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Nile River Dispute Heats Up

Cairo, the capital of Egypt, on the banks of the Nile River

Controversy is bubbling in Africa over who owns the rights to the waters of the Nile River. Newly assertive upstream nations are challenging treaties that grant most of the Nile's flow to consumer countries Egypt and Sudan.

Some say the source of the Blue Nile is on Mt. Ghish, in the north Ethiopian highlands, where many believe the waters have miraculous healing powers. Others maintain the river begins at the mouth of nearby Lake Tana, sweeps down deep gorges, crosses into Sudan and joins the White Nile, to complete a 6,000-kilometer journey through Egypt to the sea.

Ethiopia, one of the world's poorest nations, sees these waters as a key to greater prosperity. A newly built hydroelectric plant promises to make it an energy exporter. A nearly complete irrigation system could help Ethiopia avoid the chronic food shortages that led to famines in recent years.

Farmer Yeshiwas Alemu says irrigation will end Ethiopia's dependence on the increasingly unpredictable rains.

He says, "We have always been poor, so we must take this opportunity to use the irrigation water. We should not give it away".

While 85 percent of the Nile's water comes from Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan say two colonial-era treaties give them rights to almost all the Nile's flow

Egypt's ambassador to Ethiopia, Tariq Ghuneim, says access to the Nile's water is a matter of national survival.

"We depend on the Nile," he said. "Period. Ninety-five percent of our water comes from the Nile river. Our brothers in the other Nile basin countries have other sources."

But upstream nations say Egypt has had the lion's share of the Nile long enough. Ethiopian water resources expert Imeru Tamrat says treaties Egypt signed with Sudan and with colonial power Britain are invalid.

"Without consent of upstream countries they divided the whole flow of the Nile among themselves," Tamrat said. "That is what they call their historical rights. There is no concept of historical rights under the U.N. convention."

Amid increasing demands from upstream countries for a larger share of the water, nine Nile basin countries began talks in 1999. But after 11 years, negotiations remain deadlocked over two words.

Egypt and Sudan insist any treaty must ensure their interests are not 'adversely affected'. Upstream countries argue that use of the term 'adversely affected' gives Egypt veto power over any project that would use the river's water.

Teferra Beyene of Ethiopia's Water Ministry says upstream countries are only willing to guarantee that such projects would not cause 'significant harm'.

"When you say 'adversely', it means you cannot use, you cannot touch the water resources," said Beyene. "This is a shared resource, and when you do certain things, you may cause certain harm, but that harm has to be 'not significant', balanced."

Five upstream nations signed a framework agreement last May that would give them greater access to the water. It could go into effect as early as next year. Egypt and Sudan stayed away from the signing ceremony.

Egypt's Ambassador Ghuneim cautions against any deal that fails to address concerns of consumer countries.

"We have to work harder on trying to find a compromise that will in the end serve all, because this will be a win-win situation for all the Nile basin countries," he said. "But if we do not have this kind of agreement, we all lose, and I do not believe any of the Nile basin countries want to see this."

Lake Tana's calm waters mask the tensions below the surface. Aimero Kassa farms the riverbank lowlands at the lake mouth. He says it is time upstream nations challenge Egypt's and Sudan's Nile water monopoly.

He says "Egypt has used the river for many years."

Standing in his lush field, Kassa says he would be happy if dams are built so Ethiopian farmers can use the water that now goes to Egypt.

He adds, 'They have to pray to their God."