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Sunday, May 07, 2006

The Waters Of Life


Photo Credit: JD DALLET / ARABIAN EYE

Time Europe Magazine -- Twice a year the monks and priests of the Church of Narga Selassie on Dek Island in northern Ethiopia gather to bless an urn of water scooped from the lake that surrounds them. They pray over the water for three days and ask God to sanctify it in the name of Jesus. Then, in a small stone alcove, the head monk pours the water over a silver cross, its detailed engravings worn almost smooth with centuries of polishing, and onto the heads of believers who come in their dozens to be baptized. For the rest of the year the waters of Lake Tana, the eastern source of the Nile, are important to the holy men for more prosaic reasons. They drink it and water their crops with it, wash in its muddy shallows and scrub their laundry on the rocks that necklace the lakeshore. After every sorghum harvest they draw the water in buckets and mix it with grain and hops to make pungent beer. "Our life depends on the lake," says Father Meseret Moges, 53, a priest who has lived in the monastery on the island for almost three decades.

That sentiment is shared by the millions of people who live along the 6,695 km of the world's longest river. From its origins in Ethiopia and in the rolling green hills around Lake Victoria in central Africa, the Nile and its many tributaries loop through 10 countries across half the length of the continent. Egypt, which has viewed the Nile as something like its private possession for centuries, has long drawn far more from the river than its southern neighbors. But ambitious new development schemes are beginning to change that. Ethiopia, Sudan and Uganda are all either building or planning to build new dams, and a regional grouping of Nile states is working on proposals for new hydroelectric plants and massive irrigation schemes. To the plans' backers, the Nile is an engine of economic growth. But environmentalists fear a development boom will destroy ecosystems, force people from their homes, and reduce the river to a trickle. "We're definitely at a turning point," says Kinfe Abraham, head of the government-linked think tank Ethiopian International Institute for Peace and Development in Addis Ababa, and author of three books on the Nile. "The question is what way we go."

For centuries, suspicion and mistrust have flowed as freely as water in the Nile. So dependent is Egypt on the river that rulers since the Pharaohs have regularly cajoled and threatened upstream nations to ensure that their tampering did not leave Egyptians dry and hungry. In 1270, the Orthodox Church in Cairo exercised its control over Ethiopia and the Blue Nile by refusing to send a bishop to anoint an Ethiopian King. In the 20th century, Egypt signed a treaty with Britain that essentially gave Cairo full control over the Nile's waters. Much to its neighbors' disgust, Egypt held them to the pact even after they gained independence from Britain. As recently as the 1970s, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat warned that "any action that would endanger the waters of the Blue Nile will be faced with a firm reaction on the part of Egypt, even if that action should lead to war."

It's easy to understand Egypt's motives: the Nile is a lifeline for the country's 74 million people, over 90% of whom live along a thin strip of fertile land that hugs the river's banks. The Nile also feeds a vast network of Egyptian irrigation canals that nourish the plots of peasant farmers such as Mohammed Sorour, 43, father of seven. "All the time, we have water," smiles Sorour, who plants molokhiyya, a leafy vegetable Egyptians cook into a stew, on the east bank of the river near El Saff, 50 km south of Cairo. "If the Ethiopians ever tried to stop the Nile," Sorour says, only half joking as he fires off rounds from an imaginary machine gun, "Egyptians will attack them and kill all the Ethiopians."

Such threats, as well as grinding poverty and civil wars in Ethiopia, Uganda and Sudan — whose capital is built where the Blue Nile meets the White — have stifled development along the upper river for decades. Dam and irrigation projects have been blocked. That, say regional leaders, has kept millions of people poor. "While Egypt is taking the Nile water to transform the Sahara into something green, we in Ethiopia — which is the source of 85% of that water — are denied the possibility of using it to feed ourselves. And we are being forced to beg for food every year," Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi told the bbc last year. The imbalance is shocking: Egypt uses the Nile's waters to help it produce more than double the power generated in the nine upriver nations combined. It also irrigates millions of acres of farmland even as its neighbors remain among the thirstiest and poorest nations on the planet.

