A massive new Egyptian irrigation scheme is causing mounting friction between the states of the Nile basin, which fear they might be deprived of their fair share of the river’s water.

At a meeting of Nile basin states in Tanzania in March, Ethiopia rejected Egypt’s claim to its current share of the Nile’s waters, which stands at 55.5B m3 annually, and demanded a re-examination of the 1959 water-sharing agreement between Sudan and Egypt. Ethiopia said that it wanted an additional share to allow it to implement its own large-scale irrigation projects. Similarly, Uganda is pressing to increase its share of the flow. Ethiopia and Uganda reportedly demanded that they regain an additional 18B m3 from the present Egyptian and Sudanese allocations.

The dispute is the latest disagreement over water in this arid region, where water is a scarce and valuable resource that causes more than its fair share of trouble. Syria and Iraq are at loggerheads with Turkey over the sharing of the Euphrates, for example, while Israel and the Palestinians are competing for rapidly depleting underground reserves.

Toshka scheme

The Nile friction was sparked by the Toshka scheme, in which irrigation will be extended to large areas of Egypt’s western desert. The scheme will take some 5500M m3 per year from Lake Nasser, the reservoir behind the Aswan high dam. Egypt reportedly went ahead with the project without consulting the other Nile basin countries.

In February an international consortium, led by UK-based Kværner International and Japan’s Hitachi Corporation, was issued with a letter of intent for the estimated $425M contract to build the Toshka pumping station. Due for completion in 2002, the 21-pump station will lift up to 334m3/sec from Lake Aswan into the Shaikh Zayed Canal which will form the backbone of the South Valley Development Project (the scheme’s formal name).

Covering 210,000ha of desert land, the scheme will involve the establishment by private investors of a network of large farms. Egypt badly needs the scheme to boost its food output and to provide job opportunities for farming families, who might otherwise migrate to cities.

Prior to the Tanzania meeting, the Ethiopian press carried statements by Ethiopian foreign minister Seyoum Mesfin in which he demanded an amendment of the 1959 agreement between Sudan and Egypt, declaring: ‘The time has come to erect dams and build reservoirs at the source of the Nile in Ethiopia’.

At an Organisation of African Unity (OAU) meeting in Addis Ababa in February, Ethiopia’s deputy foreign minister Tekeda Alemu had also called for the abolition of the 1959 Egyptian-Sudanese treaty. ‘This inequitable state of affairs cannot continue since the upstream Nile riparian countries like Ethiopia will need their share of the Nile waters to meet the demands of their peoples,’ he said.

Acute differences

The OAU meeting was also attended by Egyptian foreign minister Amr Moussa, who called for talks to clear up what he described as misunderstandings. Egyptian press reports have cited sources at the Ministry of Public Works and Water Resources as describing the differences between Cairo and Addis Ababa as ‘acute’.

Until now Egypt, which has the biggest and most developed economy of the Nile basin states, has enjoyed virtually unfettered access to the river’s water and has become accustomed to the acquiescence of upstream countries. In future this could change.

‘Ethiopia has plans to irrigate up to 3M ha of farmland’, said George Joffe, deputy director of London’s Royal Institute of International Affairs. ‘That would so reduce the river’s flow as to affect seriously the 1959 agreement between Sudan and Egypt’.

He continued: ‘The Egyptians could face shortages, especially for the generation of hydroelectric power, which is of critical importance for their economy. A lower flow in the Nile would also worsen the existing problem of siltation behind the Aswan Dam as excess water is used to flush out the silt’.

It seems that the discord will not be resolved quickly. ‘The 1959 Agreement between Egypt and the Sudan will always be contentious’, said Professor Allan of London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), who is a noted expert on Middle Eastern water. ‘It is a non-negotiable issue for the partners. For the upstream parties its renegotiation is a precondition for future basin and sub-basin agreements’.