Monday, October 13, 2008

The stakes of the Nile Basin Initiative

Nile_river_and_delta_from_orbitAfrica's natural resources extend across many borders but are not equally abundant for all. Take the Nile River and its extensive tributaries in Congo, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, Kenya and Tanzania--all sub-Saharan countries. This neighborhood, also known as the Great Lakes region, comprises the Nile River Basin, the multiple sources of a river on whose lives all Egyptians and many Sudanese depend. Water is literally life for the ancient desert societies of Egypt and northern Sudan, and their skill at conserving water and maximizing its agricultural uses far exceeds that found in upstream Nile countries where water is abundant.

Clearly there is something primordial and miraculous--but alas not causal--in the relationship between scarcity and ingenuity. Take the case of Egypt, whose irrigation capacity precedes its invention of written language, both of which are over 2000 years old. This historical fact becomes amazing in the context of the Nile Basin, whose countries are the poorest in the world.

Technologically, they are so far behind Egypt that they still depend entirely on rainfall to grow food. In Burundi, for instance, rivers and lakes abound but basic irrigation and animal traction constitute the unthought for farmers there. As a result, during the three-month dry season rural farmers in Burundi go hungry and die. Egypt learned to solve that problem long before the West existed.

Were the state of scarcity itself a causal trigger for change, people and their leaders would have figured out solutions to poverty long ago. And given that practical solutions already exist in the world's poorest neighborhood, like the miracle of Egyptian irrigation in a barren desert, one wonders why Egypt's destitute neighbors continue to look the other way.


Created in 1999, the Nile Basin Initiative seeks to introduce the notion of 'common good' to nine countries for whom the Nile is political hot-potato, conflict trigger, and means of survival rolled into one. Many NBI countries have been at war in the last decade, and the Nile as casus belli is not unthinkable with climate changes already affecting the region. Obviously a lack of trust permeates the region and prevents cooperation on mutually beneficial initiatives, like Nile water management. If successful, then, the NBI would use the Nile to promote development in the poorer countries in a way that facilitates a common approach to solutions and averts conflict.

Nearing its tenth anniversary, the folks at NBI headquarters in Entebbe were rightfully wondering about their impact in the region, and whether regional thoughtleaders appreciated NBI efforts. A qualitative study of perceptions among civil society, government, academics and media from NBI's nine member countries was commissioned; results are coming out now.

Read from a longer piece I wrote for 3QD here.