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<nettime> Lester Brown: When the Nile Runs Dry (NYT)
Patrice Riemens on Tue, 7 Jun 2011 12:57:14 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Lester Brown: When the Nile Runs Dry (NYT)

Without Bread No Internet!

original to: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/02/opinion/02Brown.html

When the Nile Runs Dry


A NEW scramble for Africa is under way. As global food prices rise and
exporters reduce shipments of commodities, countries that rely on imported
grain are panicking. Affluent countries like Saudi Arabia, South Korea,
China and India have descended on fertile plains across the African
continent, acquiring huge tracts of land to produce wheat, rice and corn
for consumption back home.

Some of these land acquisitions are enormous. South Korea, which imports
70 percent of its grain, has acquired 1.7 million acres in Sudan to grow
wheat ? an area twice the size of Rhode Island. In Ethiopia, a Saudi firm
has leased 25,000 acres to grow rice, with the option of expanding. India
has leased several hundred thousand acres there to grow corn, rice and
other crops. And in countries like Congo and Zambia, China is acquiring
land for biofuel production.

These land grabs shrink the food supply in famine-prone African nations
and anger local farmers, who see their governments selling their ancestral
lands to foreigners. They also pose a grave threat to Africa?s newest
democracy: Egypt.

Egypt is a nation of bread eaters. Its citizens consume 18 million tons of
wheat annually, more than half of which comes from abroad. Egypt is now
the world?s leading wheat importer, and subsidized bread ? for which the
government doles out approximately $2 billion per year ? is seen as an
entitlement by the 60 percent or so of Egyptian families who depend on it.

As Egypt tries to fashion a functioning democracy after President Hosni
Mubarak?s departure, land grabs to the south are threatening its ability
to put bread on the table because all of Egypt?s grain is either imported
or produced with water from the Nile River, which flows north through
Ethiopia and Sudan before reaching Egypt. (Since rainfall in Egypt is
negligible to nonexistent, its agriculture is totally dependent on the

Unfortunately for Egypt, two of the favorite targets for land acquisitions
are Ethiopia and Sudan, which together occupy three-fourths of the Nile
River Basin. Today?s demands for water are such that there is little left
of the river when it eventually empties into the Mediterranean.

The Nile Waters Agreement, which Egypt and Sudan signed in 1959, gave
Egypt 75 percent of the river?s flow, 25 percent to Sudan and none to
Ethiopia. This situation is changing abruptly as wealthy foreign
governments and international agribusinesses snatch up large swaths of
arable land along the Upper Nile. While these deals are typically
described as land acquisitions, they are also, in effect, water

Now, when competing for Nile water, Cairo must deal with several
governments and commercial interests that were not party to the 1959
agreement. Moreover, Ethiopia ? never enamored of the agreement ? has
announced plans to build a huge hydroelectric dam on its branch of the
Nile that would reduce the water flow to Egypt even more.

Because Egypt?s wheat yields are already among the world?s highest, it has
little potential to raise its agricultural productivity. With its
population of 81 million projected to reach 101 million by 2025, finding
enough food and water is a daunting challenge.

Egypt?s plight could become part of a larger, more troubling scenario. Its
upstream Nile neighbors ? Sudan, with 44 million people, and Ethiopia,
with 83 million ? are growing even faster, increasing the need for water
to produce food. Projections by the United Nations show the combined
population of these three countries increasing to 272 million by 2025 ?
and 360 million by 2050 ? from 208 million now.

Growing water demand, driven by population growth and foreign land and
water acquisitions, are straining the Nile?s natural limits. Avoiding
dangerous conflicts over water will require three transnational
initiatives. First, governments must address the population threat head-on
by ensuring that all women have access to family planning services and by
providing education for girls in the region. Second, countries must adopt
more water-efficient irrigation technologies and plant less
water-intensive crops.

Finally, for the sake of peace and future development cooperation, the
nations of the Nile River Basin should come together to ban land grabs by
foreign governments and agribusiness firms. Since there is no precedent
for this, international help in negotiating such a ban, similar to the
World Bank?s role in facilitating the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty between
India and Pakistan, would likely be necessary to make it a reality.

None of these initiatives will be easy to implement, but all are
essential. Without them, rising bread prices could undermine Egypt?s
revolution of hope and competition for the Nile?s water could turn deadly.

Lester R. Brown is the president of the Earth Policy Institute and the
author of ?World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic

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