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African Water Ministers Call for Better Nile River Cooperation - 2004-03-18

The water ministers of 10 African countries that share the Nile River and its tributaries met in Nairobi Thursday and called for more cooperation and less conflict over how to use the river.

At the opening session of the 12th Nile Council of Ministers Meeting, water ministers and donors spoke of the need for the countries sharing the Nile to cooperate with one another, something that has not always happened in the past.

Kenya's minister for water resources management and development, and chair of the ministers' council, Martha Karua, explained why countries need to put their hostilities concerning the Nile waters aside. "We all believe that by moving together to major joint development, we can look forward to peace and prosperity, and not backward, to dispute and conflict," she said.

Ms. Karua said preparations are under way for about eight joint development projects, to which donors have already committed more than $100 million.

The projects and work of the Nile Council of Ministers fall under the Nile Basin Initiative, a program that began in 1999 to bring the 10 countries together on how best to share and manage the Nile River.

The use of the world's longest river has been regulated by the 1929 Nile Basin Treaty, which was revised in 1959. Under the arrangement, any country south of Egypt must get Egypt's approval for irrigation or hydroelectric projects so that those projects don't cause a drop in Egypt's water level.

This has pitted Egypt against countries such as Tanzania and Kenya, which plan to use Lake Victoria for drinking water and irrigation initiatives.

An Egyptian official was recently quoted in the press as saying Egypt would consider any attempt to violate the treaty an act of war. However, officials at Thursday's meeting were quick to criticize the media, saying press reports misquoted the official and distorted the situation.

The ministers said they want to chart a new path of cooperation by coming up with a new legal framework on managing Nile resources.

Ms. Karua hinted this might mean replacing the 1929 treaty. "We are informed by history, but we are looking at the present circumstances where the reality is that we have shared trans-boundary waters of the Nile," she explained, "and we are now sitting down together, planning for the present and the future. So we are looking for a new cooperative framework."

The meeting is expected to conclude on Friday.

The Nile Council of Ministers brings together officials from Kenya, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda.