Can EA Win the Nile War

Can EA Win the Nile War?
The Nation (Kenya); Mar 28, 2002

Part of the Owen hydroelectric power dam in Uganda. Its construction in 1949 had to be okayed by Egypt, which to date has a technician stationed here to monitor water use.

As East African politicians question the legality of a treaty that gives Egypt absolute rights over River Nile waters, one question is quickly coming to the fore: How will Egypt react given its enormous economic and agricultural interests?

In Kenya, Energy Minister Raila Odinga and Kisumu Town East MP Gor Sungu have questioned legality of the 1929 and 1959 Nile Waters Treaty in Parliament while the same issue has cropped up at the new East African Legislative Assembly.

Although the 1929 agreement was concluded between the British High Commission in Cairo and the Egyptian Government and the 1959 treaty was between Egypt and Sudan governments, the pacts today bind Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya. They bar the three from using Lake Victoria waters without Egypt's permission.

Archival information shows that as early as 1949 when the Owens Dam was being constructed, the British Government wrote to the Uganda Electricity Board telling it that the project would only go ahead "if the Egyptian Government approved it". To date, there is an Egyptian resident engineer at the dam.

A document titled "Exchange of Notes Constituting An Agreement Between the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Government of Egypt Regarding Construction of the Owen Falls Dam, Uganda, Signed at Cairo on December 5, 1949; in force starting December 5, 1949" is one of the many agreement on the issue. The pact was signed by Britain and Egypt and it binds the former's colonies.

Recently, Mr Odinga threw the first salvo in Kenya's Parliament, calling upon the government to review the treaty and denouncing it as "obsolete".

With an approximated 125 million people depending on the Nile for survival, the river is today seen as a possible source of war in East Africa.

At the regional Legislative Assembly, Ugandan member Yona Kanyomozi has questioned the importance of the 1949 Owen Fall Dam agreement and wondered why Egypt was using more water than agreed. He also wondered why Egypt does not participate in conservation of Lake Victoria.

"What bothers me is that when Uganda developed a scheme to divert the Nile to Karamoja, the plan was opposed by Egypt, yet for them they can do anything with the Nile waters."

In Kenya, Energy Minister Raila Odinga accused Egypt of planing to "export" waters of the Nile to Sinai via a tunnel.

The story of the tunnel is little-known, although it is part of a huge land reclamation project in the Sinai desert called the North Sinai Agricultural Development Project.

Since 1987, the project has been diverting Nile water to agricultural development plots west of the Suez Canal.

The current project hopes to send water east of Suez Canal, with allegations that the water may ultimately end up in Israel.

Meanwhile, countries sharing Lake Victoria cannot use its water for development projects. In Uganda, a commissioner for water resource management, Mr Nsubuga Senfuma, explains that "for any project to take place on either Lake Victoria or River Nile, Egypt must be consulted first".

With incessant drought in East Africa, the row over Nile waters is not ending soon. Ironically, the 1929 treaty was signed at a time when Lake Victoria was thought to be the source of River Nile. But recent research has indicated that the Ethiopian Highlands contribute 85 per cent of the total Nile volume.

Ethiopia, too, has no right to use Nile Waters without Egypt's permission.

The original agreement concluded in 1929 heavily favoured Egypt's "historic rights" and allocated it the right to use 48 billion cubic meters (bcm) of water a year. The agreement gave Sudan the right to use four billion cubic meters.

In 1959, a new agreement set Egypt's share at 55.5 bcm per year and Sudan 18.5 bcm. Other Nile nations were ignored, leading to the current uproar.

"This treaty only benefits Egypt. We cannot sit back while we have water we can use to irrigate our land. Why should we preserve our water for Egypt," Mr Odinga asked Parliament?

Meanwhile, it is now accepted that the Nile originates from two distinct geographical zones - the basins of the White Nile and the Blue Nile. The White Nile originates from the Great Lakes Region and is fed by the Bahr-el-Jebel water system to the north and east of the Nile-Congo rivers divide.

The Blue Nile originates in the highlands of Ethiopia and Eritrea, as do the other major tributaries of the Nile, the Atbara and the Sobat.

Experts predict minimal impact on the Nile if East African countries harvest Lake Victoria water for local use. The lake contributes less than 15 per cent of Nile water.

Sudan was the first country to demand a review of the 1929 treaty. The action brought a brief standoff between Khartoum and Cairo after Sudan got independence from Britain in 1956.

Egypt is today accused of being behind the coup that followed the stand-off and saw Mr Jaffer Numeiri take power in Sudan in 1959. During the same year, the two countries signed the 1959 Nile agreement which divided all the Nile water between them.

The agreement set Egypt's share at 55.5 bcm per year and Sudan's at18.5 bcm per year. Other riverside nations - Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Burundi - were not included in the agreement.

Titled "United Arab Republic and Sudan Agreement (with annexes) For The Full Utilisation of Nile Waters" and signed in Cairo, on November 8, 1959, the agreement came into force on December 12, 1959.

It said in part: " If it becomes necessary to hold any negotiations concerning the Nile waters with any riparian state, outside the boundaries of the two republics, the governments of the Sudan Republic and the United Arab Republic (Egypt) shall agree on a unified view after the subject is studied by the said Technical Commission. The said unified view shall be the basis of any negotiations by the commission with the said states".

The Sudan-Egypt treaty also notes: "If the negotiations result in an agreement to construct any works on the river, outside the boundaries of the two republics, the joint technical commission shall, after consulting the authorities in the governments of the States concerned, draw all the technical execution details and the working and maintenance arrangements".

It also gives Egypt and Sudan powers to "supervise the carrying out of the said technical agreements".

According to the agreement, any other country that wishes to lay claims on Nile waters, and that includes Lake Victoria, will only get a share if Egypt and Sudan agrees.

The treaty reads: "As the riparian states, other than the two republics, claim a share in the Nile waters, the two republics have agreed that they shall jointly consider and reach one unified view regarding the said claims. And if the said consideration results in the acceptance of allotting an amount of Nile water to one or the other of the said states, the accepted amount shall be deducted from the shares of the two republics in equal parts, as calculated at Aswan".

Even then any waters taken out will have to be monitored by a "technical commission mentioned in this agreement [which] shall make the necessary arrangements with the states concerned, in order to ensure that their water consumption shall not exceed the amounts agreed upon".

Little is known about an annex document in which Sudan gave a "water loan" to Egypt. The annex reads: "The Republic of the Sudan agrees in principle to give a water loan from the Sudan's share [to Egypt] in order to enable the latter to proceed with her planned programmes for Agricultural Expansion".

Although Egypt is today backing a new initiative among the Nile Basin riparian states which might redistribute more equitably the river's water usage rights, it is not clear how far this will go.

The initiative is backed by the World Bank, the United Nations, several European countries and Washington.

Distributed by AllAfrica Global Media. (

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