By James Macharia
NAIROBI, March 19 (Reuters) - It won’t be military muscle that settles a centuries-old struggle for access to the Nile.
Instead, armies of engineers and financiers will slake the thirst of a war-ravaged region where generations of leaders have tended to arbitrate access to water at the point of a gun.
That is the gentle vision of experts trying this week to defuse a potential source of 21st century conflict running up the spine of Africa from the Great Lakes to the Mediterranean.
Suffering deforestation, soil erosion and erratic rainfall, east African nations fiercely oppose a colonial-era pact giving effective control of the 6,741 km (4,189 mile)-long Nile and its African origins to Egyptian users far downstream.
Egypt, in turn, has long challenged any initiative that would squeeze the flow of the Nile to its frontiers.
In a turnaround, the governments of the 10 Nile Basin nations this week said a cooperative solution may be in sight.
MOST RAINWATER WASTED
Gathering with bankers and aid agencies at a conference in Nairobi, the 10 governments set aside old rivalries to explore cross-border ventures in energy and irrigation to improve collection of rainwater, most of which is currently wasted.
"We accept that sustainable management and development of the Nile Basin can only be guaranteed through cooperation," Kenyan Vice President Moody Awori told delegates.
"Our cooperation on the Nile ultimately will ensure more than just water will flow down the river," Awori said. "Trade, tourism and other joint ventures will definitely emerge."
The idea is that the ventures, due to start in the next two years, will please politicians by bringing more power and irrigation to Africa’s farmers and businesses. Tapping presently unharvested rainwater, they should not hit Nile levels.
That in turn should foster a cooperative climate, enabling government negotiators eventually to carry out the much trickier task of deciding new ways of sharing the river’s actual flows.
"The restructuring of cooperation across this basin has taken several years and will take several more years," David Grey, senior water resources advisor at the World Bank said.
"The imperative meanwhile is to get results on the ground, put in development projects and show benefits to poor people."
Arab power Egypt says it is ready to provide technical and financial help to impoverished upstream countries for investment in watershed management, irrigation and water storage systems.
Egyptian Water Minister Mahmoud Abu Zaid highlighted one proposed Ethiopian project, which on its own could save 12 billion cubic metres of water per year.
A canal to halt evaporation of Nile waters in southern Sudanese swamps would also make extra water available, he said.
The countries have delegated the tricky task of negotiating a new share-out of the Nile to a separate committee of experts who are not expected to produce a solution for several years.
Not only is their task technically complex, it is also beset by a web of mutual suspicions shaped by memories of outside interference in the Nile Basin going back to Ottoman times.
Under the 1929 accord between Egypt and Britain, acting on behalf of its then east African colonies, Egypt can veto any use of Lake Victoria water it feels threatens levels in the Nile.
Yet even on the vexed question of a new share-out of Nile waters, the prospects for a solution have brightened — Egypt now says it agrees on the need for a new pact.
It will not accept a smaller quota than it is allotted by the 1929 treaty.
But the assumption is the joint ventures will eventually improve everyone’s access to water and make the topic of Nile quotas less critical and more amenable to compromise.
To date, few outside a cabal of technicians and development agencies seem aware of the inventive solutions these experts are devising for the rapidly growing region of 300 million people.
Much media coverage of the conference in east Africa has focussed on the suspicions of the past. One newspaper led its coverage with an analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the Egyptian air force, worrying that even Ethiopia’s large armed forces would be no match for the Arab power’s warplanes.
Some governments now accept they need to do a better job of informing their people about the brightening outlook for water.
(Additional reporting by Tom Perry in Cairo)