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By Salim Ahmed Salim and K.Y. Amoako

Salim Ahmed Salim is Secretary-General of the Organization of
African Unity (OAU) and K.Y. Amoako is executive secretary of the U.N. Economic Commission for Africa (ECA).

-- Rising from its headwaters in Rwanda and
Burundi, the Nile River flows 6,700 kilometers north to its delta in Egypt on the Mediterranean Sea, winding through no fewer than 10 countries along the way and sustaining the lives of perhaps 300 million people, whose economic and cultural destinies are bound up to this mighty waterway.

Yet, despite her rich history and environmental treasures, the people who live along the flanks of our Mother Nile face challenges that deserve regional and international support.

As donors, development agencies and the 10 riparian countries meet in Geneva this week to pledge financial and political support to the Nile Basin Initiative -- set up by the 10 riparian countries in 1999 to achieve sustainable development and management of the
river -- they will have to grapple with the challenges of poverty,
instability, rapid population growth and environmental degradation in order to safeguard the Nile Basin for generations to come.

For millennia rain falling in the mountains and rainforests at the
headwaters of this great river brought the rising and falling waters that crossed the deserts downstream to the sea. At times extreme, these changes in flow brought either riches and stability or famine and chaos.

As the land was carved into countries, so these flows have influenced relations among states. Today upstream countries have water, sometimes too much; downstream countries are totally dependent on the flows of the river.

All of these countries are growing and developing. Closing the borders creates risks and tensions; cooperating across borders brings many opportunities.

Of the 10 Nile countries -- Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo,
Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda -- some are among the world's poorest, with per capita income of less than $200. In fact, the combined national incomes of the 10 countries in 1998 was approximately $135 billion, roughly half the size of Belgium's economy, but with 100 times its land area and 30 times its population.

Seven countries are, or recently have been, involved in international or internal conflict. This fragile situation complicates economic growth in the region, as does the looming scarcity of Nile water itself as the population of the nations of the basin is expected to double over the next 30 years, from 300 million to 600 million people.

But these challenges also provide an historic opportunity to safeguard the river's future in a way that was considered by many to have been impossible even just a few years ago. These 10 very different countries have mobilized behind the Nile Basin Initiative to rise above their national differences and pursue a common vision of social and economic development in one of the poorest regions of the world. The members have an historical mission, making their common vision work for everyone. This they
know must be achieved for the benefit of their grandchildren, and therefore their sense of purpose is strong.

If successfully managed, the initiative could boost hydropower and food production and improve transportation and industry. It could also conserve the Nile's incomparable environmental richness, such as Lake Victoria and the vast wetlands of the Sudd -- roughly the size of Belgium -- and promote other development opportunities for the people of the Nile Basin and the wider region.

By managing the river benefits together, the riparian countries, in courageously putting their shoulders squarely behind the
initiative, will be rewarded with improved regional development and cooperation and tangible gains far greater than those derived from the Nile itself.

In order to make the most of the opportunities offered by the global economy, these countries must tear down the walls between them, share electricity, natural gas and oil and make social and economic movement much easier. Between many of the countries only the Nile flows. There are typically no rail links, no shared power, no trunk roads, no easy border crossings and only the most tortuous of airline connections, making movement of people, goods and ideas difficult.

Concerns over the river have long contributed to strained relations among many states. Without cooperation and development, the future prospects for many countries of the Nile Basin look grim.

On the other hand, if countries go ahead and develop their own stretch of the river without cooperation, outside the framework of the Nile Basin Initiative, they risk exploiting the river to the detriment of others, missing the opportunities created by cooperation, perpetuating the hand-to-mouth existence of millions of poor people and ratcheting up the tension among the different river-dwelling states
The waters of the Nile can be a catalyst for lasting development and auspicious peace, instead of a source of rivalry and dispute. As a technical committee member of the Nile Basin Initiative put it recently, "Over the centuries our downstream neighbors seemed far away, but in today's world we sit side by side to work out our common future. We cannot manage these mighty waters in isolation from each other -- we each hold the key to each other's doors."

So, we in both the region and the international community should reflect on these poignant words to mobilize the financial means and the political support to make the Nile Basin Initiative work.

For the generations to come in the 10 countries astride the Nile, the stakes are high, yet the opportunities are great indeed.

(c) 2001, Global Viewpoint. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate
International, a division of Tribune Media Services.
For immediate release (Distributed 6/25/01)