Battle Over Nile River Ownership Threatens One of World's Largest Wetlands

egypt nile river photo

Photo by Michael Gwyther-Jones via Flickr CC

When we think of the Nile river, we think of Egypt, but for African countries upriver, ownership of the Nile is under hot contention. The river flows through 10 nations from its headwaters in Ethiopia to the Mediterranean, but historically only Egypt and the Sudan have rights to the water. Nations now speaking out include Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda, who have signed a treaty that will secure rights to the water as well. Unfortunately, there is little talk about how changes in water rights will impact the ecosystems that depend on the river, and how pollution and over-drawing water for humans can harm wildlife, including flora and fauna living in Sudd, the world's largest inland wetland, and one of the largest wetlands in the world. Already threatened by oil exploration, the future of this important ecosystem in the Sudan is highly questionable.Yale 360 reports that Egypt's access to Nile water to provide for the 75 million people living on the delta and in the river valley is dependent entirely upon what water makes it downstream, so in the past it has threatened war on any upstream nations who help themselves to water. While war is a possibility, it is not likely to happen just yet... but legal action is.

According to Yale 360, "[A]fter the breakaway group of upstream nation declared their own water rights, Egypt reacted earlier this month by going on a high-level diplomatic offensive with offers of aid, backed up by threats of legal action if its current water "rights" are not upheld."

But as pointed out by the article, there is more that must be discussed about rights to the Nile than how much water can be pulled from it -- the health of the river as a whole must be discussed, or those dependent on the river will lose their life source and legal "rights" will do nothing to spare it.

As people pull more water from the river, there is less to be had, which means politicians are looking at the Sudd wetland, which sustains incredible biodiversity, from large mammals like hippos and elephants to over 400 species of migrating birds. Engineers are considering how a canal can be cut through the wetlands so that water which meanders through the area is channeled to humans waiting downriver. It means more water can be drawn upstream without severely diminishing how much makes it to Egypt. Unfortunately, the concept also threatens the existence of at least 25% of the wetland, and the unintended ecological consequences are sure to trickle outward.

The future of the Nile river as well as the plants an animals dependent upon them must be as much a part of the conversation about water rights as access to the river for people. River ecosystems tend to be fragile and highly interdependent -- changes in one area can have unexpected changes in another, and the loss of 25% of a wetland that offers life to iconic African species would be a tragedy.

As Yale 360 reports, it might be in Egypt's (and everyone's) ultimate best interest to allow other nations in on the river, and in on the discussion of the best place for dams that make efficient use of the water for both humans and wildlife -- even if that means it is placed in a rival country such as Ethiopia.

But as reported by the Boston Globe, Egypt and the Sudan have refused to sign the new agreement, and the future of the 300 million people who depend on the Nile river as well as the countless species of plants and animals remains in turmoil.

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