In DepthFrontlineNile: Troubled waters


Posted on Monday, 25 May 2009 12:46

Nile: Troubled waters

By Ashok Swain and Isabel Nanton

Some 300 million Africans from ten different countries live in the Nile basin and compete to use its waters for farming, power, drinking and sanitation

The growing tensions over the Nile, the economic lifeline of eastern and northern Africa, follow a geopolitical tradition that dates back to the pharaohs. Egypt’s agriculture and its food security are critically dependent on its control of the Nile; what is changing is the fast-growing demand for water from other countries along the river’s basin. Back in 1979, Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat said: “The only matter that will take Egypt to war is water.” Thirty years later, there are still few effective mechanisms to resolve the growing political and economic disputes over the Nile’s waters.

In Africa, the Nile is claimed to be even longer than the Amazon, and its waters are shared by ten countries in the east and north of the continent: Rwanda, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt.

From its major source of Lake Victoria, the White Nile flows 6,625km northward through Uganda and into Sudan where, at Khartoum, it meets the Blue Nile, which originates in Lake Tana, situated 1,850 metres above sea level in the Ethiopian highlands and collects its flow from tributaries in Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Sudan over a distance of 1,529km. From the confluence of the White and Blue Nile at Khartoum, the Nile flows northward into Egypt and on to the Mediterranean.

Nile facts
6,825km in length
Annual flow of 84m megalitres
300m people live in the Nile basin,
half of whom directly depend on its
waters for their livelihoods
Egypt uses the nile for 95% of its
total water needs

Modest but vital

The Nile is a major resource for socioeconomic activities in the Nile basin countries. Though it serves a large population, the Nile’s average annual discharge of 84bn cubic metres is modest in comparison to the other major river systems in Africa. Due to growing populations, increasing water shortages constitute the single greatest threat to the basin’s food security.

Egypt is almost completely dependent on the Nile, which provides more than 95% of its water needs. The first agreement exclusively dealing with sharing and allocating the water of the Nile was signed in 1929 between Sudan, represented by Britain at the time, and Egypt. The agreement allocated 48bn cubic metres to Egypt and 4bn to Sudan. From the 1930s, as Sudan began to irrigate its deserts, its demand for water increased. As a result, on the eve of its independence and following the Egyptian revolution in 1952, the administration in Sudan demanded a renegotiation, and a new agreement was signed in 1959. Based on new calculations, Egypt receives 55.5bn cubic metres of water, with 18.5bn allocated to Sudan.

Demographic crunch

Egypt is already using most of the flow of the Nile and it plans to use even more. The population of Egypt is projected to grow to 96m by 2026 and could reach 115m before it stabilises around 2065. In spite of Egypt, using most of its share of the Nile for irrigation, it at present imports more than half of its food grains. Increasing demand for food brings further pressure on scarce water supplies. Egypt also plans to create new towns and industrial areas in the desert to make living space for more than one fifth of its population. Egypt’s water requirements have also increased due to greater irrigation works resulting from land reclamation projects in the middle of its western desert. Adding to Egypt’s precarious water situation, the evaporation from the surface of the 600km-long Lake Nasser apparently exceeds the earlier estimated amount.

Egypt and Sudan population

Egypt has long used its relative economic, diplomatic and military strength to maintain its supremacy over the Nile’s water, a position which has remained mostly unchallenged. Until the mid-1990s, several upstream countries were plagued by political instability, internal conflicts and economic distress. Their improved political and economic stability, growing populations and national demands for economic development have helped them to develop their water resources.

Water is very unevenly distributed in the basin. The upstream White Nile countries are well endowed with water resources, while the Blue Nile countries suffer scarce water supply. The White Nile countries are determined to undertake various hydro-power projects and have come together with Ethiopia in their opposition to the 1959 agreement between Sudan and Egypt. They are now asking for a basin-based sharing arrangement. These developments have posed challenges to the relations between the countries in the basin.

Water wars?

The real threat to Egypt’s future water supplies comes from the Blue Nile basin, where three rivers (Blue Nile, Sobat and Atbara) contribute more than 85% to the total Nile flows reaching Lake Nasser. Ethiopia has the basin’s most suitable locations for large dam construction, and Sudan has the basin’s largest potential for irrigated agriculture. 

Sudan is the largest country in the African continent and has a population of 35m people, of whom 70% are dependent on agriculture. Sudan has managed to cultivate only 16.7m hectares of its land out of a potential 105m, and it needs more water to meet food demands. Its plan to irrigate more land will raise demand for water. 

