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Africa Water Conference Called Success - 2003-09-10

A conference marking the beginning of Africa's dialogue on the use of scarce water resources has ended in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. The groundbreaking conference is being hailed as a success.

Conference organizers say the aim of the gathering of 19 African nations was to begin a dialogue about the need to find ways to tap into the power of some of the continent's major river basins and to better share water resources.

The head of the U-N Development Program in Ethiopia, Sam Nyambi, says the need to address Africa's water problem has never been greater.

He says, "We know from scientific studies and analysis that water tables in many parts are getting lower and lower and that is a great concern. It has to do with the way water is exploited. It has to do with the lack of capacity in Africa to retain water. So, we are dealing with a situation where water, which has always been in short supply, can, in fact, become in shorter supply as the years go by."

More than two-thirds of Africa's 60 river basins supply water to more than one country. The United Nations and other sponsors of the conference, the World Bank and the African Development Bank, argue that, unless agreements can be worked out between countries to share the river basins, a major water shortage on the continent could ignite wars over the ownership of the rivers.

Sponsors also emphasize the need for countries to manage and better utilize the continent's three main river systems, the Nile, the Zambezi and the Senegal, which form the economic backbone of many African countries.

The United Nations says it believes long-term management and development of these rivers could offer not only readily available drinking water, but also opportunities for increased food production, hydroelectric power and tourism.

At the conference, the African Development Bank announced it has pledged 33-million dollars for a project to promote the use of the Nile river basin.

The Nile is shared by Burundi, Congo Kinshasa, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda, serving a population of around 300-million people. The African Development Bank says project coordinators have, among other things, plans for reducing soil erosion and developing a method to jointly produce electricity.

While conference sponsors and ministers agree that enormous political and financial hurdles remain in building a water infrastructure in Africa, Mr. Nyambi with U-N-D-P says he believes the first water summit was a huge success.

He says, "A lot of progress has been achieved. The greater understanding and the level of dialogue that I have witnessed in this conference is so promising, conflicts that arise, either at the level of the local population or at the level of governments sharing the resource, can easily be dealt with."

Mr. Nyambi says a follow-up conference will be held in December in Addis Ababa.