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Make food security the top agenda in the Nile Basin

Waakhe Simon
The Nile Basin Initiative is in a race for time as growing populations still rely on rain to grow crops. Irrigation is a solution on the one hand, but a new challenge on the other.
29.12.2019  |  Juba, South Sudan
Abdulkarim Seid, Deputy Executive Director of the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI). (photo: The Niles | Bullen Chol)
Abdulkarim Seid, Deputy Executive Director of the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI). (photo: The Niles | Bullen Chol)

Abdulkarim Seid is the Deputy Executive Director of the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI). He heads the Basin-Wide Program based in Entebbe, which has six pillars or priority areas including food security.

In this interview held in Kigali, in February 2019 he re-counts NBI’s role in trying to address the challenge of food insecurity across NBI’s eleven countries:

TN: How does NBI deal with food insecurity?

AS: We deal with transboundary water resource management related to food security. First of all, most of the basin countries depend on rainfed agriculture, especially the upstream countries.

Most of the basin countries depend on rainfed agriculture, especially the upstream countries.

The lower downstream countries like Egypt depend on irrigation agriculture. Increasingly, because of the erratic nature of the rainfall in upstream countries, their dependence on only rainfed agriculture is increasingly compromising the food security of those countries. Add population growth, land degradation and also degradation of ecosystems, and it is all adversely affecting food security.

NBI was established by member countries to foster cooperation on transboundary water resource management and development, including water for food production. Our initial area was transboundary cooperation, development and management of water resources.

Agriculture accounts for most of the water withdrawn from the river system – over 80 percent. When you see this, with rapid population growth, and have this river basin that is shared by eleven countries, managing or developing the water resources of the Nile, in a manner that will address the food security of all countries, is absolutely critical.

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TN: As NBI is trying to mitigate this issue of food insecurity in the region, what are some of the challenges or problems behind the food insecurity issue?

AS: I want to link it with the transboundary element because as I told you earlier, most of the upstream countries’ agriculture depends on rain, and the rainfall has become increasingly erratic because of climate change. So, for this reason, the farmers are exposed to huge uncertainty because of the high variability of rainfall.

When you have irrigated agriculture, you can make water available, and you are no longer dependent on rainfall.

At the same time land degradation and soil erosion in some parts of the basin, especially in upstream countries are hugely and adversely affecting food security.

When it comes to the question of how can the basin countries develop their water resources to address or to enhance food security, then there is an issue of increasing interest to have irrigated agriculture. When you have irrigated agriculture, you can make water available, and you are no longer dependent on rainfall.

So NBI is trying to help by identifying opportunities for enhancing food security while using the shared water resources of the Nile in a more cooperative and sustainable manner.


TN: What is the magnitude of the food security situation in the NBI region?

AS: As some of the literature and studies by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) mention, especially East Africa, which makes up the biggest part of NBI – a good deal of the population there is food insecure, and quite a good proportion of the population is undernourished.

Water is at the centre of ensuring food security.

For this reason, food security is the top agenda in the Nile Basin region. This links very much with the water issue because water is at the centre of ensuring food security, whether you depend on rainfed agriculture, or irrigation or fisheries or other forms or components of food production systems.

TN: NBI was marking its 20th anniversary in 2019. What are the strategic plans ahead in years to come, as efforts to try to mitigate these problems and ensure they don’t happen?

AS: NBI formulated its ten-year strategy way back in 2017. Food security or enhancing food security was decided to be one of the six priority areas for the next ten years. NBI is concerned with the transboundary dimension of food or water security.

With this in mind, the primary focus will be, how can we enhance the water use efficiency in agriculture and how can we have productivity of water in agriculture so that we can produce more with the available water?

The other concern is how to optimise cropping patterns across the basin so that we can produce the food we need with the available water.

Another issue is to enhance irrigation technologies to improve efficiency. Of course, as crosscutting issues, we also have capacity building and the knowledge generation aspect of it.

But more importantly, at the sub-basin level, we also promote the development of irrigated agriculture, preparation of investment projects like cooperative projects including irrigation and watershed management.

There is a win-win situation between the water watershed management upstream and the management of the reservoirs downstream. That is another big area of focus for NBI.


TN: What have been some of NBI’s challenges in the last 20 years?

AS: If you are talking about irrigated agriculture, it is not always easy to bring all countries on board. Because irrigated agriculture is a consumptive use of water.

Having a mechanism, whereby all countries come on board for the cooperative development of irrigated agriculture is not easy.

The other challenge is actually mobilising the finances required. That is also a limiting factor.

TN: What’s your message to the people across the region on the issue of food security?

AS: I think improving agricultural water management is key – one aspect is to produce more from the available water resources, and to enhance efficiency in agricultural systems and also to diversify the investments in not only irrigation but also effective use of rainfall for irrigation. I think more than 70 percent of the population depends on rainfed agriculture.

We need to manage climate risks.

We need to manage climate risks in order to ensure production systems can absorb the shocks of climate change. Without it, it will be very difficult to ensure food security, especially if you see the rapid growth of population in the region together with the rapid growth in food demand.

TN: We have read in the media that one of the challenges facing NBI is that member states have been unable to pay their membership fees. Has this been an issue?

AS: Well, that is a good point you raised. One thing I would like to mention to you, since the establishment of the NBI in 1999, the contribution of the member countries has nearly increased tenfold.

Right now, yes, there are some challenges because the payments are not coming as expected every year but still, the core costs of the institutions are being fully funded by the countries. It is a challenge but still, the countries solder the full ownership of the institution.


This article is part of:
We are what we eat
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