Tilanun Wubie squats barefoot in his field, weeding his crops by hand under the Ethiopian sun. It is mid-August, but there is little growing in his one-hectare plot of land and little to feed his family of six.
Once again, the rains came late and, like almost all of Ethiopia's farmers, Wubie is without any form of irrigation, leaving him at the mercy of increasingly unreliable rains. "If there is no rain there is nothing we can do," he says, pulling unwanted grass from the soil.
Wubie's land is less than 10km from Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile. From here, the mighty river departs, running through the Ethiopian highlands to meet the White Nile, from Lake Victoria, at Khartoum. Together they head north to meet the Nile's final major tributary, the Atbara, and complete the journey to Egypt's Mediterranean coast. Around 85 per cent of the Nile's water originates here in the Ethiopian highlands, but until now this impoverished East African nation, like other upstream Nile states, has made minimal use of the river's water.
Egypt has claimed rights to the lion's share of Nile resources and maintained it has the authority to reject projects higher up the river. It says it needs more of the Nile's waters, not less, and is looking to increase its share through co-operative projects in the basin. The country's claimed veto over upstream projects dates back to a 1929 agreement with Britain, acting on behalf of its African colonies. A second bilateral agreement in 1959, between Egypt and its southern neighbour, Sudan, promises Egypt 55.5 billion cubic metres (bcm) of Nile water per year, while giving 18bcm to Sudan, and leaves as little as 10bcm to be divided among the other seven states that feed the Nile.
The trans-boundary nature of the Nile has made it a political sparking point for decades. "The only matter that could take Egypt to war again is water," declared the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in 1979, in response to an Ethiopian plan to tap the river. Since then, the Nile Basin countries have embarked on a new era of co-operation, but population growth, paired with the ill-effects of climate change, could push those states past the point of co-operation.
About 160 million people now depend on water from the Nile and its tributaries - and that number could double by 2025, spreading even thinner the already contested Nile waters and pushing about half the basin countries into water scarcity. "The magnitude of needs within the basin is not something an organisation like the Nile Basin Initiative can address on its own," says Gordon Mumbo, a regional project manager for the initiative, the multinational organisation through which the basin countries negotiate.
"The growing population in the basin also requires an increase in food production," says Mr Mumbo. "As a result of that people are encroaching on wetlands and the watershed." Deciding who can siphon water from the flow of the world's longest river has become an act of balancing historical rights against equitable distribution. Since 1997 the 10 Nile basin states - Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda and Eritrea - have been negotiating new rules for dividing up the water, but Egypt and Sudan insist on incorporating the guarantees of the two previous agreements which most other basin countries dismiss as illegitimate colonial relics.
The most recent meeting of Nile Basin states, in Alexandria in late July, ended with Egypt and Sudan refusing to sign the new framework, which omits recognition of historic quotas and veto rights. The countries set a new deadline of January, but some upstream countries have called for the agreement to be signed without their northern neighbours. Even if they decide to ignore previous agreements, the upstream Nile countries have less money and less international clout than Egypt, making it difficult to secure funds for large-scale development projects on the Nile. Many international institutions require states to consult downstream countries before they will fund projects.
In 2004, tension escalated over Tanzania's plan to divert water from Lake Victoria. The 170km-long pipeline would go to water-impoverished communities in north-west Tanzania but was considered a slap in the face for Egypt which believes it should be consulted about projects on this scale. "It's not possible that upstream countries go hungry and go poor and then they just let the water go," said Yacob Arsano, the dean of the college of social science at Addis Ababa University, who has written extensively on Nile issues.
According to the UN's World Food Programme, 4.6 million Ethiopians face malnutrition and hunger requiring urgent food assistance; millions more have been affected by drought. In the 1980s, Ethiopia became synonymous with famine, as the deadly cocktail of drought and bad policy caused starvation and malnutrition that claimed one million lives. Like many farmers, Wubie is growing mostly teff, a grain used to make the Ethiopian staple food injera and traditional beer. He points far in the distance to a stream where he is able to collect water but says he must carry it back on foot, making the stream useless for agricultural purposes.
