Northeast African States Demand Greater Share of Nile River Water

Posted in Africa | 29-Sep-06 | Author: Dustin Dehéz

latent conflict over the distribution of water from the Nile River has been unfolding in Northeast Africa for several years. This conflict could very well add to the already existing tension in the region. Insufficient rainfall, widespread famine, rapid population growth, and the desire for economic development have made the downstream of water a contentious issue among the riparian states.

On the core of the emerging conflict lies a 1959 treaty between Egypt and Sudan -- excluding all other riparian states -- that regulates the distribution of water from the Nile among the two signature powers; the treaty has disproportionately favored Egypt, which was, at the time, the hegemonic power in Northeast Africa. Other African states have, however, developed their economies in recent years and face high population growth levels. These developments have led them to demand a greater share of Nile River water.

While other countries face similar challenges, Ethiopia has been the major protagonist in challenging the Egyptian position. Eight-five percent of the Nile water passing through Egypt comes from the famine-ridden country of Ethiopia. Egypt has so far maintained that any unilateral action to make use of Nile River water would be regarded as a breach of international law and has even threatened to go to war should Ethiopia take further steps without first consulting Cairo.

Ethiopia, the most populous country in the Horn of Africa, needs to develop its irrigation system to end the decades-long dependency on foreign food relief; at the same time, however, Egypt's population is growing rapidly, increasing water demand. Moreover, roughly 95 percent of Egypt's territory is inhospitable desert. Cairo has even built new cities for its growing population, projects that require even more water. Both countries are striving to develop their economies and to feed their populations, while climactic changes are making droughts more widespread.

The distribution of Nile River water has been regulated by the 1929 Blue Nile agreement between the United Kingdom and Egypt, and the 1959 agreement between Sudan and Egypt. The latter gave Cairo a de facto right to veto any project using Nile water in other riparian states. Although this treaty remained unchallenged over the years, this is no longer the case. Indeed, many African states have experienced robust G.D.P. growth rates in recent years -- with the notable exception of Eritrea, which suffers immensely due to its border war with Ethiopia and its devastating economic policy of self-reliance -- and this has increased their need to develop their infrastructure, produce more energy, and provide more water to their populations. Understandably, the majority of the Nile River countries now want to renegotiate the decades-old treaties.

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