evaporation.
Figures also show that at least 83% of the water that reaches Egypt
and Sudan originates in the highlands of Ethiopia. Fahmy points out
that if Ethiopia was to construct a series of small dams, the flow of
water could be better controlled. But Egypt fears this is a double-edged
sword: the Lower Nile countries would be at the mercy of Ethiopia’s
Not wanting to be left wanting, Egypt has joined the Arab Water Council
(AWC) which was established just in April 2004, largely due to the work
of Abu Zeid; despite the fact that Arab nations import nearly 70% of
their water and between 30-50% of their food needs, depending on whose
estimates you believe, the Arab nations as a group had not tried previously
to see if they might work together on this issue. But critics of the
AWC point out that the 22 Arab nations do not share common problems
and common resources and they are almost certainly not going to share
common solutions. Still, there may be expertise that can be shared.
One of the shortfalls of the AWC may actually be who it has sought out
for membership in its group: the World Bank. Along with its henchman,
the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank is notorious for
demanding the privatization of water as a requirement for nations seeking
its assistance. In an area where water is in such short supply and where
access to it could very well lead to war, permitting the private sector
to control the taps would be tantamount to insanity.
Research into this looming problem and planning for what is certain
to be a shortfall of water in a rapidly approaching future is paramount.
Keeping the water supply out of private hands is a critical issue. While
we are presently witnessing wars fought in Arab lands over oil, the
time is rapidly approaching when nations will fight over water: no one
needs oil, everyone needs water. And because in northeast Africa there
is a clear division of nations along ethnic lines, Middle Eastern nations
— facing similar issues — may find themselves embroiled in any conflict
that arises between Egypt/Sudan and the other NBI members.
The author wishes to acknowledge:
Nile Research Institute (http://www.nwrc.gov.eg/nwrc/)
Nile Basin Initiative (www.nilebasin.org)
The Water Page (www.thewaterpage.com)
Egypt Today and writer Hadia Mostafa
… for source material used in this article.