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Tensions Mount as Uganda Proceeds With Nile River Agreement

The 6th October bridge spans the River Nile in Cairo, June 2013.

The 6th October bridge spans the River Nile in Cairo, June 2013.

As Ethiopia makes plans for its controversial dam, Uganda is poised to ratify an agreement that would allow water from the Nile to be used for irrigation. Both projects are vehemently opposed by Egypt, but upstream countries like Uganda see the Nile as crucial to their development.

An ominous undercurrent is running through the politics of the Nile River basin. The Nile provides nearly all of Egypt’s water supply. The international agreements protecting it are about to be turned on their heads, however, as Uganda takes one step closer to changing the rules of the game.

Uganda soon will become the second Nile-basin country to ratify the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA), signed in 2010. The CFA replaces a series of colonial-era agreements, allowing upstream countries like Uganda to use the Nile for hydroelectric projects and irrigation.

'Upstream' nations demand access

Ugandan Minister of Water and Environment Ephraim Kamuntu said the old agreements were unfair to countries upstream.

“It was done at a time when these countries were never consulted, were never signatories in the previous agreements," Kamuntu said. "They were almost based on fear that the countries upstream could unilaterally hurt the interests of the countries downstream, and this is not really the case. I do not think there is any African country which wants to hurt the Egyptians. We fully appreciate that the waters of the Nile constitute the lifeblood of the Egyptian civilization.”

Until now, countries like Uganda have been unable to harness either the Nile or its tributaries without first seeking permission from Egypt. Irrigation projects have been all but impossible.

Abel Rwendeire of Uganda’s National Planning Authority said these waters have the potential to make a real difference in Uganda’s arid northern and eastern provinces, where agriculture is difficult. He added that irrigation canals also could help in periods of drought.

“It would make a significant difference, because once you have got some kind of evaporation there, you have plenty of water transpiring, and therefore moisture in the air," he said. "And then you actually change the climatic conditions of the area, and you see a little more rain than there previously would have been.”

Makerere University development historian Mwambusya Ndebesa said irrigation could also be used to develop commercial agriculture and attract investors.

“There are very many commercial agriculturalists who are setting up businesses in Uganda, including foreign investors who are coming to grow industrial crops. Commercialization of agriculture is now the plan of the government of Uganda, and commercialization of agriculture entails use of irrigation," he said. "And this irrigation, in turn, will affect the flow of the Nile.”

Egypt's Morsi threatens

With so much at stake for Egypt, such development comes at a price. Big hydroelectric stations, like Ethiopia’s planned Grand Renaissance Dam, could reduce the Nile’s flow while reservoirs fill. Irrigation projects would reduce the flow indefinitely.

Last month, Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi warned blood would be spilled if a single drop of the Nile was lost. Ndebesa pointed out that a conflict with Egypt also could have regional implications.

“Egypt might also seek allies of the Arab world in its negotiation for these waters," he said. "We hope it may not come to that level, but there is a remote possibility that it can lead to a war where, strategically, Egypt may decide to bombard any one of these power stations built on the Nile waters.”

Compared to many of its neighbors, Uganda is a lush country with ample rainfall. Yet despite the security risks, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has been vocal in his support of the CFA. Rwendeire explained that behind the Nile River dispute is a simple desire for independence.

“You have to look at the history, I think. The history where to do any little thing, you have to go and beg," he said."So these strong words come over a period of time, and history. If you look at them now they do not make sense, but over time, yes, they do make a lot of sense.”

Kamuntu said the ratification process in Uganda is well on track and should happen soon. The other signatories to the CFA are Kenya, Burundi, Tanzania, Rwanda and Ethiopia.

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