Home | News    Saturday 21 February 2004

Egypt worried over proposals for sharing Nile waters

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By Hassen Zenati

CAIRO, Feb 21 (AFP) — A week ahead of the African Union summit in Libya, Egypt is increasingly worried about proposals for renegotiating arrangements for sharing the waters of the River Nile, which provides the country with 95 percent of its water resources.

A number of other African Union members that border on the Nile want a revision of a 1929 international accord that established the current arrangements. They will raise the highly strategic issue at the meeting, to be held in the Libyan coastal city of Syrte.

The 1929 commitment by Britain on behalf of its east African colonies of the time gives Egypt a right of veto on any utilisation of the river’s waters that would be detrimental to its downstream levels.

It was complemented in 1959 by a treaty between Egypt and Sudan, which lies up river. Under that deal, Egypt is guaranteed the right to 55 billion cubic metres (1.94 trillion cubic feet) of water annually while 18 billion cubic metres (635.7 billion cubic feet) is reserved for Sudan.

But Egypt’s population has tripled to 72 million people since 1959, and estimates are that the country now needs between 73 and 79 billion cubic metres of water to meet the needs of its farmers, who use only four percent of the country’s land area.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is slated to bring together his water resources, interior, defense, foreign affairs and information ministers on Sunday to discuss the issue, the press reported.

According to those reports, the meeting will focus on cooperation projects involving countries in the Nile Basin which, along with Egypt, include Kenya, Tanzania, Egypt, Sudan, Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda, Congo, Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Water Resources Minister Mahmud Abu Zei is then expected to visit three of those countries — Uganda, Kenya and Burundi — in March.

The press has expressed alarm in recent weeks over declarations by officials in Kenya and Tanzania calling for a revision of the 1929 accord.

"This worrisome position on the part of certain riparian states calls for a rapid intervention (by Egypt) to nip in the bud any attempt to reduce Egypt’s share of the Nile waters," government daily Al-Gumhuriya said Saturday.

The Nile, which passes through 10 countries, has two branches — the White Nile, fed by Lake Victoria, and the Blue Nile, which draws its waters from the Abyssinian Plain in Ethiopia and provides 85 percent of the total.

In the early 1980s, Egypt had a dispute with Ethiopia over its attempts at the time to redraw the terms of water-sharing.

Recently, Tanzanian Water Resources Minister Edward Lowasa asked why his country, which gained independence from Britain in 1961, should be bound by the terms of a colonial-era agreement. For Egypt, however, borders and agreements dating back to colonial times are untouchable.

Meanwhile, Cairo, which is encouraging an end to a decades-long rebellion in southern Sudan, is counting on an eventual draining of swamps in the area to provide another eight billion cubic metres of water. This would be directed into the Nile through the 360-kilometre (223-mile) Jonglei Canal and shared equally with Sudan.

Work on the canal was begun in 1978 but abandoned in 1984 after a raid by southern rebels. Cairo is hoping work can resume once peace is reached.

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