It's a 4,160-mile lifeline for the countries that border it. But intense negotiations went on last week here in an effort to avert potential conflicts over the use of the Nile River between the 10 African countries that share it and its tributaries. Disagreements over competing projects for the Nile waters, some experts say, threaten to destabilize this already volatile region.
To flesh out a treaty regulating use of the river's waters, a high-level team of lawyers and technical experts representing each state held talks last week in Entebbe, Uganda, on the shores of Lake Victoria, which feeds into the world's longest river.
Delegates at the highly secretive conference - closed off to the press by gun-toting security guards - say they are confident an agreement can be reached on the sharing of the river and warn that such an agreement will be vital to avert clashes over an increasingly scarce resource.
"This agreement will be vital to the security and peace of the region," says Sirajuddin Hamid Yousef, the Sudanese ambassador to Uganda and one of the delegates. "Modern security is no longer just about interstate relations - it is also about equitable sharing and preservation of our environment."
The talks were organized by the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), an intergovernmental body set up as a forum for resolving differences over the use of the river. "The most important thing is that all countries are genuinely ready to hold discussions," says Meraji Msuya, executive director of the NBI. "These are committee experts. Everyone will pitch their interests, but the will to strike an amicable deal is there."
The talks come amid growing tensions between countries in the south part of the Nile Basin, chiefly Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, and Ethiopia - who want to use the Nile for large-scale projects - and Egypt and Sudan farther down the river, which flows north to the Mediterranean, that would be affected by such projects.
Like many disagreements in Africa, the tensions are in part a legacy of British colonialism. The 1929 Nile Treaty between Egypt and Britain, whose empire at the time stretched over most of the Nile Basin, forbids any country south of Egypt to reduce the volume of water that reaches Egypt and north Sudan.
"Without the consent of the Egyptian government, no irrigation or hydroelectric works can be established on the tributaries of the Nile or their lakes, if such works can cause a drop in water level harmful to Egypt," the treaty states.
Countries in East Africa say they want to abrogate the treaty that they regard as an outmoded colonial relic and which completely ignores the interests of the other countries in the Basin. But Egypt says any attempt to alter or violate the treaty would be regarded by the well-armed Middle Eastern country as an act of war.
Last month, undeterred, Tanzania launched a $27.6 billion project for drawing drinking water from Lake Victoria in contravention of the treaty that it says is illegal. Kenya, which is short of water, is pushing for the treaty to be revised.
Uganda, meanwhile, wants hydroelectric projects to solve energy shortages. Ethiopia has long desired to build large-scale irrigation projects to counter endemic drought, which has left 13 million people suffering from famine. In 1980, Egypt threatened war with Ethiopia after Ethiopian President Mengistu Haile Mariam opposed attempts by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to divert waters to the Sinai Desert. "Irrigation is something we must reach an agreement about," says Mr. Yousef, "because it drains a lot, and maintaining a constant flow of water is very important. People will die without it."
Egypt is the country with most at stake in the negotiations as the arid country has virtually no other source of fresh water. But other countries argue that Egypt and Sudan are already making use of the Nile for commercial purposes, such as water exports and cash crops grown on the banks. Egyptian officials at the conference declined to comment on the discussions.
Patrick Kahanjira, Uganda's chief of water development, says, "We are going through a slow process of negotiation. and of course these don't start where everything is agreed."
The 10 countries - Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi, Congo, and Tanzania - were to meet Monday in Kenya to look at joint development projects.