Recently, however, things have begun to change. The end of the cold war eased many of the tensions between Egypt and its southern neighbors as the global powers no longer saw African nations as useful proxies in their own disputes. The ensuing political and economic reforms in Africa have pushed up demand for electricity in places such as Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. As new hydroelectric projects have started over the past few years — Sudan's Merowe Dam is due for completion in less than four years; Ethiopia is building or planning to build a series of dams in its highlands; and Uganda will start work on a new World Bank–backed dam just north of Lake Victoria in the next few years — Egypt has realized that development along the Upper Nile is inevitable. Cairo's leaders now know that it makes more sense for them to get involved than to carp from the sidelines. Moreover, those Egyptian politicians, journalists and other opinion makers who have visited neighbors such as Ethiopia have seen just how far behind such countries are. "We realized that we cannot stop the countries of the Upper Nile from developing the water," Egyptian Minister for Water Resources and Irrigation Mahmoud Abu-Zeid told Time. "We understand each other now. We realize the need for the development of each country."

The new sense of cooperation is enshrined in the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI). The grouping of nine nations (Eritrea is still only an observer) was founded in 1999 with the aim of coordinating development along the Nile, boosting local economies, and helping to feed the millions of people in the region who regularly face starvation. Patrick Kahangire, executive director of the NBI secretariat and former head of Uganda's national water department, says that Nile development should help all the countries that share the river. There are still many hurdles. Egypt, for instance, is meeting resistance over its demands that it be given an effective veto over all proposed development. It also wants to be allowed to keep the historic agreements that assure it a minimum quantity of Nile water, which other countries question. "These issues could take many years," says Abdel Fattah Metawie, chairman of Egypt's Nile Water Sector, a department of the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation (his business card jokingly credits his ministry with being in operation "since 4241 B.C."), "but we will reach agreement, even if it takes many years. There is plenty of water. The problem is managing it."

The grand vision of the NBI goes something like this: large dams along the Blue Nile in Ethiopia will generate power for the region and even for export to Europe. In Sudan and Uganda, where the soil is much richer than in Egypt, vast tracts of irrigated land will grow food. That will help sustain Egypt's population and enable the north African nation to expand its role as the region's manufacturing powerhouse. Each country would invest in the projects, and each country would profit. The scheme's proponents at the NBI point out its benefits: water stored in Ethiopian dams, built into deep ravines, would evaporate more slowly than it does in Egyptian dams with their much greater surface areas; it would take a lot less water to grow crops such as sugar, bananas and rice in Sudan than in Egypt; and a series of projects shared by all the Nile countries would help end devastating seasonal flooding while also promoting peace and stability by tying together the fates of the riverine nations. "It could transform the region completely," says David Grey, the World Bank's senior water resources adviser for Africa and a longtime promoter of Nile development to boost the region's fortunes.

Yes, but the impacts of such development will be immense, ranging from the destruction of wildlife habitat to the loss of sediment transfer — the natural movement of soil downstream to create alluvial floodplains that farmers have relied upon for centuries. Thousands of villagers would have to be relocated to make room for dams and reservoirs, and many would still not benefit directly from new power production because most of the electricity would be used in cities, not in rural areas. Environmentalists are also skeptical that the ambitious integrated scheme would ever work. "It's pie-in-the-sky stuff," says Lori Pottinger, director of the Africa program at the International Rivers Network (IRN), an environmental group based in California. "It assumes that a lot of things are going to go very well, and history shows us with big projects like these, big dams, that it won't."

Exhibit A for both sides of the debate is the unbuilt Bujagali Dam in Uganda. Planned before the NBI even began, Bujagali was put on hold four years ago after one of its contractors was involved in allegations of corruption. The dam, which will generate around 200 MW of much-needed power for Uganda when it is eventually built, will also drown a series of large rapids that roil the Nile and have become one of Uganda's biggest tourist attractions. Hitesh Vora, manager of Equator Rafts and the Speke Camp, which overlooks the falls, is in two minds about the dam. "We definitely need more power," he says. "But perhaps there are other sites further down the river." Others are even less upbeat. "I don't support it because I will no longer be able to work as I have been," says Mohammed Kasango, 16, who lives in a local village and swims the rapids for tourist tips. "I have nothing to gain from the electricity. I do not have it at my home."

