Africa still bound by 1929 treaty on use of Nile waters


River Nile. [Courtesy]

Kenyan and Ugandan fishermen may continue squabbling about the fish in Migingo Island but they will never own the waters. The real owner of these waters as well as that of Lakes Victoria Albert and Edward do not belong to Yoweri Museveni either. The landlord is thousands of kilometers away, near Sinai Desert in Egypt, the land of pharaohs.

This reality breeds a deep sense of foreboding that water is gaining more importance than oil and that the next major global conflict will be about this rare commodity.

The author of this prophetic doom was former United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros Ghali, an Egyptian. He was only nine years when his country ratified Africa’s most controversial agreements.

Long before Ghali was born, Britain had crafted a series of agreements on behalf of the illiterate Africans they governed, scattered over many kingdoms and fiefdoms, gifting Egypt the exclusive power to decide how the waters of River Nile and its many tributaries and reservoirs were to be used.

This scheme first hatched in 1891 by a series of treaties and cemented by the Nile Agreement of 1929, where the destiny of hundreds of millions of Africans from the Ethiopian highlands, the Lake Victoria basin, the jungles of Congo and the deserts of the Sahel was sealed.

Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile river in the Benishangul-Gumuz region of Ethiopia. [Courtesy, AP]

In a clever ploy, Britain, obsessed by the Suez Canal as a gateway to Africa, decreed that the waters coursing through a network of tributaries equivalent to 3 million kilometres should never be used for irrigation or power generation without Egypt’s express permission.

That is why when Uganda was constructing Owen Dam in 1956, it could only proceed with the construction on condition that Egypt sent a resident engineer to monitor the project.

Three years later, Sudan renegotiated the 1929 agreement so that they could be allowed to use the water of the Nile for irrigation and power generation.

Ethiopia tested these treaties to the limit when it started the construction of Africa’s biggest hydro-electric power plant, the Grand Ethiopia Dam, in 2011 on Blue Nile, provoking the wrath of Egypt, which has gone to even declare a full-blown war.

The frustrations of millions living upsteam were captured by former Prime Minister Raila Odinga on February 13, 2002 when he wondered why the people of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania should continue being restrained from exploiting the waters of Lake Victoria in the name of preserving it for others downstream.

Egypt, however, regards access to the waters of River Nile a matter of national security and is ready to go to war against any country that diverts the resource. 

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