Thursday, 3 February, 2005, 12:02 GMT

Nile restrictions anger Ethiopia
By Mike Thomson
BBC News

Looking out across the vastness of Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile, it is difficult to see why Ethiopia is known as a land plagued by horrific droughts.

Ethiopia says it needs resources to exploit the Blue Nile
Lake Tana is 112km (70 miles) wide and fed by more than 40 tributaries.

From its origin here in the Ethiopian Highlands, the Blue Nile flows hundreds of miles north into Sudan and then Egypt before eventually flowing into the Mediterranean.

See map:

Yet despite this apparent abundance of water about 2.5 million farmers, in this region of Ethiopia alone, depend on food aid to survive.

The Ethiopian government says this state of affairs continues because it has not been able to meaningfully exploit the massive natural resource which passes largely untapped through its territory.

This means the agriculture on which so much of the population depends is at the mercy of seasonal rains which are becoming increasingly erratic.

But Ethiopia's new determination to utilise the Blue Nile to lift itself out of poverty is likely to put it on a collision course with the country which currently makes most use of the water downstream - Egypt.


The further east you drive from Lake Tana the drier it gets. Once into the hills, green makes way for dull yellows and browns further neutered by clouds of dust.

Farmers like Mengistu (r) rely on rain to grow crops
Near the village of Zaha small children shepherd a collection of scrawny cows and goats towards a field of lifeless stubble. A group of men, clad in traditional head scarves and cloaks, crouch in the shade listlessly, flicking away the flies.

The meagre crops in the fields provide little evidence that this is harvest time. But within view of the parched fields a large tributary of the Nile sweeps past unconcerned.

Mengistu, a farmer, says that those in his village are finding it increasingly difficult to eke out even a basic livelihood.

"The main problem here is that we don't get enough rain. In fact, this is the source of all our problems," he says.

"Over the last four years our rains have not come as usual. Both the long and short rains have failed. Last May we got no proper rains. Yet this month is supposed to mark the start of the wet season. So we haven't been able to grow our crops."

"Even when the rains do come they don't last long. If the rains come too late or too early we are just planting in vain. We've had to rely on food aid. We've got nothing to eat."

Desert miracle

Many hundreds of miles downstream the very waters that passed by Ethiopia's drought-ravaged fields are used to grow fruit and vegetables in the heart of the Sinai desert.

A massive irrigation system spawns thousands of acres of fruit and vegetables at the Al-Hoda farm, one of Africa's largest organic farms. Most of the crops are bound for supermarkets in Britain and other European countries.

Any suggestion that this miracle in the desert comes at the expense of drought-plagued countries upstream gets an angry response.

The owner of the Al-Hoda Farm, Osama Kher Eldin, argues that Egypt has little or no rain and it could not survive if other nations began plundering the Nile's waters.

"If one wants to kill your kids, what you going to do? It means death for Egyptian people. We have no other sources. Only the Nile. So it is something untouchable," he says.

Egypt has not stopped at creating organic farms in the desert. It is also been using the Nile to grow whole new towns there.

In 1987 the land where Noubarya now stands was nothing but desert shrubs, but now it is a thriving urban oasis.

But even that is minor in comparison with the Egyptian government's latest major scheme, the Toshka Project, which uses the great river to irrigate a whole desert region.

Given the continent's acute shortage of water can all this be justified just to grow crops in the desert? Dia El Quosy, senior adviser to the Egyptian government's Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation, says his country must act in this way.

"It's not only the production of food. It's also about the generation of employment. Some 40% of our manpower are farmers and if these people are not given opportunities and jobs they will immediately move to the cities and you can see how crowded Cairo is already."


Egypt's population has more than doubled since the 1960s. But Ethiopia is also facing similar demographic pressures. And Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi says the current division of water use along the river is anything but fair.

Irrigation projects have enabled Egypt to turn desert areas into productive land
"While Egypt is taking the Nile water to transform the Sahara Desert into something green, we in Ethiopia - who are 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," he says.

Mr Meles says he is becoming increasingly angry at Egypt's long running objections to requests from other Nile basin nations to use the river's waters for major irrigation projects.

And he warns that his government, along with those of Kenya, Uganda Tanzania - who share the White Nile with Egypt - will no longer be intimidated by past threats, principally by the late President Anwar Sadat, to use force to maintain its grip on the Nile.

"I think it is an open secret that the Egyptians have troops that are specialised in jungle warfare. Egypt is not known for its jungles. So if these troops are trained in jungle warfare, they are probably trained to fight in the jungles of the East African countries," Mr Meles says.

"And from time to time Egyptian presidents have threatened countries with military action if they move. While I cannot completely discount the sabre-rattling I do not think it is a feasible option. If Egypt were to plan to stop Ethiopia from utilising the Nile waters it would have to occupy Ethiopia and no country on earth has done that in the past."

But one thing that does prevent Ethiopia from exploiting the Nile waters is a lack of money. Mr Meles blames this on Egypt's long-term opposition to any international funding of large scale irrigation projects on the Nile.

This allegation is denied by the Egyptian government which also insists that it is fully committed to implementing any agreement reached in current talks with its neighbours along the Nile.

Egypt's growing population is heavily dependent on the Nile
However, the United Nation's World Food Programme says that with nine million Ethiopians in need of food aid and rains in the country becoming ever more unreliable, the talking should not go on too long.

Meles Zenawi, believes that the time for talking may already be over.

"The current regime cannot be sustained. It's being sustained because of the diplomatic clout of Egypt. Now, there will come a time when the people of East Africa and Ethiopia will become too desperate to care about these diplomatic niceties. Then, they are going to act."