Ethiopia: Overcoming the water problem

By Yohannes Ruphael

The Ministry of Water Resources recently disclosed that it needed some 7.6 billion dollars to harness the country's rivers and aquifers.

The water problem has of late become of great concern not only to Ethiopia but also to many African countries. At a recent conference attended by 1000 delegates in Addis Ababa, water experts said that Africa was facing a water crisis affecting 300 million people.

A recent WHO/UNICEF report reveals that more than 2.6 billion people in the world do not have basic sanitation and more than one billion people still use unsafe drinking water.

According to an ECA policy research report, Africa is one of the world's driest continents. The diminishing availability of usable water in the face of rising demand creates the potential for disputes and conflicts over water resources, both within and between countries.

Moreover, the uneven distribution of water resources -- the result of erratic rainfall and varying climate -- has stratified the continent into areas of abundant water resources and areas of extreme water scarcity and stress.

Recurring cycles of long droughts, sometimes followed by floods, accentuate water scarcity and imbalances across the continent. Water originates outside the borders of many countries -- for instance, the Nile, which is the world's longest river and in principle the base on which the Egyptian civilization is founded is becoming a source of serious disageement between countries situated along the river or its tributaries.

A treaty in 1929 between Egypt and the then colonial power Britain made sure no other countries along the river were allowed to use the water for irrigation or power generation. But the treaty is being increasingly contested. A German organization, the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, said recently that the treaty must be regarded as obsolete and only post-colonial agreements can be considered valid. This is good news for us Ethiopians! As a country contributing over 86 percent to the river Nile we have not been able to use the water from the Nile despite frequent droughts affecting millions of our people. Egypt's unwillingness to give up its 1929 claim on the Nile's waters by saying it is needed for its own booming population does not hold water any more!

According to experts, water is a much more likely reason for countries to go to war than oil, and in countries along the River Nile in Northeastern Africa, the lack of water risks bringing neighbors dangerously close to armed conflict.

In the words of Bertrand Charier, Vice President of Green Cross International, " The disagreement between Egypt and Ethiopia proves that tensions exist and that they cannot be ignored. Egypt must be made to understand the importance of sharing the water."

The increasing water intensity of modern development, including irrigation, has raised the stakes on the sharing and common use.

It is in recognition of this fact that African countries began making trans-bounndary river agreements in the 1960s.

With a few exceptions, such as the Southern African Development Community (SADC), little attention was paid to the development of legislative instruments and common vision for sharing water.

Of late, however, water issues have been brought to the fore of Africa's development concerns. The New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) -- with its emphasis on regional cooperation and integration -- is another landmark in this process, offering a rare opportunity to link national and sub-regional approaches to managing water resources.

The need to move from analysis to action is recognized by all stakeholders in Africa under the aegis of the African Ministers' Council on Water, the UN Water/Africa Group, in collaboration with other regional bodies such as the African Development Bank and the African Union.

The conference concluded that water resources shared by communities and countries must be jointly managed on an equitable and sustainable basis.

To ensure the availability and effective use of water resources, today's multiple arrangements should be rationalized -- guided by the principles of equitable shares and sustainable and efficient water use.

The weaknesses of river basin organizations should be addressed in line with best practices in Africa and elsewhere.

Regional economic communities overlapping river basin organizations should work together to achieve the goals of the African Water Vision for 2050 and the New Partnership for Africa's Development.

Moreover, interaction between those groups and national water structures would ensure that national goals are aligned with development possibilities -- including those for increased hydropower.


Addis Tribune
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