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by Wynde Priddy

The worlds longest river at 4,187 miles, with tributaries passing through nine nations, the Nile has been a fiercely contested resource since the colonization of Africa by European powers in the 19th century. Egypt's ancient Pharaohs harnessed the Nile's abundance to create a richly fertile agricultural zone in the middle of a mammoth desert--one that still exists today. Experts say the Nile can supply parched northeast Africa with all the water it needs to become self-sustaining in agriculture, and even cultivate a formidable export trade, both of crops and hydro-electricity. So why, year after year, do headlines recur of drought and even famine in Ethiopia, millions of dollars in food aid sent by the UN, and thousands dying in the country's long dry season?

The Nile's largest tributary, the Blue Nile, originates in Ethiopia's highlands. The Blue Nile and other tributaries rising in Ethiopia contribute 85% of the water that flows into Egypt as the Nile. But the Ethiopians are not able to use this water to grow their own crops, generate energy, and improve their lives--due to treaties signed in the colonial era dividing the Nile's waters between Egypt and Sudan to the exclusion of Ethiopia, which was never colonized. A 1902 treaty imposed on Ethiopia by the British, who then controlled Egypt and Sudan, pledged the Horn of Africa nation not to tap the Blue Nile as Britain undertook massive dam and drainage projects upstream. This arrangement was again codified in a 1959 Egypt-Sudan treaty granting Egypt rights to 87% of the river's water. Sudan receives the remaining 13%, and Ethiopia is once again excluded.

Ethiopians remain unable to irrigate their fields with the water that flows through their land. The result is a weak one-yield crop season, with families often unable to produce enough even to feed themselves, much less sell their goods for profit. Contributing to the problem is an unreliable rainy season that gets shorter every year, and a lack of social infrastructure due to years of war. Also critical to the issue of water scarcity is widespread deforestation, a key factor in declining rainfall and the southward expansion of the Sahara Desert.

In contrast, Egypt's immense dam network allows the country's farmers to irrigate eight million acres of land, as well as maintaining an expansive power grid for the country's cities and industry. Ambitious plans are even underway to export power as far as Europe. Ethiopia's sparse dams produce unreliable power for only 10% of its people.

Egypt has been accused of consciously exacerbating the wars in the Horn of Africa, in a bid to forestall a unified claim to a greater share of the Nile. According to an article entitled "Nile Water Politics" by the Stratfor private intelligence analyst and posted on the SomaliaWatch website: "For half a century, Egypt has maintained its monopoly over the Nile by fostering regional instability. Cairo backed rebel groups in Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia. Addis Ababa claims that Cairo provided military intelligence, training and arms to separatist rebels, contributing to Ethiopia's civil war and the eventual partitioning of the country into Ethiopia and Eritrea. Although Cairo denies the allegations, the government admits to remaining in constant contact with rebel leaders from Sudan."

Technicians at Ethiopia's Water Ministry estimate that if they were allowed to use the Blue Nile's water, they could produce 15,000 megawatts of power as well as irrigate nearly nine million acres. Even the Koga river, a lesser tributary, could provide farmers with 15,000 acres of irrigated cropland, and a chance to yield a second crop every year. The Koga River proposition calls for using only one-tenth of 1% of the water flow that reaches the Ethiopia-Sudan border, according to Ethiopian engineers. But the country still stands helpless against the old treaties. The US and other countries provide millions of dollars in food aid that, while necessary, isn't helping the people of Ethiopia build a better future.

There are recent signs of hope, though, as powerfully-positioned Egypt is starting to see also opportunities for water conservation which could benefit the entire region. The cool highlands of Ethiopia are a prime locale for the vast reservoirs that Egypt needs to control the Nile's flow. Now the water evaporates too quickly from the reservoirs in the Egyptian desert, and the waste is inadmissible, even according to the Egyptian government.

Cairo, with the encouragement of the UN and the World Bank, has agreed to a Nile Basin Initiative aimed at calming centuries-old conflicts over access to the river, as well as providing necessary water for Ethiopia. The Koga project has even been accepted by Egypt as a "confidence builder" that upstream use in Ethiopia doesn't have to hurt downstream users in Egypt, according to a Nov. 26 cover story in the Wall Street Journal. Egypt's chairman of the Nile water sector, Abdel Fattah Metawie, went so far as to say: "There's enough water--it's just a matter of managing it. To look at the Nile from a selfish point of view won't help anyone."

But war, ecological decline and politically-motivated inefficient use may make the fear of water scarcity in the Nile basin a self-fulfilling prophecy. The decade to come may tell whether the Nile Basin Initiative has arrived in time.


Nile River Dispute, Trade & Environment Database

Nile Water Politics, Somalia Watch

Ethiopia Finally Gets Help from the Nile,

Reprinting permissible with attribution.