9 March 2004

East Africa: Uganda: Negotiations On Sharing Nile Water Tough But Hopeful

Entebbe — Delegates from the 10 states that share the River Nile waters were engaged in intense negotiations on Tuesday, but said they were confident agreement could be reached on sharing the river and its potential uses.

The high-level technical experts representing each state were meeting in Entebbe, Uganda, on the shores of Lake Victoria, which feeds the Nile, in an effort to flesh out a treaty regulating the use of the waters. The talks were organised by the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), an intergovernmental organisation that seeks to achieve sustainable socio-economic development and management of Nile Basin water resources.

"This agreement is vital to the security and peace of the region. Security is no longer just about interstate relations - it is also about the sharing and preservation of our environment," Siraj al-Din Hamid Yusuf, the Sudanese ambassador to Uganda and one of the negotiators, told IRIN.

For his part, the Ugandan director of water development, Patrick Kahangire, said, "We are going through a slow process of negotiations, and of course these don't start where everything is agreed."

Meraji Msuya, the executive director of the NBI told IRIN that "the most important thing for everybody is that all countries are genuinely ready and willing to discuss on these issues".

Egyptian representatives attending the conference declined to comment.

The talks come amid growing disagreement between countries in the south of the Nile basin, primarily Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia, which want to use the Nile waters for large-scale projects that might affect water levels farther down the river, and countries to the north, mainly Egypt, which might be affected by such projects.

The centrepiece of the debate is a 1929 Nile Treaty, which forbids any southern country to take any action potentially capable of bringing about a reduction of the volume of Nile water reaching Egypt.

East African countries like Kenya say they want the treaty changed, describing it as an illegitimate legacy of old colonial empires. Uganda wants the freedom to construct large-scale hydroelectric projects to solve its energy shortages. Tanzania, for its part, wants to build a pipeline to extract drinking water from Lake Victoria, while Ethiopia wants to launch large-scale irrigation projects using water from the Blue Nile to counter the effects of drought on its agriculture.

"Irrigation is something we must reach an agreement about," the Sudanese ambassador said. "Maintaining a constant flow of water is very important to countries like Egypt, for instance. People will die without it."

Egypt is the country with most at stake in the negotiations, as it has virtually no other source of fresh water. Egyptian diplomats have reportedly vowed to contest any attempt to alter or violate the treaty for commercial purposes. But other countries argue that Egypt is not only using the water for agriculture but also for commercial purposes.

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