The Deputy Executive Director of the NBI Secretariat, Dr. Abdulkarim Seid recently told participants attending the Uganda Engineers Forum, that sustainable utilisation of the Nile requires solutions that need the collaboration of politicians as well as technicians. In his keynote speech delivered on October, 25, 2018 in Kampala, Dr. Seid further noted that the challenge must not be addressed individually by the riparian countries but collectively.
Following is the full text of the keynote address
The Nile Basin, which is the subject of this conference is indeed a big topic. The River Nile is a source of livelihood for millions and development aspirations for the riparian countries. Since millennia, it has attracted explorers, poets, scientists and others from most parts of the world.
With rapid population growth, which doubles every 20 to 25 years, and the threats of climate change, the future of the Nile as a resource and source of livelihood is at stake and deserves more attention at the highest level as also of scientists, politicians, planners, and the general public in our countries.
In my keynote today, I will highlight a few issues I believe are critical for the sustainable use of the Nile waters. We all know that the Nile Basin is endowed with huge resource potential yet untapped, which can be harnessed to transform the riparian countries and improve the lives of the basin’s inhabitants. More than 50 percent of the basin - an area of over 1.7 million square kilometers - receives an average of more than 500 mm of rainfall per year. Coupled with the large land resources the basin has and improved productivity, this can be used to meet the growing food demands in the basin.
The basin also has a large hydropower potential, estimated at more than 450,000 GWh/year, out of which only a small proportion has been developed while electricity consumption in the Nile Basin countries is among the lowest in the world. In addition to the huge hydropower potential, the basin countries also have untapped other renewable energy resources – wind, solar and geothermal energy resources, which can substantially complement the hydropower resources. Furthermore, the basin is home to world class ecosystems that are habitats to wildlife, overwintering sites for migratory birds and scenic beauty that is yet to be fully explored and exploited to the good of the economies of the basin countries.
Despite these and other natural resource potentials of the Nile Basin, there are substantial unmet basic needs in most of the basin countries. To just mention a few, a significant proportion of the population in rural areas still doesn’t have access to clean drinking water. While the situation in urban areas is better, the coverage is still much less than full coverage in many countries. In most countries, the highest per capita consumption of electricity in the basin countries is less than 160 kWh/, which is less than 10 percent of world average. When it comes to food security, in spite of considerable progress in recent years, in 2016 more than 50 percent of the population of the East African region to which most Nile Basin countries belong was undernourished.
A critical challenge for the sustainable use of the Nile waters is the transboundary nature of the water resources. Therefore, sustainable utilisation of the Nile waters is not only a challenge each riparian country must address individually but all countries need to address it collectively. It is my firm belief that sustainable utilisation of the Nile requires solutions that need the collaboration of politicians as well as technicians. In particular, I highlight three key shift in our approach towards developing and managing the Nile waters that can be realised through three important action areas:
1) The need to diversify water sources cannot be overstated. Relying heavily on river water alone is unsustainable. Analysis made by NBI provides ample evidence that the projected growth in water demand in the Nile Basin simply cannot be met by river water alone, even without impacts of climate change. The basin has substantial rainfall and groundwater potential that is yet to be utilized fully and more effectively. In addition, with the observed trend in reduction of the cost of desalination, countries with access to the sea have a large potential for tapping to this resource and generate freshwater. Such diversification has the added advantage that it also helps countries in better adapting to climate change, since all these water sources are not equally affected by climate change.
2) Diversifying energy resources is another key contributor of sustainable utilisation of the Nile waters. With increasingly unreliable climate and rapidly growing energy demands, relying on hydropower alone will not meet the growing energy demands. In this regard, the largely untapped wind, solar and geothermal energy resources – all renewable – can be utilised as an energy mix supply in regionally interconnected grids. Such a task undoubtedly requires state of the art optimization tools that need to be applied across the basin and the region at large.
3) Agriculture is the largest consumer of water in the region. Studies have shown that more than 70 to 75 percent of water withdrawals from the Nile are for irrigation. Analysis done by NBI has shown that in the coming 2 – 3 decades, the total area under irrigation is likely to increase by around 60 to 70 percent from the current level. Not only the total area under irrigation is likely to increase but also, proportionally, more of the increase will be in upstream parts of the basin. It is very important that we improve irrigation water efficiency in existing systems to maximize what we get out of the available water resources. Further, with the substantial projected growth in irrigated agriculture in the Nile Basin, opportunities must be grabbed to employ water efficient technologies to maximize the utilisation of the shared resource. Greater collaboration is needed among the riparian countries to make sure that the available water resources are optimally utilised for example, by growing more water intensive crops in areas where the evapo-transpiration is less. Given the relatively high rainfall amounts available in these upstream parts, efforts are needed to make more effective use of rainfall with supplemental irrigation thereby producing the food needed with a lot less pressure on the river system.
The above cannot be realised without the necessary investments in the basin. Countries need to collectively and individually invest in infrastructure for sustainably harnessing the resource endowment; improve availability and use of scientific information for planning, development and management of the waters of the Nile and in institutions for joint management and development of the Nile waters.
a) Infrastructures for water, food and energy production are critically needed in the Nile Basin. The basin has one of the lowest per capita water storage volume in the world. Countries need to invest in more interconnection between them to harness the resource endowment of the basin taking into account the comparative advantages each country may have on a particular resource type. It is critically important to invest in protection of the water source areas to ensure reliability and sustainability of the water supply.
b) Together with investments in water infrastructure, the basin countries collectively and individually need to invest to modernise the information infrastructure. The basin countries need to tap the rapid and remarkable progress being made in Earth Observation systems. Using current day remote sensing technology, one can measure a range of river basin phenomena, such as rainfall, soil moisture, land use/cover, water levels and many more. Good progress is being made towards estimating river discharges using remote sensing techniques. Earth Observation information from remote sensing is increasingly becoming accessible – often free of change. The African Regional data cube, which was launched in May in Nairobi, is a case in point. Through this initiative, African water institutions will have the opportunity to access Petabytes of EO data together with software tools for generating value added information needed for water and related natural resources management.
c) The Nile Basin to date doesn’t have a permanent institutional and legal setup that has the blessing of all riparian countries. In the absence of an effective mechanism for fostering sustainable and equitable development and management of the Nile waters, one observes that the issue of Nile waters is increasingly being treated as predominantly political/legal or national security issue with little room for technical/scientific exploration of solutions and options. In this regard, while there is need for investing more on transboundary policies and binding arrangements among countries, it is equally important that technical solutions to the water management challenges of the basin are promoted and inform the joint deliberations at highest levels of governments among the riparians.
Finally, I would like to conclude my speech by stressing that the key to sustainable utilisation of the Nile waters is diversifying our solution options in water, energy and food production systems through investments in infrastructure, information and collaboratively formed institutions.
I thank you for your attention.
Abdulkarim H Seid (PhD)
Deputy Executive Director/ Head of NBI - Basin-Wide Program