Thanassis Cambanis, Egypt and Thirsty Neighbors Are at Odds Over Nile
Ever since civilization first sprang forth here, Egyptians have clustered along the Nile’s silt-rich banks. Almost all of the country’s 80 million people live within a few miles of the river, and farmers like Mr. Sharkawi have hardly changed their farming methods in four millenniums. Egypt’s population is growing briskly, however, and by the year 2017 at current rates of usage the Nile’s water will barely meet Egypt’s basic needs, according to the Ministry of Irrigation.
And that is assuming that the river’s flow is undiminished. Under British colonial rule, a 1929 treaty reserved 80 percent of the Nile’s entire flow for Egypt and Sudan, then ruled as a single country. That treaty was reaffirmed in 1959. Usually upstream countries dominate control of a river, like the Tigris and Euphrates, which are much reduced by the time they flow into Iraq from Turkey and Syria. The case of the Nile is reversed because the British colonials who controlled the region wanted to guarantee water for Egyptian agriculture.
The seven upstream countries — Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi and Rwanda — say the treaty is an unfair vestige of colonialism, while Egypt says those countries are awash in water resources, unlike arid Egypt, which depends on just one.
Today’s confrontation has unfolded in slow motion. In April, negotiations between the nine Nile countries broke down after Egypt and Sudan refused to give ground. The upstream countries quickly got together and in May came up with a formula that would free them to build their own irrigation projects and dams, reducing the flow to Lake Nasser, the vast man-made reservoir that straddles Egypt and Sudan.
So far Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and Rwanda have signed the new Nile basin accord, which would require only a simple majority of member countries to approve new projects. Egypt wants to retain veto power over projects in any country, and with Sudan argues that the main provisions of the colonial-era treaty should be preserved.
Congo and Burundi have not yet taken sides. Egypt and Sudan have until May 2011 to resume negotiations, or else the upstream countries will activate the new agreement.
But agricultural projects, potentially far more damaging to Egypt, are another matter. Not only would they permanently reduce the amount of water that reaches Egypt’s border, but they have also already attracted the interest of wealthy Arab nations and the Chinese, who see an enormous profit potential in them.
Egyptian water experts said that the upstream countries wasted colossal amounts of water that run off unused into swamps. The upstream countries point to Egypt’s own wasteful practices, saying that 75 percent of Egypt’s water is used for agriculture, most of it wasted by inefficient, old-fashioned practices.
In Egypt, however, decades of bellicose rhetoric about the Nile have made the river’s water an explosive issue. “Violating Egypt’s quota of Nile water is a genocidal war against 80 million people,” an Egyptian commentator, Hazem el-Beblawi, wrote this year in Al Masry Al Youm, an Egyptian daily.
Water experts say that Egypt has done little to curtail its own misuse of water.
Despite periodic government efforts to promote less wasteful practices, irrigation water still flows largely through dirt channels often choked with weeds. Much of it leaches into the ground before reaching crops. “Egypt doesn’t act like a country dying of thirst,” said Dan Morrison, author of “The Black Nile,” in which he chronicled his journey from the river’s origins to its mouth at the Mediterranean, and encountered the most pronounced waste in Egypt. So long as water is free for farmers, Mr. Morrison said, there is little incentive to conserve.
One solution Mr. Morrison proposed would entail Egypt’s importing food staples from upstream nations that can farm more efficiently with Nile water.
Upstream nations funded by China and oil countries, interested in profits and low cost food. And of course a large shift in trade imbalance, to buy more of its food from upstream nations.
But if Egypt’s farmers no longer farm, as the Nile’s waters become increasingly used in the upstream Nile countries, what will they do? Will Egypt go to war over water?