East African Water Clash Slams Nile Treaty

By Jennifer Wanjiru

NAIROBI, Kenya, October 18, 2001 (ENS) - In a debate that may lead to confrontation between Egypt and eastern Africa nations over the River Nile, Kenya's members of parliament have voiced concern over the legality of an international treaty that bars the three countries from using water from Lake Victoria for irrigation.

During a stormy debate in Kenya's parliament Wednesday, members led by Energy Minister Raila Odinga dismissed the 1929 Nile Water Agreement as "obsolete" and called on the government to demand the review of the treaty and seek support of other east African countries of Tanzania and Uganda.


Energy Minister Raila Odinga (Photo by Khamis Rhamadhan courtesy Inter-Connect Ltd.)
"This treaty only benefits Egypt and we cannot sit back while we have water we can use to irrigate our land," said Odinga. The minister alleged that the Egyptian government is planning to "export" some of the water to Sinai using an underground tunnel.

At risk is the 1929 Nile Waters Agreement that was concluded through an exchange of notes between the British High Commission in Cairo and the Egyptian government and today binds Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya and bars them from using the Lake Victoria waters.

The 1929 water agreement heavily favored Egypt's "historic rights" and allocated the north African nation the right to use 48 billion cubic meters (bcm) of water per year, and gave Sudan right to tap some four billion cubic meters.

The treaty does not allocate to Ethiopia any rights to use the Nile waters although more than 85 percent of the total Nile volume comes from its highlands.

"This agreement was negotiated without our being represented and should be reviewed. After all, why should we preserve our water for Egypt?" asked Odinga.

The minister won the support of the opposition legislators with Kabete Member of Parliament, Paul Muite dismissing the treaty as an "outdated obstacle to the region's agricultural growth."


Farm on the banks of the River Nile (Photo courtesy African Connection)
"Kenyans are today importing agricultural produce from Egypt as a result of their use of the Nile water. Why shouldn't we use the same water to grow fruits in our country," wondered the MP.

The Nile is the world's longest river, and an estimated 123 million people depend on the Nile waters for survival.

Critics say that the 1929 agreement was negotiated when it was thought that the source of River Nile was Lake Victoria, but 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 also fed by the Bahr-el-Jebel water system to the north and east of the Nile-Congo Rivers divide", says Nairobi university geography don, Dr. Abdalla Ahmed.

"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. There can be minimal impact on the Nile if the east African countries harvest the Lake Victoria water for local use," he said.

Researchers say that with about 85 percent of the Nile's waters originating in Ethiopia and Eritrea, renegotiating the agreement would require "political goodwill."


Lake Victoria (Photo courtesy United Nations University)
"From a hydrology point of view, Lake Victoria's contribution to the Nile is less than 15 percent, so the east African nations are just sitting on a gold mine," says Dr. Ahmed.

Shortly after independence from Britain in 1956, Sudan demanded a review of the treaty leading to a standoff that saw Egypt stop the funding of Sudanese project to build a reservoir at Roseires on the Blue Nile. But a subsequent coup that saw Jaffer Numeiri take power in 1959 saw Egypt and Sudan develop the 1959 Agreement.

The new agreement set Egypt's share of Nile waters at 55.5 bcm per year and allocated to the Sudan's an allotment of 18.5 bcm per year. Other riverside nations, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Burundi were not included in this agreement.

"None of the treaties can be binding to sovereign states," says Njeru Kathangu, a Kenyan Member of Parliament.

With droughts becoming a familiar phenomenon in East Africa, Lake Victoria water is seen as a possible way of solving the region's food requirements. Today, irrigated agriculture is the largest draw on the waters of the Nile, particularly in Egypt and the Sudan.

Experts say that pressure on Nile resources is likely to increase dramatically in the coming years as a result of high population growth rates in all riparian states, and increasing development related water needs in Ethiopia.

"We have to understand that people who live alongside this lake cannot understand why they cannot use the water to irrigate their fields," says Tom Mbue, an economics lecturer at the University of Nairobi.


The River Nile flows through the Egyptian capital of Cairo (Photo courtesy Mustardseed Media)
"Even if Egypt wanted to be fair we know that it is today using more water than allowed by the two agreements. I propose that once the proposed East African National Assembly becomes a reality, this should be the first agenda," said Paul Muite, a vocal Kenya Member of Parliament.

The three east African countries are set to inaugurate a regional parliament and elections are underway.

Ethiopia and Egypt have also been having a silent row over the Nile, and in 1996 they exchanged non-cooperative policy papers where each country asserted its rights to use Nile water as it sees fit.

"Were it not for Egypt's political and military dominance, the civil war in the Sudan and negligible use of water by other upstream riparians there would have been a big water war in the region", says African political scientist, Professor Peter Anyang Nyongo.

The Kenyan proposal may not go down well with Egypt since it knows that The Blue Nile and the Atbara are subject to heavy seasonal fluctuations in flow as a result of the seasonal rains of the Ethiopian highlands and during this time water from Lake Victoria supplement the flow.

Between the months of July and September, flow increases dramatically due to heavy rains, but the Blue Nile at times runs empty.

The Nile River has an annual flow in normal years of 84 bcm at Aswan, in southern Egypt. Of this, 86 percent is from the Blue Nile, the Atbara and the Sobat, originating in the Ethiopian highlands, with only 14 percent originating from the Great Lakes region.

Records show that from 1870 to 1899, the average annual flow at Aswan was 110 bcm, and has declined to 83 bcm from 1899 to 1954 and 81.5 bcm from 1954 to 1988.

East Africa is already experiencing lengthy drought periods as a result of forest destruction in the highlands. With the population of Egypt set to double in the next 50 years, and projections showing a demand for water increasing, there will be tension over the Nile.