Irrigation would not only liberate him from dependence on timely rain but also allow him to plant several times a year and grow fruits such as mangoes and qat. He says the stimulant, which is widely consumed in the region and legal for production and sale in Ethiopia, could fetch him 50 birr (Dh15) per kilo. "We can have a stable income," says Wubie. About 5,000km downstream, Karam Awad sips tea on the edge of his wheat field as the sun falls behind the tall grass of Dahab Island, a 400-feddan (175-hectare) island-farming community in Cairo.
Unlike Ethiopia's population, which is spread around the country's many river basins, Egyptians live in a narrow belt of land along the Nile. Arable land is so scarce and water resources are so concentrated that even small Nile islands are densely populated with farms. Water arrives to Awad's plot by electric-powered irrigation. "It's the most important thing. It's life. It's always there," he says. "It will always come."
His complaints are not about water, but about the absence of a bridge to connect the island to Cairo. He has to travel to the market by boat to hawk his vegetables and grains. Egypt has argued that its rights to Nile resources are a matter of national security as the river is the desert nation's near-sole source of water, used to meet 95 per cent of its needs. The country receives only scarce rainfall, primarily on the Mediterranean coast and has some groundwater in the eastern and western desert, which water ministry officials say is non-renewable and costly to develop.
"The 860 cubic metres per person puts Egypt in the category of [water] poor countries," say Hani Raslan, the head of the Sudan and Nile Basin Studies Programme at the Cairo-based Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. "By 2017 the share per person [in Egypt] will reduce to 580 cubic metres, so we have a lack of water. So the share of 55 [bcm from the Nile] is redline, we cannot reduce it anyway, but we need to increase it."
Dr Raslan stresses that there is enough water for all if Egypt and other basin countries improve the efficiency of their agricultural practices. Water waste remains high in many basin states. Egypt has started to move away from water-intensive crops such as rice but has also begun the water-intensive process of greening its desert through irrigation and pumping. The Cairo-Alexandria desert road is now littered with farms sprouting from the once barren land. This will help the country to feed its population of more than 80 million, and also to grow cash-crops, such as fruit, for export.
This desert-to-farm transformation will probably become more popular as Egypt loses arable lands in the Nile Delta - historically the country's bread basket - to encroaching salt water and soil deterioration. The area of agricultural land per Egyptian is a fraction of what it was a century ago. That, combined with a population that could grow by 20 million in the next two decades, means Egypt will struggle to survive on the water rations it receives today.
Since 1971 Egypt has controlled the water that reaches farmers such as Awad with the High Dam at Aswan. According to the Egyptian Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation, before its construction the Nile's yield fluctuated between 151bcm and 42bcm per year. This left Egypt at risk of drought and flood. The regulated flow allowed Egypt to increase the amount of cultivated land from four per cent to six per cent, as well as generate 10 billion kilowatt hours annually.
But evaporation is so great under the scorching desert sun that large quantities of water are lost each year. If the Nile was dammed further upstream in the Ethiopian highlands, evaporation would be less and hydroelectric production much greater as the steep geography there means water drops faster - the key to successful hydropower generation. Factors such as these point to the benefit of co-operation, and most argue that with collaboration and careful planning the water will be enough for all.
Cooler, wetter upstream countries could generate electricity and produce water-intensive crops such as rice, to be sold cheaply to more arid, downstream states. A plan is now being considered to export hydroelectric power from Ethiopia to Sudan, a project that could be extended to Egypt. For Nile states, this sort of co-operation comes at the cost of security, as countries rely on others for food and power. Despite international efforts to promote co-operation among the nations, trust remains weak between Nile states and those with the means are apprehensive about putting their fate in the hands of others.
* The National