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Ethiopians want more from sacred Nile waters

by Staff Writers
Gish Abay, Ethiopia (AFP) Sept 26, 2010
Here in the shadow of Mount Gish, the spring water that forms the Blue Nile is believed to have healing powers, but Ethiopians say that is the only benefit they get from the mighty river.

"These waters are sacred, they perform miracles for the sick," Berhanu Melak, an elderly farmer, told AFP as he filled a metal trough with water for the throngs of white-cloaked men and women who have been queuing since the early hours in this town 400 kilometres (250 miles) north of Addis Ababa.

The sparkling stream in Gish Abay spills first into Lake Tana then makes its way towards Sudan as the Blue Nile. There, the river joins the White Nile in Khartoum before draining into Egypt's Mediterranean coast, spanning in all nearly 6,000 kilometres.

"But look around you, there is nothing here. The big river doesn't feed us," Berhanu says, his voice almost drowned out by the nearby bathers.

It is a sentiment that has echoed for centuries in Ethiopia: while the land where the Nile originates is constantly ravaged by drought, downstream countries get the full benefit of its water.

In the Amhara region where 85 percent of the Nile's flow stems from, some 850,000 people are dependent on food aid, according to the UN.

Crops only grow here when it rains -- in sharp contrast to the situation downstream in Egypt, where vast commercial farms and even lush golf courses flank the river.

In an attempt to change this state of affairs, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda, all upstream -- and poorer -- countries, signed a new pact this year which they say will ensure equitable use.

Under the treaty, Addis Ababa intends to tap its water resources to build dams and export power to neighboring countries, while also setting up irrigation projects to curb famine.

But Egypt and Sudan, both almost completely dependent on the Nile, say upstream projects would drastically reduce the river's flow and have refused to give up a drop of water.

"They have said the issue is a matter of their national security ... same goes for us," Ethiopia's water resources minister Asfaw Dingamo told AFP.

"For a long time we have applied for loans in order to be able to utilise our resources, only to be turned down because of Egyptian and Sudanese objections," he added.

-- On the verge of conflict --


Ethiopia has now decided to self fund its projects, claiming they will not harm the interests of other countries.

"Our stretch of the Nile has the potential to generate 10,000 megawatts and 1.1 million hectares (2.7 million acres) for irrigation. Our current usage on power is only 0.45 percent of the Nile's flow," said Fekahmed Negash, an expert at the ministry.

"Even if we were able to develop all that land, we would be using only 10 percent of the flow. Our plan at the moment is six percent in 50 years time."

"I don't think the downstream (countries) are justified. A legal framework ... is usually what any downstream riparian in a transboundary basin would dream about," Ana Cascao, project manager at the Stockholm International Water Institute, told AFP.

"The downstream riparians do not have this perception because they already have bilateral legal agreements that allocate the Nile's waters," she added.

At the heart of the dispute is a 1929 agreement between Cairo and colonial Britain which gave Egypt veto power over upstream projects.

Another deal between Egypt and Sudan in 1959 allowed Egypt 55.5 billion cubic metres of water each year -- 87 percent of the Nile's flow -- and Sudan 18.5 billion cubic metres.

Cairo's inflexibility, coupled with past attempted invasions to take control of the source, rankles with locals here.

"They (Egypt) have always been our enemies. They do a lot of things to harm my country," said Frew Terefe, a 20-year old university student from Gish Abay.

Officials here also accuse Egypt of supporting insurgent groups to foment instability, while at times the two countries have seemed on the verge of conflict on the issue.

"If Egypt were to plan to stop Ethiopia from utilising Nile waters it would have to occupy Ethiopia and no country on earth has done that in the past," Prime Minister Meles Zenawi told reporters a few years back.

Experts nowadays prefer to highlight the mutual benefit the new treaty can ensure.

"The ideal scenario is one whereby the Nile Basin will be not only a hydrological unit, but also a political and economic unit wherein, by cooperating, the countries will be able to invest and implement projects that will benefit all countries," Cascao says.

Mekuanint Nigussie, a 22-year old student from Gish Abay, has similar views.

"There is always room for cooperation. We don't want them to starve while we build our country."

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