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February 28, 2011

Burundi signs accord on use of Nile River water

by David Malingha Doya

Burundi became the sixth nation to sign an agreement on water usage from the Nile River, enabling ratification of an accord that may strip Egypt of its veto power over rights to the flow from the world’s longest river.

“The government of Burundi sent an e-mail to technical advisory committee members confirming they have signed and asked us to join them in congratulating them upon this landmark achievement,” said Shillingi Mugisha, a member of the Nile Technical Advisory Committee.

A 1929 treaty brokered by the former colonial power, Britain, granted Egypt a veto over projects that may alter the flow of the Nile. A 1959 accord between Egypt and Sudan claimed 90 percent of the Nile’s flow for the two countries.

The so- called Cooperative Framework Agreement, signed by Ethiopia, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya in May, will establish a commission to oversee dam building and irrigation development, effectively stripping Egypt of the veto. Almost all of Egypt’s water supply comes from the Nile.

“We are happy to join our colleagues in East Africa in signing this agreement,” Burundian Water and Environment Minister Jean-Marie Nibirantije said in a phone interview today from Bujumbura, the Burundian capital.

Egypt warned in April, before the five countries signed the accord, that it would withdraw from the Nile Basin Initiative, a nine-member convention on cooperation in the Nile basin known as the NBI, if the seven upstream states signed the accord.

A sixth signatory was needed for the CFA to come into force and once it has been ratified by the six national legislatures, a Nile Basin Commission will be created. The remaining upstream nation, Eritrea, wasn’t involved in talks leading to the accord. The CFA states that the commission will resolve the issue of water security in its first six months of operations.

Abdel Fattah Metawie, head of the unit responsible for Nile water in the Egyptian Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation, didn’t respond to e-mailed questions sent today seeking comment. Egypt and Sudan in January asked Nile basin countries to meet to discuss the legal implications of not all riparian states signing the agreement.

“The meeting was postponed because of the political problem in Egypt, but could take place next month,” Ethiopian Water and Energy Minister Alemayehu Tegenu said in a Feb. 22 interview from Goma, in eastern Congo.

The Democratic Republic of Congo, which led a campaign for countries to sign the agreement in 2009, plans to sign the accord at an unspecified future date, Environment Minister Jose Endundo said in an interview on Feb. 22.

Some projects being considered on the Nile include a 60 to 80-megawatt hydropower plant at Rusumo Falls to serve Rwanda, Tanzania and Burundi, according to information from NBI. Building the power-generation plant and cross-border transmission lines over the next four years may cost $350 million, it said.

“For the actual investment projects like irrigation schemes, watershed management, electricity generation and transmission, we estimated the cost at $784 million in 2010,” Khairy Wael, executive director of the NBI, said in a Feb. 22 interview from Goma. “We forecast investment to be $2.4 billion by 2014.”

The Nile River’s average discharge is about 300 million cubic meters per day, according to the website of the Nile Basin Initiative. Ethiopia is the source of about 85 percent of the water that flows to Sudan and Egypt.

“It’s big news for us,” Ethiopian Foreign Ministry spokesman Dina Mufti said by phone today from Debre Zeit, Ethiopia. “We think this is in the interests of Burundi and all riparian countries. We believe it’s even in the interests of Egypt, as this is the only way we can be in a win-win situation.”

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