The river Nile is the longest river in the world, flowing over 6,700 kilometres, with tributaries spanning over ten countries in eastern and northern Africa. It has long been the lifeblood of Egypt, whose economy is largely based on agriculture and depends on the river Nile waters to thrive. Thus, the security of its population and economy depends to a sizeable extent on the river Nile. Egypt has legal and historical rights to a large percentage of the waters of the river Nile, mostly treaties signed between Egypt and the British colonizers before independence.
Ethiopia, on the other hand, is the source of up to 85% of the river Nile. Yet it has largely been restricted on how much water it can use for its own economic development by treaties it either signed under duress, or it had no party to, such as the Nile waters agreement of 1929, and the 1959 Nile waters agreement between Egypt and Sudan.
|the flow of River Nile, image source wikipedia|
All this is about to change, as Ethiopia is building Africa’s biggest hydro power plant at a cost of no less than US $ 4.8 Billion. It hopes this power plant, named The Grand Renaissance Ethiopia Dam (GERD) will generate electricity to sell to its neighbouring countries, as well as a major boost to an economy that depends heavily on agriculture and is hampered due to its landlocked nature from developing.
When one looks at the divergent needs and interests between Egypt and Sudan on one hand, and other countries that also claim a piece of the river Nile (Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania), it is clear that strong leadership and calm heads are needed to avert future potential conflicts that could occur, as well as new treaties that demarcate afresh how these countries use the river Nile, so as to ensure prosperity and peace between all countries involved.
Yet the politicians in both countries are ratcheting up the tensions, with Egyptian president saying recently in a speech that, "As head of state, I confirm to you that all options are open." He later added: "We are not calling for war, but we will never permit our water security ... to be threatened." I do not think that war is an option at the table at the moment, while the internal political dynamics of Egypt cannot be ruled out to explain why the politicians are engaging in such fierce rhetoric. According to international crisis group analyst Yasser el-Shimy, “Mursi is addressing the concerns of Egyptians regarding their water supplies, while sending a blunt message to Ethiopia and other Nile basin countries that Cairo takes this issue seriously.”
But the feeling upriver is at odds with Egypt’s sentiments. In countries such as Uganda, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Burundi and Kenya, the Nyerere doctrine which states that former colonies have no obligation to abide by treaties signed for them by Great Britain. Many analysts contend that Egypt and Sudan have gotten away with using majority of the Nile’s waters by the political instability and poverty of many of these countries upstream. As they get richer, more powerful and more ambitious, they will have the power to exploit the river Nile’s waters to their own benefit. Thus how the conflict between Ethiopia and Egypt could have ramifications for all these countries, and how they exploit this natural resource.
In the meantime, leaders will be looking keenly at the unfolding scenario and who will blink first. I am confident an agreement can and will be found, whether it will be to the benefit of the environment, the Nile ecosystem, all the citizens of the Nile basin and sustainable however, is not clear.
· Ethiopia also has a hydro project on river Omo, that will create a reservoir and reduce the water flowing into lake Turkana, thus endangering the livelihoods of many fishermen and the populace that depend on lake Turkana for sustenance. It is not clear how Kenya plans to adjust to its construction, and save the livelihood and future of the biggest fresh water lake within its borders.