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The next African battleground might be in Asia

By Paul Harris
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, mainly Egypt.

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 per person.

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 and Sudan.

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 the waterway.

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 goodwill.

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 (

Nile Basin Initiative (

The Water Page (

Egypt Today and writer Hadia Mostafa

… for source material used in this article.