Who owns the Nile?
Nine countries want to have a say in answering that question, and they don’t agree. The great river moves through Burundi, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, so they all may claim her as at least partly their own.
The White Nile, the Blue Nile, and the combined Nile:
The Nile’s headwaters and tributaries begin in Tanzania, Burundi, Uganda, and Ethiopia, so the southern states control the source of the river. Despite that seeming advantage, according to treaties from 1929 and 1959, the northern states of Egypt and Sudan were allocated 75% and 25% of the Nile’s water respectively, with none allocated to the source nations. Egypt and Sudan are arid countries with almost literally no other access to fresh water other than the Nile.
The Nile brings life to Egypt:
The 1929 treaty was orchestrated by the British between colonized states, giving Egypt and Sudan all the water rights, and the ability to veto development projects in the source countries. Ethiopia wasn’t a colony, and didn’t agree, but it applied to them anyway. In 1959, a treaty was arranged by Egypt and Sudan alone, agreeing between them that they should continue to receive virtually all the water.
I’m personally amazed that the arrangement held for as long as it has. Other than words on a disputed and legally shaky treaty, there is nothing forcing the source countries to forego using the Nile, leaving it all for someone else.
That forbearance is over, though. For more than ten years the Nile Basin Initiative has been trying to negotiate a new agreement. Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, and Rwanda have signed a deal that approves more sharing of the water, while Egypt and Sudan reject it outright. DR Congo and Burundi are on the fence. If either of them sign the treaty, it will be considered binding on all the nations.
This week the talks broke down, with little hope of reaching a conciliatory agreement.
Regardless of the contention by some people that climate change is a figment of the imagination, virtually every report on the Nile conflict cites it as the new factor, along with population growth, making an agreement that much harder. During the years that Egypt and Sudan essentially owned the river, many of the upstream countries were able to rely on rain to supply their basic water needs. In recent years, however, the rains have been more unreliable. They can’t count on that any more, so it is natural that they turn to the Nile.
Ethiopia wants to build dams for hydroelectric generation. Tanzania wants to use water from Lake Victoria to supply thirsty villages. The water is needed for irrigation all along the route. The water needs of the ecosystem seem to not even be on the table.
The Blue Nile, Ethiopia:
So the question is still raised, who owns the Nile? If the new agreement should take effect, ostensibly binding Egypt and Sudan to its terms, would they go along? Their initial responses are no. But what can they do? If, for example, Uganda builds a few new dams, literally thousands of miles up river, what could they do about it?
Without the Nile, Egypt and Sudan would literally die, so the threat is that they will use military force to prevent that from happening. The fear is that this could be one of the first of the Water Wars, as climate change affects people around the world who are already experiencing resource stress.
The Nile River Basin has found a way to live together for a long time, recognizing that the water is valuable to them all. The Nile River binds all these countries together, for better or for worse. I hope that they will find a way to compromise, because if the conflict results in war, everybody loses.
Guardian: Battle for the Nile as rivals lay claim to Africa’s great river, June 25, 2010
Time: Death (of an Agreement) on the Nile, June 28, 2010
AFP: Egypt, Sudan won’t be forced to sign Nile treaty, June 26, 2010
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