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Battle of the Nile

Battle of the Nile
Battle of the Nile

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat said some 30 years ago that the only issue that could take Egypt to war again is water. Analysts have long warned of the potential of the potential for cross-border water wars. Now, along the Nile River Basin, a dispute over its water is heating up again.

Without water, there is no life. And without the Nile's waters, says Ayman Shabana, there is no Egypt.

"Egypt is the gift of the Nile," says Shabana, a professor of political science at Cairo University. "The Nile for Egypt is life and Egypt depends on its water."

The Egyptian-Sudanese treaty of 1959 grants Egypt as much as 75 percent of the Nile's waters and veto power on any projects that could disrupt its flow. Sudan was given rights to more than 10 percent of the Nile's water, with the remaining seven countries on the river sharing what's left. That agreement has left bad feelings in nations like Kenya and Ethiopia.

Shabana says Egypt is willing to open new negotiations with other Nile River Basin nations over sharing the Nile's resources, but first needs to conduct further studies to maximize its share of the Nile water.

However, at least five of the nine countries on the Nile River Basin have decided not to wait. In May Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Kenya and Ethiopia signed an agreement giving themselves greater control of the Nile waters. The move has angered the Egyptian government, which threatens to challenge the agreement.

Letitia Obeng, Chair of the Global Water Partnership, says water disputes rarely erupt into war, which is why negotiations are so important.

"There's 260 shared basins around the world," says Obeng. "That's a huge number and most countries share water some way or another. And so the important thing is you have to figure out the best way to share water. And the U.N. Water (Program) tells us that since 850 A.D., there have been over 3-thousand treaties on water management. That's a huge number. So countries have realized that it's important to work on managing water together."

But Ayman Shabana says Egypt is unlike any of the other nations bordering the Nile. He says the mighty river accounts for up to 95% of all of Egypt's available water. The other nations have far greater water resources, he says, and thus he says less need of the Nile.

"Such countries need rational administration of water resources because they possess enormous water resources," he says. "Incidentally, Democratic (Republic of) Congo does not care at all about water. It has the Congo River, which is larger and wider than the Nile river. It has also ground water, it has yearly 40 billion cubic meters."

Water management is a challenge for many countries around the globe, especially in developing nations. But the Global Water Partnership's Letitia Obeng says even poorer nations need to make it a priority.

"The world needs to take water management seriously. As you can imagine, if you think about it, water touches every aspect of our lives. And it's a finite resource. The more we pollute it, the more we mismanage it, the more difficult it is going for us to be to use it in the future, down the line for our children and our children's children."

Obeng points to the success of the management of the Yellow River in China. The management partnership serves more than 100-million people in nine provinces, tackling issues such as flooding, supply and demand, sustainability and development.

But half a world away, a dispute over the resources in the Nile River Basin may not be resolved so amicably. Egypt is threatening legal action, while Ethiopia's prime minister has been just as insistent that a new Nile sharing agreement go forward, telling journalists that idea the Nile belongs to Egypt is "old fashioned."

Ayman Shabana has a different perspective. "It's in Egypt's interest to preserve its share of the Nile water, both in quantity and quality," he says. "It's a matter of destiny and is linked to the existence of the Egyptian state itself and therefore it can't be touched."