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Cairo May See Waters of Nile Diminish : Africa: Other countries are seeking to tap the river Egyptians have always thought of as their own. Without pacts, some fear violence may ensue.

December 17, 1995|ANTHONY SHADID | ASSOCIATED PRESS

QANATIR, Egypt — Squatting in a dirty robe, Muhammad Sayyid works with muddied hands and a mud-crusted hoe on furrows of roses and corn watered by a trickle pumped from the Nile River.

Like his father, like his grandfather, the barefoot 27-year-old peasant toils 12 hours a day under the blazing sun on a paltry plot roughly 100 feet by 150 feet. Steps away is his birthplace, a baked mud hut covered with grapevines and shared with two black goats.

It is a timeless scene in a timeless landscape, and in many ways, Sayyid and his routine symbolize Egypt--the peasant's spiritual connection to the land and the land's trust in the river.

Without the Nile, the world's longest river, Egypt would be a scorching waste--bereft of water, vegetation and civilization.

"Our life is the Nile," Sayyid said gently, his black eyes casting a lazy glance at the horizon. "The Nile is everything."

No wonder the storm of reaction that swept Egypt when neighboring Sudan threatened to block the river. Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa warned Sudan "not to play with fire and at the same time not to play with the water."

The two countries, at odds since Sudan's Islamist regime came to power in 1989, are united by the Nile, which snakes 4,160 miles from its remotest headstream in Burundi to the Mediterranean Sea. Its two branches--the White Nile and the Blue Nile--join in Sudan's capital, Khartoum.

But, increasingly, Egypt is facing a vastly different situation with the river--and the threat does not come just from Sudan.

Coping with growing populations and aiming to develop, central African countries that once ignored the Nile are now seeking to tame the river and its tributaries for irrigation and electricity.

In short, Egypt will see a smaller Nile within a generation, threatening to alter a livelihood shaped by millennia of history.

"There is quite simply not enough water in the Nile basin for all these countries to develop the way they want to develop," said Robert Engelman, director of the population and environment program at Washington-based Population Action International.

"They're headed for a collision between their very finite water resources and their continually growing populations," Engelman said in an interview.

That may come as a shock to Egypt, which has long considered the Nile the property of Egyptians, a gift from God. The pharaohs themselves were considered divine because they were believed to control the Nile floods through magical powers.

The perception that water is abundant has led to bizarre proposals. Then-President Anwar Sadat suggested building a canal to Jerusalem as a gesture of good will, a prominent lawmaker proposed a pipeline to carry fresh water to Saudi Arabia, and investors presented plans to divert "excess" water to the desert.

Egyptian engineers are now digging a canal to carry Nile water to the Sinai Peninsula to irrigate about 600,000 acres of desert--a questionable project when waters will begin dwindling.

Under a worst-case scenario, Egypt's population of 59 million will top 100 million in just 30 years, yet the country is already approaching what experts say is too little water for too many people. Its population is growing; the Nile is not.

A 1959 agreement divided the Nile between Egypt and Sudan, giving more populous Egypt rights to three times as much water. Sudan has often complained that the agreement is unfair, although it has never used its full allotment. Egypt uses nearly 100% of its share.

Experts say that in the coming years, the central African countries, particularly Ethiopia, from which 85% of the Nile's waters flow, will begin claiming their shares as well. At present, they use 6%; Egypt and Sudan, 94%.

"In 1959, they expected there might be a day when others would demand water," said Osman Fadl, a Sudanese consultant with CEDARE, an Egyptian environmental group. "Now the time has come."

Ethiopia, the source of the Blue Nile, wants to develop sections of the untapped Nile watershed within its borders. After decades of civil war, it is rebuilding its economy and plans to spur development with big hydroelectric projects.

As Ethiopian Environment Minister Mesfin Abebe once remarked, "Ethiopia, by necessity, has to assert its equitable share of the scarce Nile water."

Kenya and Tanzania plan to use Lake Victoria, the source of the White Nile, for irrigation. Burundi, Tanzania and Uganda have joined to develop the Kagera River, which feeds Lake Victoria.

Some estimates say Ethiopia alone may consume 350 billion cubic feet of water a year, nearly a fifth of what Egypt uses. Aware of the changing climate, Egypt is insisting it be consulted before Ethiopia pursues any irrigation projects.

There is no agreement between the upstream and downstream states to divide the waters of the Nile. Egypt would be reluctant to surrender its share for the benefit of others, even though it is wholly dependent on the upstream states for its take.

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