The water situation for Nile Basin countries

Ahmed El-Sayed Al-Naggar , Thursday 1 May 2014

Although Nile Basin countries record high increases in population, there is no water crisis in these countries overall. Nonetheless, they lack a water strategy that stops waste and increases water revenues

Egypt always views its historic rights and share of Nile water, and the strong connection between the life of humans, crops and cattle to this quota, of which Egypt uses every drop, as the foundation for any debate over Nile Basin water.

This perspective is based on the fact that every drop of Egypt’s quota of Nile water is equivalent to life, as Egypt’s water consumption is more than 68 billion cubic metres, while its quota from Nile water is only 55.5 billion cubic metres. The rest comes from excessive use of groundwater and unsafe use of treated and untreated sewage water. While Egypt’s rights can never be waived, we must also consider the water situation in other Nile Basin countries to see if Egypt is encroaching on the water rights of these countries or whether they can improve their resources, like Egypt, by constructing water projects that increase water revenues from the Nile without harming other Nile Basin countries.

Overall, Nile Basin countries have recorded high increases in population growth and accordingly water needs. Despite differences in the water situation from one country to another, there is no real water crisis in these countries overall. They do not lack water resources to meet the needs of their populations, but rather lack a water strategy that stops waste of available water resources and using them without infringing on the rights of other Nile Basin states.

According to World Bank data in its report on development around the world and global development indicators, the populations of Nile Basin countries, including Egypt, rose from 230.4 million in 1988 to 416.7 million in 2011, or an 80.9 percent increase in 23 years. Excluding the population of Egypt, the population of Nile Basin countries (without Egypt) rose from 180.2 million in 1988 to 334.2 million in 2011, or an increase of 85.5 percent.

Among Nile Basin countries, there are states that have peripheral relations with the river, such as Burundi, and others with very limited links, such as Rwanda, some with limited ties, such as Kenya, some with moderate links, such as Tanzania, and a country with river and rain water surplus, such as Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The countries with the deepest ties to the composition of the Nile and its water revenues, and opportunities to build projects to develop these revenues, are Ethiopia, Uganda and South Sudan. This does not in any way mean these countries should be excluded from any Egyptian strategy to build and develop relations with Nile Basin countries and African countries in general, based on fair and balanced exchange of benefits among brothers on the river and continent.

World Bank data estimates that renewable fresh water revenues in the world comes to around 42,383 billion cubic metres annually of which only 3908 billion cubic metres (7.3 percent) are used. This means if the entire world decided to cooperate on the water issue, there would be enough water for everyone. There is also a real opportunity to develop used water revenues based on constructive cooperation on the issue.

Although water resources are unfairly distributed around the world, with some regions having a surplus of water and others suffering abject drought, the possibility of improving distribution through projects to develop water revenues and fair distribution of the water surplus, would peacefully resolve the majority of global water problems.

Instead of some Western research centres, with intelligence undertones and backed by some countries, fuelling worldwide conflicts over water, pushing one country to encroach on the historic water rights of another, there would be joint cooperation to develop water resources and divide the surplus fairly.

Water conditions in Nile Basin countries: Enough for everyone

The water situation of Nile Basin countries varies from one country to the next. According to World Bank data, the volume of inland water flow in Ethiopia is about 122 billion cubic metres, of which only 5.6 billion are used, or 4.6 percent of these resources. The agricultural sector consumes 94 percent, household consumption the remaining six percent.

Although 83.6 billion cubic metres of these water resources flow to South and North Sudan and Egypt, Ethiopia still has 38.4 billion cubic metres of surface water that flow in its rivers, of which only 14.6 percent are utilised. As well as the surface water resources, Ethiopia also has immense and renewable volumes of groundwater because of heavy seasonal rainfall. There is also a large amount of rainwater wasted through evaporation, absorption and seepage that can be collected in small reservoirs using storm water drains adjacent to flatlands that can be used for farming or grazing so this water is utilised year round.

