Historical treaties cause modern dispute in negotiations over Nile water distribution

One river. Two disputed colonial treaties. Nine thirsty states. A new chapter in an old debate. Disagreement over Nile water distribution has escalated in recent weeks between nine East African states. Factors such as exploding populations, climate change, out-of-date irrigation methods and pollution have resulted in strained relations and threats of military action.

In May, Uganda, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Kenya signed the River Nile Basin Cooperative Framework with the intention of establishing a future commission to handle equitable use of the Nile River, according to the Guardian. Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo are expected to follow.

While Egypt and Sudan’s has thus far been absent in negotiations, Sudan’s stance has been less aggressive than Egypt’s.

Peter Deng ’09, who spent the first 15 years of his life in Sudan, feels that Sudan’s complicated internal history may affect the Nile River’s future.

“Sudan is coming up to a six-year referendum in November,” said Deng. “We are seeing that the northern part of Sudan or the southern part of Sudan may be facing separation. And that is causing a lot of issues that could lead to war in Southern Sudan if someone decides to separate.”

According to Deng, if Sudan’s infrastructure crumbles, the treaties regarding the Nile could as well.

“If Sudan separates or stays together as a country, it’s going to have a huge impact on the up-river treaties,” said Deng. “It may have to be rewritten. Either way Sudan will have a huge effect on the Nile treaty.”

The recent claiming of rights to Nile River water usage opposes the status quo which has historically benefited Egypt and Sudan, reported the Guardian. In 1929 and 1959, British treaties granted these countries “full utilization of the Nile waters,” and the authority to veto any prospective water projects developed in East Africa.

When the treaties were signed, the seven up-river states either did not sign or were represented by colonial powers and not an independent government. Today, these countries seek their share of a resource that offers great economic and infrastructural potential.

“Since I was born, I heard the Blue Nile was working for others and not for Ethiopia,” said Ermias Wubshet, an engineer at the multimillion-dollar Tana-Beles hydropower plant, to National Public Radio (NPR). “Now, it is working for Ethiopia.”

Utilizing Ethiopia’s Lake Tana at the headwaters of the Blue Nile, which supplies more than 86 percent of the Nile’s water flow, the Tana-Beles facility could irrigate vast amounts of land in the region and produce more than 400 megawatts of power, according to NPR.

Still, Egypt keeps their portion of the Nile closely guarded.

“Don’t look at it. Don’t touch it. Don’t smell it. Don’t do anything,” said Asfaw Dingamo, Ethiopia’s Water Minister, about Egypt’s strict Nile policing to NPR. “That is the reality we are living under. And that is what we’re opposing.”

Thousands of Egyptian engineers are placed along the river basin to make daily recordings, NPR reported. Challenges to their water supply are met with threats of military action. However, up-river states are skeptical of possible war.

“Diplomacy will help us navigate this issue,” said Isaac Musumba, Uganda’s state minister for regional cooperation, to the Guardian.”What is Egypt going to do – bomb us all?”

Up-river states are frustrated, and Egypt is growing concerned.

“Egypt should see (the up-river countries) as equal partners,” says Patrick Mmayi, a Nile river expert working with the United Nations Environmental Program, to NPR. “Eventually, you’ll find tensions rising up if the status quo remains. No amount of threats will actually stop the upper catchment areas from using these waters if they want to.”

Although Egypt receives most of the Nile’s water, the country says it could still use more, according to NPR.

“Not only is Egypt the gift of the Nile, this is a country that is almost completely dependent on Nile water resources,” said a spokesman for the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, Hossam Zaki, to The New York Times. “We have a growing population and growing needs. There is no way we can accept this kind of threat.”

Despite criticism of their water-usage amount, Egyptians use less water than most of the world. According to NPR, every year the average American uses 1,500 cubic meters of water, while the international community averages 1,000 cubic meters per capita. Egyptians average 700 cubic meters. The thought of less water makes Egyptians uneasy.

“Violating Egypt’s quota of Nile water is a genocidal war against 80 million people,” said an Egyptian commentator, Hazem el-Beblawi, to The New York Times.

While this conflict demands urgency, the environmental future of the Nile and the countries it sustains is in danger. According to The New York Times, the Nile will barely sustain Egypt’s basic needs by the year 2017. Exploding populations in the other eight states threaten their water supply as well.

Egypt’s population of about 80 million is expected to increase to 122 million by 2050. Up-stream population growth is even more dramatic. There are currently 83 million Ethiopians, but by 2050 projections indicate there will be 150 million. In Uganda, with the average number of children pushing 6.7, the population is excpected to explode to 97 million according to the Guardian.

While the up-river states recognize Egypt’s legitimate dependence on the Nile, they still claim access to what they believe is theirs.

“We cannot convince our people that that water belongs to Egypt or Sudan or another country,” said John Nyaro, Kenya’s chief negotiator among the Nile basin countries to NPR. “In Mara, Maasai Mara, if a Maasai is crossing the river Mara with his cattle, can he convince those cows, ‘No, you cannot drink this water. This water belongs to Egypt?’ “

Ownership aside, new ways must be found to keep the Nile the lifeblood that it always has been for Africans.
One river. Nine thirsty states. A need for compromise.