By Jerry Okungu
July 29, 2009
Egypt and Sudan are clinging to the River Nile treaties of 1929 and 1959 as if the documents were the Ten Commandments handed over to the biblical Moses by the God of Israel. In that treaty, Egypt and Sudan have exclusive rights to 70% and 30% of Nile waters respectively, irrespective of countries that occupy the sources of River Nile.
The annoying thing is that Egypt and Sudan would like us believe that this unjust document, signed with Britain when the former forcefully occupied these territories must be binding to the region even 50 years after our own independence.
Put in perspective, River Nile draws its waters from Lake Victoria, the second largest fresh water lake in the world. Since colonial times, the great lake has belonged to Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, the three countries that surround it. There has not been any debate about who or which countries own the Lake.
This lake in turn gets its waters largely from Kenya’s mountains and forests of the Rift Valley Highlands. And as we talk now, the debate is raging about the devastation of the water catchment areas of Mau Forests that are threatening water levels of Feeder Rivers into Lake Victoria.
At this point in time, when Egyptians and Sudanese are whining about the 80 year old treaty on River Nile, the Kenya government is grappling with how to sustain the lives of the very rivers and the lake that feed the Nile. At stake are 70,000 squatters that must be evicted from the Mau Forest and compensated handsomely, then fence off the entire forest reserve at a cost of US $ 500 million. To evict, compensate squatters and secure the area will cost the Kenyan taxpayer close to US $ 1 billion.
Let us face the facts; all the countries in the region including Sudan and Egypt need the Nile waters because their livelihood depends on it. Nobody is saying that the two desert countries should be strangled downstream. What seems unreasonable, unacceptable and arrogant is the impression that their rights to the waters supersede all other rights including those rights of the legal owners of all the rivers and the lake that feeds the Nile.
The reason why these treaties should be rubbished is simple. They were signed with an alien power, an occupation force that had no interest in the welfare of occupied territories. Therefore Egypt signing a treaty with Britain was like having a pact with a thief over goods that didn’t belong to the thief in the first place.
Comparatively the Middle East oils were exploited by the same colonial powers for close to a century until the Arab world under the Umbrella of OPEC woke up in the mid 1970s and revoked all former agreements with international oil companies that until then set the price of crude oil. Since then the oil market has never been the same again with hitherto poor oil producing countries turning into wealthy and roaring economies over night.
The way I see it is simple; Lake Victoria is our lifeline just like oil wells have changed the fortunes of our Arab brothers in the North. I therefore see nothing wrong in nationalizing, controlling and selling the Nile waters to those who depend on it for survival.
Short of building Nile Water Pipe Line from Jinja in Uganda and another one from the Ethiopian Mountains where the other Nile starts, we can actually erect huge control points to count the volume of water flowing to Sudan and Egypt. And for every barrel of water, the three East African countries should charge between U$ 40 and $ 100 depending on the season and demand.
And this water should not just be sold to Egypt and Sudan. It should be available to any willing buyer in the Middle East and beyond in order for prices to remain competitive. After all, Kenyans, Ugandans and Tanzanians are already paying very dearly, sometimes with their lives, for the commodity in their cities and rural areas.
Finally, now that the Nile water politics is reaching its crescendo at a time when Kenya is staring at possible violent riots and a $ 1 billion bill to conserve its source, are the countries bound to be adversely affected doing anything to support Kenya in its conservation efforts? How much are Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, DRC, Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia ready to pay to help in conserving Lake Victoria’s water sources?
Yes, countries that crave for Nile waters must not be allowed to have their cake and eat it. If they expect Kenya to protect the Nile water sources alone, then Kenya may as well sit back and let squatters turn the Mau Forest into wasteland to give everyone an opportunity to feel the pain of dry riverbeds and lakes. It is a reality that I don’t think right thinking governments will want to find themselves in at this point in time.
Instead of squabbling and whining over who has more rights to the Nile, let these countries think about conserving our rain forests in order to keep the Nile flowing.
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