The waters of the rivers Juba and Shabelle that originate in Ethiopia and flow to Somalia, with a water revenue of about 20 billion cubic metres, are not utilised either. The Juba River, the lesser of the two, flows into the Indian Ocean at Mogadishu and sometimes does not even reach the ocean when its course is blocked with sand dunes. The Shabelle River, the more important one with greater water revenues and low saline levels, flows out of Kismayo. Both Ethiopia and Somalia can take advantage of these rivers, especially since they are adjacent to regions that are ideal for farming and grazing in both countries, such as large swaths of flat plains.

Thus, any talk of Ethiopia’s need for Nile water that goes to Egypt, where humans, crops and stock entirely rely on this water, ignores reality and is manipulated by some — especially in some intelligence think tanks in the West — to fuel the feud between Egypt and Ethiopia and incite the latter to assault Egypt’s quota instead of using other available water resources.

Discussions of Ethiopia’s need for electricity from waterfalls where the Blue Nile and various tributaries of the Nile River flow, is acceptable. Benefitting from this energy source can be regulated in coordination with Egypt and Sudan without harming their water interests, and Ethiopia should officially recognise these countries’ share in river water.

Meanwhile, Eritrea’s inland water resources are three billion cubic metres and the average share per individual is 549 cubic metres. Some of the revenues come from Atbara River in Eritrea, and it is a key crossing point for the waters of that river to the main Nile. The ports of Eritrea and Djibouti are the sole crossings for Ethiopian foreign trade because since Eritrea’s secession, Ethiopia became a land locked country with no access to the sea.

Agriculture in Eritrea uses around 95 percent of its water resources, and household consumption makes up the remaining five percent of fresh water in this country. Eritrea is very important for Egypt for water and strategic reasons, but Cairo has yet to pay enough attention to this key state.

DRC has 900 billion cubic metres from inland water sources, and the average share per individual is more than 14,000 cubic metres annually. Agriculture in DRC (formerly Zaire) used 18 percent of water consumption; industry 20 percent; and household the remaining 68 percent. Congo uses 12.8 billion cubic metres only of available water, or 1.4 percent of inland surface water revenues, and has large assets of subterranean water and rainwater from the immense Congo River and its tributaries. Thus, countries where tributaries of the Semliki River (one of the tributaries of the Nile River) are within their borders should have no demands on the Nile water.

As for Uganda, its renewable inland water resources amount to 39 billion cubic metres with the average share per individual at 1,205 cubic metres. It uses only 0.3 billion cubic metres, or 0.5 percent of available inland resources, with 36 percent of fresh water going to agriculture; 18 percent for industry; and 46 percent for household consumption.

There are large water resources coming to Uganda from beyond its borders, as well as inland revenues. Uganda, a tropical paradise, relies on rainwater in agriculture since there is rain for around eight months a year. Historically, Egypt and Uganda have constructively cooperated in water and electricity, and Cairo funded the construction of the Owen Falls Dam on the Victoria Nile at the mouth of Lake Victoria to generate electricity for Uganda and store water in Lake Victoria for Egypt. But Kenya and Tanzania refused to store water for Egypt because that would raise water levels in the lake and drown land in both countries. Thus, the sole purpose of the dam that Egypt single-handedly funded became electricity generation for Uganda.

There are also treaties signed during the colonial period that protect the flow of Nile water from Uganda to Egypt. Uganda is the site of several projects that could develop Nile water revenues by saving Nile water that is lost to evaporation, seepage and absorption in the lake area and Swamps of Lake Kyoga — nearly 20 billion cubic metres annually — and by increasing revenues of the rivers Kagera and Semiliki.

Tanzania’s inland water resources amount to nearly 84 billion cubic metres and the average per individual is 1,930 cubic metres annually. Agriculture uses 89 percent; and the rest goes to households. Tanzania uses a mere 5.2 billion cubic metres of its inland resources where rainfall continues for six to eight months a year. It is not a major source for the River Nile and its surface and subterranean water resources are enough to prevent it from making any water demands on Nile Basin countries with regards to the Kagera River which flows through it.

Kenya’s inland water sources amount to 21 billion cubic metres and the average share per individual is 525 cubic metres annually. Agriculture uses 79 percent of the fresh water; industry four percent, households 17 percent. Kenya only uses 2.7 billion cubic metres, or 8.9 percent, of available surface inland water revenues and has a large reserve of renewable subterranean water from rainwater. Kenya is a peripheral source of Nile water and has unused available inland resources, and thus logically it cannot make demands on Nile water.

