Saturday, July 4, 2009

Uganda and Tanzania over River Nile

By DAVID MALINGHA DOYA - The East African - Saturday, August 30 2008

A row is simmering between Uganda and Tanzania over the latter’s demand that Kampala share details of secret bilateral arrangements on the use of the River Nile’s waters that were allegedly agreed with Egypt during a brief stopover in Entebbe by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak at the end of July.

Tanzania suspects that the two leaders entered a pact to take more water out of the river for their mutual benefit.

Tensions were fanned further after Uganda Water and Environment Minister Maria Mutagamba made three unofficial visits to Cairo that Tanzania now suspects could have been intended to draw up the framework for the Mubarak-Museveni pact.

President Mubarak made a brief stopover in Uganda on his way from South Africa where he had gone to rally support for Sudanese President Omar El Bashir against his likely indictment for crimes against humanity by the International criminal Court.

According to a source who sought anonymity, among other bilateral issues, the two presidents also had specific discussions on the use of the Nile waters.

Neither of the countries, however, shared the minutes of these talks with the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), an inter-governmental organisation that brings together the Nile Basin countries of Burundi, DR Congo, Egypt, Eritrea (still an observer), Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania Sudan and Uganda.

The EastAfrican has learnt that Tanzania requested the meeting’s minutes from NBI in vain, and consequently asked the organisation to use its mandate to follow up on the matter.

Tanzania’s interest in the matter is said to arise from concerns that Uganda is releasing water beyond the normal flow from Lake Victoria into the river for purposes of hydropower generation, which in the process ensures more water flowing towards Egypt, but hurts the ecosystem of the lake.

Kampala confirmed that the Nile was high on the agenda of the presidents’ meeting, but said that Tanzania should not intervene in the two countries’ bilateral relations, because whereas Uganda hosts the major exit to the Nile, Egypt’s lifeline depends on the river.

“Besides, whatever we discuss with Egypt that is regional is subject to approval by all the countries in the Nile Basin, so they should not be suspicious,” said Isaac Musumba State Foreign Affair Minister for Regional Integration.

Meanwhile, NBI member states are yet to agree on a new deal that will govern the use of the Nile waters, after throwing out the outdated bilateral agreements between Egypt and former colonialists Britain because not all the countries in the basin had consented to them.

Against that background, Uganda’s recent behaviour on issues regarding the Nile is being seen as potentially undermining the confidence and trust that had so far developed among the members over the past 10 years of negotiating a new agreement.

Officials close to the matter told The EastAfrican that Ms Mutagamba, the country’s political negotiator on Nile Basin issues, made three unofficial visits to Egypt over several months, without the knowledge of Uganda’s ambassador there. This made some riparian states suspicious.

Ms Mutagamba was unavailable for comment, as she was out of the country, but State Minister for Water Jenipher Namuyangu said, “When it comes to issues of the Nile with regional implications, we have a body for that, and we are working with all the other countries.”

The EastAfrican can however reveal that the quarrel over the Nile has escalated differences between Uganda and Tanzania to such an extent that Ms Mutagamba was recently snubbed in Dar es Salaam when she sought an audience with President Jakaya Kikwete.

Ms Mutagamba, who formerly chaired the Nile Council of Ministers, earlier wanted a heads of state summit to be convened so that the agreement could be finalised and signed by the presidents, a development that would see a permanent Nile Basin Commission established, and implementation of many development programmes commenced.

Her strategy was to persuade President Kikwete, current chairman of the African Union, to squeeze in a side meeting for the Nile Basin Heads of State into the agenda of the AU Summit held in June in Sharm El Sheikh Egypt, so that they would be briefed on the status of the agreement, and be requested to schedule the historical summit.

Ms Mutagamba, Sortie Byamukama, one of the directors in Uganda’s Water Ministry and country technical negotiator on the agreement, and Audace Ndayizeye, executive director of NBI, travelled to Tanzania for that purpose.

However, sources told The EastAfrican that on arrival, the office secretary of Tanzania’s Minister of Water received them but the Permanent Secretary would not grant them access to the minister, let alone President Kikwete.

As it turned out, no side-meeting was held during the AU Summit in Egypt, and endorsement of the draft agreement by the heads of state is still pending.

One of the sticking points preventing an agreement is a clause in its draft pertaining to the security of water for all the riparian states.

Observers have said that it is for this same reason that countries like Tanzania are demanding that Uganda and Egypt come clean on their meeting and release the minutes of their discussion on the Nile to NBI that will in turn inform the other eight countries in the sub-region.

There have been concerns expressed within and outside Uganda that the country is releasing more water than flows naturally from Lake Victoria into the Nile in order to achieve enough water-pressure to run the turbines at the twin Nalubale and Kiira power plants in Jinja, in order to generate more electricity to reduce the energy deficit facing the country.

Uganda has in the past argued that the real cause of falling water levels in Lake Victoria is tied to the climate change phenomenon and catchment-area degradation in countries where the major rivers that discharge into the lake originate.

The falling levels have affected the ecosystem of the lake, resulting in declining fisheries, difficulties in water navigation and hydropower production. But for Egypt, it means more water flowing towards it.

An Egyptian government communiqué following President Mubarak’s visit reads, “Uganda holds an important place on the Egyptian agenda as 15 per cent of the Nile waters flow from Lakes Victoria and Albert.

It is an important Nile Basin country and the Nile artery is vital for aspects of Egyptian national security. It has influence on the conditions in other Nile basin countries.”

Egypt, through its negotiations and actions, has made it clear that it does not want the flow and quality of water in the Nile to be interrupted either artificially or by natural occurrence.

Currently, it is sponsoring a 10-year programme in Uganda to rid the Nile and Lake Albert of the water hyacinth, on top of advising on any planned activity on the river such as hydropower generation.

The EastAfrican has learnt that Uganda’s interests in the Nile water resource could impact on the flow of water, an aspect that prompts Egypt’s individual involvement.

In the near future, we have plans to start massive irrigation, and divert some of the water to the hinterland,” said Mr Musumba.

He added, “As the major exit of the Nile, we have a strategic interest in this, and although Egypt is sponsoring the water weed project, we want them to do more in supporting afforestation, and protecting river banks, because sustainable management of the river is also in their interest.”

It is noteworthy that Uganda, while chairing the Nile Basin last year, had the opportunity to call a heads of state summit, but did not because it was busy hosting the Commonwealth Heads of Governments Meeting, according to government officials.

DR Congo is the current chair of the inter-governmental organisation, but has yet to show any intentions of calling the crucial summit.