JUST as the incipient water shortage in Africa has threatened to propel countries into war, it could also force them into negotiations. Regional cooperation was the underlying theme of an African water summit in Cairo last week, attended by government delegates from 43 African countries.
As African populations grow at a rate of 3 percent a year and water levels shrink, the need to form comprehensive water-sharing agreements between countries becomes more critical.
Unlike other river basins in Africa, the nine states of the Nile - including Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia - have been unable to develop a forum to discuss each country's water needs and plan water development projects.
This is particularly important for a country like Egypt that depends on the Nile for almost all its water, 80 percent of which comes from Ethiopia.
``Cooperation between African countries is essential in order to make the best use of the Nile River,'' says Egyptian Foreign Affairs Minister Butros Ghali. ``Through solidarity we will be able to achieve a common policy.''
Without adequate water-sharing agreements one state can limit water flow to other countries, as Turkey did to Syria and Iraq in January when it closed off the Euphrates River to fill its Ataturk Dam. At that time, Cairo received reports that Ethiopia was building dams on the Nile, threatening to lower Egypt's water levels.
Agreements between the Nile-user nations could also help forge joint water-use projects.
One example is the Jonglei canal in Sudan, which, when completed, will divert swamp waters to augment the White Nile. The canal will provide Sudan and Egypt each with 2 billion cubic meters (cm) more water a year.
Countries can also share information. The floods that hit Sudan in 1988 might not have been as disastrous if Khartoum had known how much rain had fallen in Ethiopia, says Tagelsir Ahmed, under-secretary in Sudan's Ministry of Irrigation.
While downstream countries, like Egypt and Sudan with a forecasted water deficit of 10,000 million cm by the year 2,000, may be desperate for a regional agreement, nations like Ethiopia are not as anxious.
Ethiopia fears that new policies may limit its sovereignty over the river's waters and suspend future development plans. At present Addis Ababa only uses 0.6 billion cm of the Nile a year, but has indicated it wants more.
Facing a civil war and continued economic hardship, Ethiopia needs financial assistance to study its water needs and develop water projects. International financial assistance, however, is contingent on regional cooperation.
``The political will to cooperate in the international integration of river basin development makes it easier for the World Bank,'' says Guy LeMoinge, a World Bank senior adviser on agriculture and water resources. ``We cannot supply funding unless there's agreement between the various countries.''
For now, at least, two groups are trying to forge a water-sharing agreement between Nile basin states. Undugu, which means `brotherhood' in Swahili, is an unofficial, ministerial-level group of the Nile states (with the exception of Ethiopia and Kenya) that meets once a year to discuss politics and technical cooperation.
The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa and the UN Development Program are also trying to get the Nile River countries together by having them implement specific water development projects, identified by the UN groups. After realizing the benefit of regional coordination it is hoped these countries will form an official polity-making body. Ethiopia has agreed to participate in these meetings.