The Nile, Africa’s longest river, may have quenched the thirst of millions of people and animals for years, amid quarrels on which country should have more or less, but now even those who felt they got little water compared to counterparts should expect even less because of climate change.
As government officials from riparian states gathered in Addis Ababa last week, focused on the politics of the Nile, experts presented growing scientific evidence that compels Nile Basin countries to work together to protect the waters.
Ethiopia has been in dispute with Egypt, Nile’s biggest user, over construction of the Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam (Gerd), a power generation project on the Blue Nile, which Cairo says will reduce waters due to Egypt.
Read: Egypt says Addis ‘buying time’ to fill Nile dam
Hydrologists warn that the Nile waters will generally be reducing for everyone because of climate change hence the need for cooperation.
They cite a recent Unep report that showed that the Nile’s water flow has reduced from over 3,000 cubic metres per second in 1970s to 2,830 today, blamed on frequent droughts and deforestation of catchment areas. In the next 70 years, the amount of water available for every of the 300 million inhabitants in the Nile Basin could reduce by as much as two thirds.
Sylvester Anthony Matemu, executive director of the Nile Basin Initiative, a provisional body that has sought, unsuccessfully, to influence dialogue between Basin countries, noted that everyone needed the Nile.
“Cooperation, particularly on the Nile is not a choice. It is a necessity, and it is a must. Resources need to be properly exploited to help the continent lift itself from the clutches of poverty,” said Matemu.
Dr Abdulkarim Seid, an international water management expert, told the audience that the Nile Basin will need to change how it deals with its water problems in the face of irregular rain patterns, expanded cities, increased irrigation and other water demands.
Read: Make beneficial deals on use of River Nile, states urged
“The water quantity is going to change because of climate change. Climate change also means uncertainty. That means our water policies have to be risk-based,” he said, referring to programmes to re-establish forest covers, improve water storage or generally look for water elsewhere.
“It means no single country can take control of the water situation. We will need more coordination, more cooperation,” he said.
Demeke Mekonnen, Ethiopia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs argued that his country has been mistreated for wanting a reasonable use of the waters yet nearly 85 percent of the water originates from the Blue Nile in Ethiopia.
“Ethiopia will not be discouraged by the hegemony of some. We categorically reject unconstructive engagements. The Nile should be a symbol of cooperation,” he told an audience at the 2nd Afri-Run High Level Forum on the Equitable and Reasonable Utilisation of Transboundary Watercourses in Africa held on June 22-23.
“Gerd is both a national and African project that seeks to lift millions out of poverty. The last three fillings have not affected the water levels for the riparian states. Likewise, the rest of the fillings will not affect the riparian states,” Demeke said.
Read: Ethiopia begins generating power from Nile dam
The forum agreed on a non-binding declaration for Basin-wide cooperation on equitable and reasonable utilisation of the Nile.
“All riparian countries must commit to protecting the environment through afforestation, wetlands preservation and implementing environmentally friendly projects,” the outcome document of the conference, published last week, says.
Ethiopia though criticises Egypt for choosing external parties to resolve the matter and argues that the narrative around water disputes should be focused on reasonable use, not hegemonic controls.
Addis Ababa and some riparian countries argue that Cairo relies on archaic treaties signed before Independence, which do not consider current realities such as the need for electricity and water in source countries.
Read: Ethiopia’s filling of GERD gets muted response
To rectify that, it calls for creation of a permanent organ known as the Nile Basin Commission, to be formed by implementing the Cooperative Framework Agreement on the Nile River. Egypt has been reluctant to endorse the framework that seeks to redefine water shares.
Can nations force cooperation? South Sudanese Foreign Minister Deng Dau Deng said countries have little else.
“Cooperation is far more beneficial than a lack of it.”