Those opposed to dams say projects such as Bujagali are misguided. Frank Muramuzi, executive director of Uganda's National Association of Professional Environmentalists, says that Nile governments should be looking at geothermal and solar-power generation. "We run the risk of building these huge white elephants that benefit factories and cities but not the people who need [power]," he says.

That is precisely what locals in Tis Abay, a town next to the Blue Nile Falls in Ethiopia, believe happened when a new power station was opened three years ago. Water from the Nile is now diverted away from the falls to generators, most of whose power is exported to the nearby regional capital and into the national power grid. The diversion of the river has reduced the once powerful falls to little more than a trickle. Local tourist operators complain that their livelihoods have been destroyed. "Now there is nothing," says Gedefe Fetene, 40, a local farmer. "The beauty is gone."

So it may be. But proponents of more development say big projects are the only way to generate enough power to kick-start the region's economy. The NBI's Kahangire, the World Bank's Grey and other backers of a grand Nile project say that desperately poor countries like Uganda and Ethiopia need the chance to build dams and develop just as the rich world did a century ago. Rapid population growth in such countries — according to the United Nations, Ethiopia's population of 77 million people is expected to more than double to 170 million by 2050, while Uganda's 29 million people will grow to 127 million in the same period — are adding to problems like hunger and soil erosion. Building dams to power factories and houses, say the dams' advocates, is a quicker way to reduce poverty than pursuing small-scale geothermal or solar projects, or keeping the river for tourists. "We value the [Bujagali] falls, but development is about making options and choices," says Kahangire from his office overlooking Lake Victoria in Entebbe, Uganda.

Some in the rich world agree. In his 2004 book, The World's Banker, on former World Bank president James Wolfensohn, journalist Sebastian Mallaby argues that NGOs often do more harm than good to the world's poor. Uganda's National Association of Professional Environmentalists, he wrote, was a tiny single-issue group that, with the backing of Western NGOs (including the IRN), was able to halt a project that could help millions. "This story is a tragedy for Uganda. Clinics and factories are being deprived of electricity by Californians whose idea of an electricity crisis is a handful of summer blackouts," wrote Mallaby in an article based on his book.

Nonetheless, the environmental debate is certain to continue. A recent IRN report says half the dramatic drop in Lake Victoria's water level is caused by Uganda taking more water than it agreed to. Kenya and Tanzania claim the drop has reduced hydropower generation, causing outages. Mohammed Kassas, a Nile expert at Cairo University, questions whether the Nile Basin countries can be trusted to protect the environment in their quest for rapid development. "If it is done in the framework of sustainable development, then it would be O.K.," he says. "But if every country goes ahead, doing as it likes, natural systems tend to kick back."

The World Bank's Grey says that coordinating development through the NBI will actually help the environment. If each country went its own way, he says, the inevitable duplication would damage the river a lot more than one region-wide scheme. The World Bank, he says, is "unequivocally" back in the game of financing large dams. Grey says the Bank has learned from earlier mistakes, when dams benefited big investors and not the rural poor they were supposed to help — a point many environmentalists dispute. "It's arrogant to say that we've learned from the past," says Liane Greeff, who works for a South African NGO called the Environmental Monitoring Group and is highly critical of World Bank–backed dams in Africa. "We may have learned a little bit, but not enough to make things better for average people."

The IRN's Pottinger says the dam lobby often labels concerned environmentalists — incorrectly — as antidevelopment. "Calling us anti-poor is a very easy way to dismiss our concerns," she says. "But all we're doing is looking for ways to help poor people that don't have so many destructive elements." Grey says that Westerners criticizing poor countries trying to develop are applying double standards: "Either those Western countries [and environmentalists against developing the Nile] are saying that developing countries do not have the capacity to develop their resources, or they are saying that they do not deserve to develop their resources."

Development is on the minds of the priests of the Church of Narga Selassie. Standing inside the round building, its walls covered in vividly colored paintings of Bible stories, its air filled with a heady mix of burning frankincense and the fresh straw thatch used in the roof, Father Moges says he would like the government to buy the priests a faster boat so more tourists could visit their church. Electricity, he says, would be a miracle. "We learn from our grandfather and our father that this river crosses many countries," he says slowly. "But even they do not own it. God made it and it belongs to God. Nobody can call it their own." Whether it is owned by God or man, the next few years will determine the future of the river that spills from the lake a few kilometers away.



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