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Nile musicians urge cooperation, not conflict, in battle over water rights

Musicians from 11 Nile basin countries unite in bid to stave off water rights conflict; currently touring US colleges

A collective of musicians from 11 Nile basin countries performed in New York City on Thursday night in a bid to demonstrate the need for cross-border cooperation — and to encourage people in Nile nations to think of themselves as more of a unified entity — as the region inches toward conflict over rights to water from the world’s longest river.

The Cairo-based Nile Project brings together artists from the countries that touch the river — Egypt, Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. 

The artists meet for multi-week residencies — mostly at universities that agree to host them — to compose new music using instruments including the Ethiopian masenko, Egyptian oud, Ugandan adungu and percussion instruments from the Nile basin. Their songs blend sounds from the various countries into a fusion of modern and traditional music. Vocals explore the similarities and relationships between countries in the region in diverse languages.

“Every year we add new musicians with new instruments who bring their traditions to the collective,” Nile Project founder Mina Girgis told Al Jazeera. “The music that we have, you can organize it into three general regions: Arabic-speaking countries, the Amharic-speaking countries, and the Sub-Saharan and East African bloc.”

Artists in the collective, who are currently working on their second album, compose original music that the group says is inspired by interactions between the musicians and their cultures, by what they learn from each other, and by their different musical traditions and rhythms.

The musicians tour the world performing, often at universities where they try to engage students and create an international network to explore environmentally sustainable solutions to the conflict over the Nile.

Girgis said a conflict is brewing among the 11 nations of the Nile basin as the downstream countries of Egypt and Sudan — which are almost completely reliant on the river for water and power — accuse upstream countries of taking more than their fair share. Upstream countries argue that the colonial-era treaty that gave Egypt and Sudan the lion's share of Nile water rights is outdated and unfair.

At the center of the conflict is the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a hydroelectric mega-dam on the Nile slated for completion in 2017. Egypt has called on Ethiopia to suspend construction, citing fears that it would reduce the river’s flow. But Ethiopia has rejected Egypt’s demands, arguing that the project is necessary for the country’s economy.

Some analysts fear the diplomatic row could escalate into an armed confrontation

The Nile Project aims to encourage collaboration instead of conflict, and to find solutions that work for the entire Nile basin — not just individual countries.

“We take a much more holistic approach to sustainability,” Girgis said. “Cooperation is not just agreeing on whether to build a dam, but how it should be built, how big of a reservoir should be behind it — so it’s more about how it should be managed, and including the say of downstream countries in that decision.”

The group aims to inspire students through music, and to offer those living in Nile countries a “paradigm shift of rethinking their position in the Nile basin as Nile citizens, rather than Ethiopian or Egyptian,” Girgis said.

The project organizes post-concert workshops that give students opportunities to interact with experts from various related fields, and to encourage them to find their respective roles in addressing the Nile basin challenges.

“If I’m a journalism student and I realize there is a lack of exposure to the realities in these different countries, I can start a collective of journalists from these countries to write about what’s happening so all Nile news doesn’t just focus on the flashpoints the media is interested in, but also all of the interesting projects on the ground helping to solve these issues,” Girgis said.

The Nile Project is holding dozens of university residencies during its January-May U.S. tour, with workshops, panels, lectures and demonstrations to teach students about the Nile water issue. It is also launching a number of university programs in East Africa, Girgis said.

Workshop topics include "Crowdsourcing Solutions for an Environmentally Sustainable Nile Basin," "The Role of Musicians in Social Movements" and "The Nile and African Identity."

Fellowships will be offered to students from five countries to establish Nile Project campus groups, aimed to enable more students to join the dialogue and programs that connect the Nile area’s cultures and environmental landscape.

Civil society has an important role to play in finding solutions to the Nile conflict, Girgis said, adding that cultural diplomacy can help foster the type of collaboration needed.

“When we have environmental pressure, when we have climate change, when we have population growth — all of these different pressures can stretch our capacity and systems,” Girgis said, adding that the Nile Project’s efforts are meant to ensure that when that happens, it does not push the region “to resort to political or military solutions — but rather diplomatic solutions.”

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