ONE of the international contentious issues that our country is currently shouldering on is what one may describe as a diplomatic dispute that arises from a concern by our Egyptian and Sudanese brothers and sisters surrounding the use of water from Lake Victoria and River Nile.
The dispute that has lasted for decades pits five upstream states of Tanzania, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, DR Congo and Burundi on one side and Sudan and Egypt on the other.
The basis of the diplomatic row surrounds the legitimacy that upstream states have in using water from Lake Victoria and River Nile, given the fact that in 1929 the British gave Egypt a bigger share of the waters from the two water bodies.
According to various documents, the 1929 agreement masterminded by British colonisers, gave Egypt almost three quarters of the total water volume of the Nile.
Egypt’s strategic importance to the Queen’s Empire by then was the major reason behind the decision as it is claimed that the Arab Republic controlled the Suez Canal, an important channel for Britain’s access to India.
However, historically River Nile, originating from Lake Victoria, has strategically been an important water body for the survival of Egypt and its people. No wonder, students have all along been asked to explain in examinations: Why Nile is Egypt and Egypt is Nile! Over a month ago, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi made a two-day state visit to Tanzania.
During the briefing the Egyptian leader and his host, President John Magufuli, told reporters that they had, among other things, agreed to continue with talks on how to share the benefits of the Nile waters.
As a nation, we appreciate President Al-Sisi’s tour because, as our President briefed the media, it would initiate or improve our country’s developmental undertakings, ranging from pharmaceutical, health, education, agriculture and tourism sectors.
By all standards, Tanzania stands to benefit more from Al-Sisi’s visit to Dar es Salaam. But, behind Al-Sisi’s visit to Dar es Salaam echoed one important subject: The unresolved dispute over the use of Lake Vitoria and Nile River waters by some riparian states, including Tanzania.
Egypt, the third Africa’s largest economy after Nigeria and South Africa, has all along banked on the 1929 agreement to claim that some riparian states ought to seek permit from it whenever they conceive development projects that draw water from Lake Victoria/River Nile.
Such a pre-requisite condition has, at different occasions, pulled the states to the negotiation table in an attempt to reach consensus.
It would be recalled nine countries agreed to establish the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), which was officially launched in February 1999 by water ministers of Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) with Eritrea as an observer.
Basically, the initiative, among other things, sought to develop the Nile in cooperative manner, including promoting regional peace and security among the riparian states. As the initiative continued to provide a platform for the states to engage in dialogue, five upstream countries signed what came to be known as the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA).
The agreement that was originally signed by Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Tanzania in February 2011 aimed at seeking more water from River Nile, a move that was strongly opposed by Egypt and Sudan.
Records show that the CFA allowed riparian countries to construct dams and undertake related projects, contrary to the restrictions of the colonial agreements.
However, Sudan later made a U-turn in 2013 and requested for admission into the framework. Egypt disproved and remained opposed to the CFA, which it said was posed to negatively affect its share of the water.
The CFA replaced the old agreements that had also granted both Sudan and Egypt veto powers over use of the waters.
Uganda’s Sunday Monitor newspaper reported in July 2016 that ministers responsible for water from ten countries met in Entebbe, Uganda, for the major objective of discussing how to finance the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), including reviewing protocols on water sharing initiative.
It was reported from the meeting that the Egyptian minister criticised the 2010 Nile Sharing Protocol which his country refused to sign after terming it as unfair, calling for its continuous review.
Failure to review the protocol, the minister argued that the status quo would be maintained. The media outlet quoted the Egyptian minister as having said in the meeting that “We are not against countries building dams, but we want to give advice on how these dams are constructed to keep the water’s natural flow.” Here the minister was referring to countries that have built dams for electricity generation such as Ethiopia.
The Uganda newspaper further quoted the Egyptian water minister as having said that his fellow countrymen had reached the extent of recycling drainage water to preserve the water.“If there is no River Nile, there is no Egypt.” Generally, the dispute surrounding the right over the use of water from Lake Victoria/River Nile needs dialogue to ensure all states benefit from the water bodies.
Tanzania, for instance, in early 2000 drew water from Lake Victoria, supplying it to residents of some areas in Shinyanga Region. Logically, it does not make sense to let people go without water while fresh water body is not far from them.
Chris Peter Maina, a renowned Professor of law recently gave his personal views when contacted on the subject saying, the Nile Waters Agreement of 1929 was rejected by the Government of Tanganyika back in 1961. That is why it has been possible to pump Lake Victoria waters to Kahama and other areas without asking for the permission from any one.
On the other hand, the sensitivity of the waters of Lake Victoria – the source of the Nile River to Egypt is understandable.
However, Prof Maina says, despite this sensitivity, the country should be ready to do everything possible to protect this source of the livelihood of its people with diplomacy being given priority.
According to the professor, it is crucial for the riparian states to continue holding talks to reach consensus on the dispute.
He commended President Magufuli the way he handled the discussion with his guest President Al-Sisi, saying: “it is therefore, gratifying to note that Dr Magufuli reacted well and timely and leaving no doubt to his guest that this is a contested issue where there was no agreement and discussions could go on.”