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KAMPALA, Jan 14 2009 (IPS) - Ten years of negotiations over a new protocol governing shared use of the Nile River are hanging in the balance, with Egypt and Sudan refusing to give up their present power over how much water is used by countries further upstream.
"The technocrats had worked out all the paper work for a good protocol but the politicians have thrown a clean piece of cloth in the mud," says Professor Afuna Aduula, chair of the Nile Basin Discourse Forum, a consortium of civil society organisations looking at issues along the world's longest river.
The article in the new draft which has caused the stalemate is 14b, concerning water security. Water use by countries upstream has long been restricted by the terms of the colonial agreement signed on their behalf by Britain in 1929, and re-affirmed in 1954.
The Nile basin has a population of 160 million people in an area of 3.1 million square kilometres – including 81,500 sq km of lakes and 70,000 sq km of swamps, according to statistics from the Nile Basin Initiative, a body set up by Nile riparian states with funding from various donors to harmonise policy over the Nile.
Over the years, water levels in Lake Victoria, a major source of water for the Nile, have been falling. Water levels in 2008, were 2.5 metres lower than three years earlier. This is believed to be due to a combination of factors, including declining rainfall and increased use – and it is causing panic among states that share the Nile.
The Nile River Basin Cooperative Framework's article 6 talks about protection and conservation of the basin and its ecosystem and environmentalists look at this as a milestone in maintaining the water levels from a wider catchment area feeding into the lake.
But Frank Muramuzi of Uganda's National Association of Professional Environmentalists believes a deadlock could undermine regional conservation and development activities under the Nile Basin Initiative. He thinks a new protocol would guarantee countries like Egypt and Sudan more water.
"The protocol would set a framework for sustainable use of water resources from the river Nile," says Muramuzi. But if the status quo remains, waters from Lake Victoria the major reservoir for the Nile will continue to recede and shortages may result into conflicts, he adds.
The treaty being considered now also has five other major clauses which generated heated debate in previous negotiations. These include article 4, which is on equitable and reasonable use of the Nile waters, article 5 (prevention of harm to the waters), article 6 (protection and conservation of the basin and its ecosystem) and article 8 (prior informed consent before using the waters).
Egypt and Sudan, which have largely desert land, have been opposed to the treaty, fearing it would cut them off from the Nile waters.
In the new document, clause 14b concerning on prior informed consent was amended after Kenya, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo pushed for its alteration to "information concerning planned measures".
The new wording puts a check on the 1929 treaty, which required the riparian states to seek permission before using the Nile waters. The document further provides for establishment of a Nile Basin Commission, with its headquarters in Entebbe, Uganda.
The decision on the matter is now in suspense because negotiators have passed the issue on to the 10 heads of state of the Nile basin to conclude.
Callist Tindimugaya, Uganda's commissioner in the Ministry of Water, told IPS that what can be done now is to continue cooperating, pending the resolution of the contentious clause in the new protocol.
According to Professor Patrick Rubaihayo, an expert on development based in Makerere University, Kampala, many of the upstream countries risk missing millennium development goal targets should a new and more equitable protocol not be signed.
"Continuing extreme poverty is one of the consequences if a new protocol is not signed," he said.
A vibrant agriculture sector is seen as an essential vehicle for development, but Rubaihayo cannot envision this developing without investment in massive irrigation schemes. The colonial agreement on sharing the Nile's waters makes these schemes difficult because Egypt and Sudan must approve irrigation projects, and flatly refuse.
Uganda's Minister for Water, Jennifer Namuyangu, says the discussion is an opportunity for countries like Uganda to correct a historical anomaly. She says Uganda will not accept a lopsided pact over the use of the Nile.
Professor Aduula believes Egypt's refusal to sign a new protocol could be based on a calculation that one of their own is in line to become head of the Nile Basin Initiative and therefore influence the process. According to the charter that set up the Initiative, the head rotates among the member countries of the basin and the director serves a term of two years. The current head is Henrietta Ndombe a Congolese who will lead the organisation until September 2010 when someone from Egypt will take over.
Egypt wants a clause which states that other countries sharing the Nile should not use water to the detriment of another country. Other countries want that clause deleted altogether because of the implication that countries' upstream will have to get consent to construct hydro-electric dams and irrigation projects.
But according to Gordon Mumbo, who is in charge of confidence building among member states of the Nile basin, there is now thinking that the matter should be passed on to the council of foreign ministers because the heads of state have been hard to get together for a signing.
He says the chance to sign at the sidelines of the Africa union summit in Cairo, Egypt, four months ago was missed because of disagreements.
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