Egypt faces criticism over its control of Nile water

Published April 2nd, 2001 - 02:00 GMT

Questions are being raised about Egypt’s designs on the Nile River water flowing northward, with certain of the country’s southern neighbors suspicious that Cairo is siphoning more water than it deserves in order to satisfy its own development projects. 


Raising the issue is Baguma Isoke, Uganda’s minister for lands, water and mineral resources. Specifically, he questioned whether the Egyptian’s motives, in extending a $13-million grant to Uganda to reduce the possibility of flooding at Lake Kyoga in central Uganda, are all that they seem. It could be that the project has more to do with drawing more water to Egypt than with saving Ugandans from flooding, Isoke suggested. 


The project that Isoke is referring to involves the expansion of a culvert at Lake Kyoga and the construction of a new one. They were proposed following a period of severe flooding in 1998. 


Ostensibly, the Egyptians reason for supplying the grant is vested in an agreement concluded between the two countries during the 1950, when it was agreed that Egypt was to compensate Uganda, should flooding occur along the Nile valley. But now, Isoke suggested that Egypt is planning to drain Lake Kyoga and other feeder lakes, including Bisina, Opeta, threatening the Teso region in eastern Uganda. 


Ugandan suspicions were raised when Egypt launched a massive irrigation project in the country's western desert, involving the transport of five billion cubic meters to irrigate more than 200,000 hectares. Uganda believes that if needed, water will partially be diverted from its own supply. Through the 1959 treaty with Sudan, Egypt already enjoys 85 percent of the water rights of the Nile.  


The Ugandans are also surprised by Egypt’s sudden largesse. In 1964, when there was flooding around Lake Victoria and the level of water rose from 11 meters to 13 meters, Egypt did not honor her commitment. 


There may be other reasons for Egyptian generosity. Egypt, for instance, is keen to establish her dominance as a bastion of irrigation know-how in Africa, replacing Israel, upon whom Uganda has depended. 


Egypt has also indicated that it is willing to give up her virtual control of water rights. Commentators say this is because it is seeking closer economic cooperation in Africa, out of concern that her dominant political and economic role on the continent would be usurped by South Africa. 


In Africa, politics, economics and water walk hand in hand. Ethiopia, for instance, has stated that, inasmuch as it was not a British colony at the time, it is not bound by the 1959 agreement between the British and the Egyptian with regard to the sharing of the Nile waters. Drought-susceptible Ethiopia has a population of nearly 60 million, which is growing annually at 3.2 percent rate. It is believed that if Ethiopia uses Nile water to irrigate all its arable land, the flow of water to Egypt could be cut by 15 percent. 


In February 2000, Egypt announced the development of an independent water policy, which emphasized cooperation among the 10 Nile basin countries in the development of shared water resources. According to the statistics presented by Mahmoud Abu Zeid, the Egyptian minister for irrigation and water resources, 94.9 percent of the total water furnished by the Nile is lost or unused.  


Egypt was instrumental in establishing the Association of Countries of the Nile Basin, and to further promote cooperation within this framework it formed the Ministerial Council for Nile Basin Countries. In this spirit, Egypt has carefully avoided being drawn into political controversy concerning the Nile. At the same time, it has used all possible means to improve its bilateral relations with all the countries of the Nile basin, including Ethiopia.  


In East Africa and the continent’s Great Lakes region, Egyptian diplomats traditionally have sought to play the role of honest broker, acting as intermediaries in the dispute between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and playing peacemaker in Somalia, Burundi and the Congo. Egypt's emphasis on peaceful cooperation in order to secure its quota of water from the Nile is based on the conviction that there are very practical reasons for cooperation to succeed. Current disputes over the Nile, it has pointed out, relate to less than five percent of the Nile Valley's total water potential. 


The Nile catchment area covers 2.9 million square kilometers. It can be divided into three main sub-basins: The White Nile, whose head waters rise south of the Equator, and its runoff is 29 percent of the total amount of water traversing the Nile; the Atbara River, which rises in North Ethiopia and constitutes 14 percent of the total Nile runoff; and the Blue Nile, which also rises in North Ethiopia, has runoff equal to 57 percent of the total runoff of the Nile.  


The river is the longest in the world, running a course about 6,700 kilometers long, through the countries of Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, Zaire, Ethiopia, as well as Sudan and Egypt. — (Albawaba-MEBG)

© 2001 Mena Report (

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