The World Bank’s decision to back the 250MW Bujagali hydroelectric scheme in Uganda has once again thrust the problem of dividing the Nile water resources into the international spotlight. The project itself is relatively limited in scope and the electricity produced by Bujagali Energy Limited (BEL) will be much needed in the country and also in neighbouring Kenya – but it highlights the lack of an equitable resource management structure for the Nile Basin. However, combined with larger hydro developments in Ethiopia, it could reinject some urgency into efforts to reach a negotiated settlement.

Given that the Nile is a major international river, it may seem odd that objections could be made to the construction of a relatively modest hydro dam on the grounds of reducing downstream water supply. Apart from the new scheme, Uganda’s only other hydroelectric developments on the Nile are the 180MW Nalubaale project, previously called Owen Falls, and the 120MW Kiira dam scheme, which was brought on stream in 1999. Both are located close to the Bujagali site. There will as always be some negative environmental impact and some tourist companies are concerned about the affect of the dam on white water rafting but water is not to be diverted that will not be returned to the river.

The real controversy over the project is that it contravenes the existing division of the Nile waters, which was laid down by a mish mash of colonial era agreements. The first treaty was signed in 1902 when Ethiopia agreed not to alter the flow of the Nile in a deal with Great Britain that was designed to protect the flow of water through Egypt, which at that time was a virtual British colony. A second agreement was reached in 1929, when the British East African territories of Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania made a similar pledge.

A final treaty was signed between Egypt and Sudan. The Sudanese government had objected to the construction of the Aswan dam and in an effort to improve deteriorating relations between Cairo and Khartoum during the 1950s, the Egyptian government agreed to share access to the Nile with Sudan. This third agreement provides the basis of today’s division of the Nile waters: Egypt is entitled to 55.5Bm3 of water a year, while Sudan can utilise 18.5Bm3 and the other eight countries with territory within the Nile watershed are forbidden from constructing any barriers across the river, whether for hydroelectric production, irrigation or flood control.

This unbalanced division is the result of two factors: the historic, economic and social importance of the annual Nile flood to Egypt and British control of the lion’s share of East Africa over the period when the various treaties were signed. To a large extent, the British acquisition of an empire in Eastern Africa was the result of London’s desire to protect Egypt and thereby direct access to India via the Suez Canal. This largely explains why Egypt was granted such a massive share of the Nile waters. The annual flood brings the water and silt that feeds Egyptian agriculture and which has maintained successive civilisations in the Upper Nile Valley for thousands of years. As a result, any threat to the flow of the Nile has been regarded by Cairo as a major threat and plans for dam construction in Ethiopia, Uganda or elsewhere have resulted in protests by Cairo.

However, the situation has changed somewhat over the past few years. Although the Nile remains an intrinsic part of the Egyptian national psyche and 96% of the Egyptian population continues to live on just 4% of the country’s territory, in the Nile Valley and around the Nile Delta, the Egyptian economy is no longer as dependent on agriculture. Economic liberalisation has boosted growth in other sectors and the Egyptian government is keen to encourage trading links with the rest of Eastern Africa. It also appears to recognise that the current division of the waters is unfair and unworkable, and so has been prepared to hold talks on the issue.

At the same time, the countries of the upper reaches of both the Blue and White Niles have indicated that they too are no longer prepared to hold back on dam development. Politicians across East Africa have spoken out against the current division and some Ugandan politicians have suggested charging Egypt for its water supplies. At independence, the new states of Africa broadly accepted the principle of uti possidetis; that is, accepting any international agreements entered into by their respective colonial authorities. However, this policy was mainly intended to maintain the existing international boundaries and no African state is forced to implement this policy with regard to all international treaties.

Any objection by Egypt to dam construction would take many years to wind its way through the international courts and it seems highly unlikely that any court would protect the existing mesh of agreements. Given that the upstream states obviously have first access to the Nile waters, there seems little that Egypt can actively do to deter hydro upper riparian developments beyond military action, which appears highly unlikely.