Water resources for both North and South Sudan amount to 30 billion cubic metres and the average share per individual is 706 cubic metres. Agriculture uses 97 percent; industry one percent, households two percent. Sudan consumes 37.1 billion cubic metres and supplements its water needs from beyond its borders, namely Ethiopia and Equatorial Lakes Plateau states. After Sudan became two countries, they are both now crossing points for the water that flows to Egypt but not a source. It is necessary to note that key projects for developing Nile River revenues should be located in South Sudan and Uganda, followed by Ethiopia and Tanzania.

Burundi’s inland water resources amounts to 10 billion cubic metres and the average share per individual is 1,231 cubic metres. It uses only 0.3 billion cubic metres, with agriculture consuming 77 percent, industry six percent, and households 17 percent. Burundi is a very peripheral partner in the River Nile and also has a large volume of unused water revenues so it should not make demands on Nile water.

Rwanda’s inland water revenues are 10 billion cubic metres and the average share per individual is 921 cubic metres; agriculture consumes 68 percent of fresh water, industry eight percent, and households 24 percent. Rwanda is a relatively less significant source compared to Uganda, Tanzania and Congo where the Nile’s equatorial tributaries flow.

Egypt’s life source beyond its borders

Egypt is one of the poorest countries in terms of inland water resources, where available renewable inland water revenues are only two billion cubic metres, according to World Bank data. The average share per individual is merely 23 cubic metres. Life in Egypt entirely relies on Nile water from beyond its borders. This means that any drop in water revenues flowing to Egypt from the River Nile is a direct threat to life. Agriculture uses 86 percent of overall fresh water consumption, industry six percent and households eight percent.

Egypt’s water consumption has steadily increased with population growth and agricultural expansion necessary to meet growing needs by citizens of agricultural product, most prominently food. Growing demands on water consumption in Egypt hiked consumption to 68.3 billion cubic metres today, or 794 cubic metres per individual once the population touched 86 million. This share of water per individual includes poor quality water, namely treated and untreated sewage water, which is used in Egypt. The annual share of the individual from Nile water is only 645 cubic metres which makes Egypt a country that suffers from water scarcity or water poverty, according to water experts. Any country where the individual’s share is between 500 and 1,000 cubic metres is a country suffering from water scarcity; if this drops to less than 500 cubic metres it becomes a country suffering from abject water poverty.

This forces Egypt to overuse subterranean water, which could salinate and deplete underground reservoirs in many places. It also forces Egypt to use contaminated agricultural drainage water, which is even more polluted by untreated sewage and industrial waste flowing into it, such as at Al-Rahawi Station. There, large amounts of contaminated sewage, agricultural and industrial drainage is collected from the governorates of Beni Suef and Giza, and pours directly into Rasheed branch at the village of Nekla. This has caused shocking spikes in pollution of the Rasheed branch and none of the country's consecutive governments took any steps to address this disaster that poisons Nile fish in Rasheed branch and tributary canals with lethal levels of contamination. It also pollutes agricultural and stock production, and is destructive to the health of humans.

The solution is very obvious for this problem and is not costly, namely a water filtration station and not allowing it to flow into Rasheed branch. Instead, the water should be diverted to areas adjacent to the Desert Road to plant trees for timber or castor plants that flourish in this soil and have many uses, such as medicinal oils.

In conclusion, Nile Basin countries have much more than their needs and thus can increase consumption without encroaching on the shares of Egypt and Sudan, unless the aim is to ignite a water feud caused by foreign incitement or domestic animosity. The water that goes to waste in swamp countries could benefit projects to increase River Nile revenues, whereby Nile Basin countries can divide this surplus fairly. There is also a large volume of rainwater that does not flow to the Nile and its equatorial tributaries, especially in Tanzania and Uganda that can be directed to the course of the Nile through medium and small-size reservoirs. These would collect rainwater and store it during the rainy season and then release it to the Nile in the dry season. This would increase the Nile’s water revenues and better regulate flow throughout the year.

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