The Fight Over the Nile

>Al Jazeera English reports that five countries won't back down on their quest for a greater share of Africa's largest river.


The Nile River Basin

What's happening?

Last month, nine African countries met in Entebbe, Uganda, where five signed the Nile River Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) to increase their current share of the river. Uganda,  Rwanda, Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania, the five signatories, all claim the current agreement -- dating back to 1929 -- is unfair. It allots about two-thirds of the water to Egypt and much of the rest to Sudan.But five signatures won't change the allocation status quo; the countries in agreement need a sixth name to ratify the CFA. According to some experts, they aren't likely to get it.

Currently, 90 percent of the river's water flows to Egypt and Sudan, and the two North African  nations are adamantly opposed to the proposed changes. Egyptian and Sudanese leaders maintain they need the water more than the countries downstream, and their claim is not unfounded. With desert climates, both nations suffer from rainwater shortages, and do not have the money for water desalination. 

"Upstream countries have many sources and aren't managing our Nile properly," Mohamed Nasreddin Allam, Egypt's water resources and immigration minister, told Reuters. "That's what we are asking for." But last weekend, the five countries in agreement said they stood by their pact, and refused to back down despite the intense condemnation from the North Africa nations. 

The other countries' argument? They should be able to better use a resource that flows through their land, too. Under the 1929 and 1959 treaties, written when Britain ruled over much of the continent, Egypt and Sudan received essentially full control of the Nile. Even Ethiopia, which has 86 percent of the river's flow, received nothing from the original deal. The current agreement would allot a certain amount of water to each country based on factors like population, climate, total contribution to the river's flow, and current use of the water. 

What's next? 

Expect another meeting in Nairobi, Kenya, sometime between September and November. It will allow the Nile Basin countries to continue to discuss the still null agreement. Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo might still sign it. 

If they do, it could spark more conflict in a region already plagued with poverty, overpopulation and ethnic tensions. Ned Walker, the former Ambassador to Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Israel, and a current scholar at the Middle East Institute, is confident Sudan and Egypt won't acquiesce to any terms of an agreement that might limit their water supply. If forced to comply, they might resort to violence. 

"The Egyptians have made it fairly clear to me in the past that this [could be] a cause of war," Walker says." They will not put up with anybody trying to unilaterally change the status quo, and that's what they feel that those other countries were doing when they were calling for reallocations of the water." 

Walker hopes the Egyptians and Sudanese return to the Nile Basin countries with a counter proposal. A potential solution could come from better utilization of the water already in the region. Sudan has a large marsh that could be tapped better, and Egypt wastes much of their water by growing water intensive crops. 

Still, Walker emphasizes that diplomatic success of the Nile Basin Initiative is unlikely without support from international institutions and other countries. "You need somebody outside to come in and try to be an umpire," he explains. "I don't think the governments are capable of solving this on their own. The World Bank or other European countries could intervene, and perhaps we could bring our own leverage to bear. It's not in our interest to have any more conflict break out in the African continent."