International cooperation

Egypt’s willingness to hold talks on the issue resulted in the formation of the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) in 1999. Its members are Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi and Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo), while Eritrea, which also has some territory within the Nile Basin, acts as an observer. It was set up to achieve ‘sustainable socio-economic development through the equitable utilisation of, and benefit from, the common Nile Basin water resources’ and is responsible for a number of joint water efficiency and irrigation

A management structure has been set up, led by the Council of Ministers responsible for water affairs in Nile Basin countries (Nile-COM), which is assisted by the Technical Advisory Committee (Nile-TAC), which comprises two senior professionals from each country. All NBI operations are coordinated by the Nile Secretariat, which is based in Entebbe in Uganda, but are divided into two sections: the Eastern Neil Subsidiary Action Programme (ENSAP) and the Nile Equatorial Lakes Subsidiary Action Programme (SAP), which control the Blue and White Niles respectively.

In the longer term, the NBI has the more ambitious aim of encouraging power sector integration in the region. This would enable electricity from Nile hydro plants to be sold in several different markets, making neighbouring governments less likely to object to dam construction if they are able to draw some benefit from the schemes. At the same time, Egypt’s growing stock of gas fired power plants could be used to export electricity to the south to inject some diversification into the generation mix.

There is some evidence to suggest that power sector integration is taking place, although not under the auspices of the NBI. For example, Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya are pressing ahead with the creation of the East African power pool as part of the wider development of the East African Community (EAC). Rwanda and Burundi joined the EAC in July and may join the regional power pool in the longer term. At the same time, the construction of new hydro schemes in Ethiopia should enable the national power company, Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation (EEPCo), to begin exporting electricity to neighbouring states.

A transmission line is expected to connect the Ethiopian and Sudanese power grids in 2010. Tesfaye Batu, project manager, said: ‘When the project is completed Ethiopia will earn $30M a year for the export of 200MW of low cost hydro power to neighbouring Sudan, which is intended to replace the costly thermal generation which it is currently using.’

At present, EEPCo may struggle to supply domestic demand but a string of new hydro developments are set to revolutionise the Ethiopian power sector. The 300MW Tekeze project, which is being developed by China National Water Resources and Hydropower Engineering Corporation (CWHEC), is expected to be completed next year. In addition, the 435MW Beles scheme is scheduled for completion one year later on the back of investment from Italian firm Salini Costruttori. One year on again, in 2010, the Gilgel Gibe II hydro project should provide another 420MW of generating capacity.

Finally, Salini Costruttori has agreed to construct the Gilgel Gibe III, which will have massive generating capacity of 1870MW. It will only be economic if large scale export transmission capacity is put in place before it is expected on stream in 2013. Other large scale ventures have also been proposed: listed in Table 2, they will provide a step jump in national generating capacity, most of which is provided by the existing hydro schemes, which are listed in Table 1.

The exploitation of Ethiopia’s hydro resources is particularly important, as 90% of the water that flows through the Egyptian Nile comes from the Ethiopian Highlands. As such, the Blue Nile is of far more importance to Egyptian supplies than the White Nile. The other main area of hydro development in the Nile Basin at present is the Hamdab or Merowe High dam in Sudan. Located about 350km north of Khartoum, it will have ten 125MW turbines, greatly increasing national generating capacity when completed, hopefully by the end of 2008. Although the Hamdab project has been planned for many years, the government was unable to attract sufficient investment to proceed but the country’s burgeoning oil sector has finally provided the financial means.

Increased water pressure

Despite the creation of a comprehensive management structure, the NBI has not achieved as much as originally hoped. In particular, no new agreement has been reached on the division of the Nile waters. However, the various cooperation projects overseen by the NBI do at least serve as confidence building steps that may eventually lead to a wider agreement.

Nevertheless, it is vital that either a negotiated settlement over the division of the Nile waters is reached or ongoing regional power integration makes cooperation more likely and resource conflict a less attractive option. It has long been argued that the wars of the 21st century will result from conflict over access to water resources. The population of the Nile watershed currently stands at 170 million and is expected to rise to 320 million by 2025.

Per capita water and electricity demand may also rise as a result of industrialisation and economic growth. At present, in East Africa less than 10% of the population have access to electricity at home, so there is room for market expansion. As a result of the lack of gas and coal resources in the region, new hydro schemes will almost certainly provide most new generating capacity in Eastern Africa, with the notable exception of Egypt.

In addition, global warming could also have a severe impact on regional water resources. Under almost all projections, the volume of water carried by the Nile will fall rather than rise over the next century and indeed Africa is expected to be the hardest hit of all continents by climate change. While rainfall patterns may reduce and probably become more erratic, higher temperatures will result in faster evaporation rates.

Whether or not it has been caused by global warming, water levels on Lake Victoria and the other Great Lakes are certainly falling. This could have a massive impact on the Nile which is fed by the Lake Victoria Basin. Earlier this year, an environmental non-governmental organisation (NGO) claimed that Uganda was taking too much water out of Lake Victoria, mainly for hydroelectric use. It was claimed that this had exacerbated the impact of the regional drought.

However, water levels on the lake have fallen by two metres since independence, roughly the same amount as on Lake Tanganyika, which is not affected by damming or hydroelectric developments. Water levels on Kenya’s second biggest lake, Lake Naivasha, have fallen by three metres, although here again there are no hydro schemes. Naivasha is regarded as one of the ten most important breeding sites in the world for birds but the lake is now half the size of 50 years ago.

At the 4th World Water Forum in Mexico in March, David Harper of the University of Leicester argued that the introduction of exotic species; the unsustainable extraction of water for agricultural, industrial and residential use; and the overgrazing of riparian vegetation had all affected the lake. He added: ‘These three factors combined mean the lake that remains has no natural buffer against the inflow of sediment and nutrients. The ever smaller lake is becoming an over enriched muddy pool, which shortly will become unusable through the development of toxic blue green algae blooms. Its inflowing rivers, formerly sparkling and permanent, are now muddy and unpredictable.’

Once climate change is thrown into the mix, it is clear that all East African lakes are under threat. On Lake Victoria itself, it has become increasingly difficult for vessels to carry cargo to the lake ports because of lower water levels, while the Burundian government blames global warming and deforestation for the low waters levels on Lake Tanganyika that are hampering the use of the port of Bujumbura.

In April, ministers from Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda plus World Bank officials held a summit to discuss means of tackling the lack of water in Lake Victoria. A World Bank statement read: ‘This is a very complex situation, given the environmental, social and economic importance of Lake Victoria, the prolonged period of drought, and significant hydro power shortfalls throughout the region. Affected countries are also looking for ways to establish regional mechanisms for more effective water management, expected to be supported by a second phase of the Lake Victoria Environmental Management Project. In addition, there are World Bank projects in the pipeline that will contribute to better water management in the upper catchment areas close to the lake, thereby benefiting the lake indirectly.’

The United Nations Atlas of African Lakes report includes satellite pictures that show how much some African lakes have shrunk over the past 50 years. A spokesperson for the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), commented: ‘The Atlas shows that massive changes are happening in African lakes. There are huge population pressures on all lake systems in Africa and unless there is some way for people there to find alternative ways of living, they will continue to be under pressure. Lakes are the lifeblood of millions and millions of Africans. We are not going to meet the Millennium Development Goals on water or health unless we protect them.’ The UN blames the steadily rising population density around Lake Victoria for falling water levels.

Yet it is interesting to note that Africa’s 677 main lakes contain 30,000km3 of water, more than those of any other continent. This is a vast and important natural resource that could help drive long term African development if it is properly managed. If the waters of the Nile Basin are not properly controlled today, then continued falls in water levels will affect hydro schemes across the entire watershed in the future. Yet whether water resources can be sparingly used while the population of Eastern Africa grows, demand rockets and the climate becomes increasingly unpredictable remains to be seen.

The NBI and its member states may be struggling to come to terms with a redivision of the Nile’s existing resources but they could face a far more testing challenge in the longer term.

Image of the Nile Nile Table 1 Table 2 Tables

Table 1
Table 2