Since the 1959 agreement, Egypt has tried to push Sudanese policy to favour maintaining the status quo on Nile water sharing, openly supporting President Jaafar Nimeiri’s hold on power in the 1970s and early 1980s. Egypt persuaded Sudan to construct the Jonglei Canal to divert up to 4.7bn cubic metres of water annually from the wetlands back to the White Nile, of which 3.8bn were to be allocated to Egypt. But the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army halted the digging of the Canal in 1984 and after Nimeiri was overthrown in 1985, Egypt’s relations with Sudan deteriorated quickly.

Hydropolitics and diplomacy

Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan
tussle over water. Read more.

Sudan’s role in the failed attempt on the life of Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak in Addis Ababa in June 1995 further charged the atmosphere between the two neighbours. Hassan al-Turabi, leader of Sudan’s National Islamic Front, threatened to stop the water to Egypt by redirecting the Nile’s flow. President Mubarak aggressively responded to this Sudanese threat in an interview with the Al-Akber newspaper, saying: “Those who play with fire in Khartoum... will push us to confrontation and to defend our rights and lives.” 

Before, Sudan had only a limited capacity to develop large-scale water projects, but foreign investment and its own oil revenues have helped it become a real competitor for more Nile water resources. With Chinese and Arab funding, Sudan has built the huge Merowe Dam, initially for hydropower purposes but also potentially for irrigation. It is also increasing the height of the old Roseires Dam to boost its hydro-power production and has plans to extend its capacity for irrigated agriculture, taking its water extraction from the Nile above its quota in the 1959 agreement. Gradually, Sudan is moving strongly to challenge Egyptian domination in the basin.

Hungry for irrigation

The other major challenge to Egypt comes from Ethiopia, which plans to harness the waters of the Blue Nile and other tributaries. Ethiopia cultivates 90,000 ha of irrigated land, which is only 4% of the potentially irrigable land in the country. Having suffered severe famines in the past, Ethiopia wants to achieve food self-sufficiency at any cost. Its population is growing faster than that of Egypt, and, by 2025, it could have more people to feed than Egypt. 

Nile Basin Initiative

River basin countries are no
longer talking in shrill tones.
Read more.

Ethiopia’s water-development plans worry Egypt because they could substantially reduce the water flow in the Nile. Given its needs and with the head-waters of the Nile being one of its few natural resources, Ethiopia is serious about using more of the Nile’s water for its own use. Relations have been difficult for many years. Back in 1979, Ethiopia’s ruler Mengistu Haile Mariam criticised Egypt’s water-transfer plan for Sinai and threatened to reduce the Blue Nile’s flows in retaliation. Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat responded by warning: “If Ethiopia takes any action to block our right to the Nile water, there will be no alternative for us but to use force.” Before his fall in 1991, Mengistu had unsuccessfully tried to obtain the support of Israel and even invited some Israeli engineers to help Ethiopia in developing its water potential. In 1990, Egypt was instrumental in blocking an AfDB loan to Ethiopia for water-development projects.

Since the mid-1990s, Ethiopia has emerged from civil war and famine into a phase of accelerated growth and economic development. While Egypt still uses its diplomatic influence to limit international support for Ethiopian projects, financial assistance from Western countries has increased. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s government has developed water master plans for all the Ethiopian river basins with the help of international consultants. Several water projects have been initiated unilaterally. Besides several micro-dams in the highlands, Ethiopia has constructed a large hydropower dam, the Tekeze Dam, on the Atbara River. Such projects have become possible due to favourable construction contracts offered by China. Ethiopia is hopeful of receiving further Chinese support for its planned irrigation projects in the Nile basins, including a controversial project at Tana-Beles.

Nile flow

Ethiopia’s action increasingly demonstrates that it is not prepared to wait for basin-wide agreements to go ahead with its own large irrigation projects. The emergence of China as a powerful alternative lender facilitates possible unilateral actions by Ethiopia. This certainly doubles Egyptian worries about its future water supplies from the Nile.

With support from the World Bank and a wide range of other donors, a basin-wide organisation, the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) was launched in February 1999, of which all but Eritrea are members (though Eritrea participates as an observer). However, over the past decade, the NBI has not been able to transform the mind-sets of basin countries, which tend to think about Nile water development from a national perspective rather than adopting a basin-wide strategy. Thanks to the principle of consensus, the NBI has made some progress on less-controversial issues, but it has failed on critical water-sharing matters involving Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt. With the core issues of water sharing in the Blue Nile basin still not addressed, the NBI has not been able to move ahead in bringing real and effective cooperation among the basin states. For the NBI to be effective, Egypt needs to be persuaded to prepare for a new agreement over Nile water sharing, which should at least include Ethiopia as a party.

Cooperation and conflict

To resolve the issue of water scarcity and enhance regional cooperation, Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt need to build a strong cooperative framework for the use of the Nile’s water. The Ethiopian highlands could be used for common storage of water and hydro-power generation for the three countries. Only constant cooperation among them can prevent future military conflicts over scarce water supplies and bring trust and development in the region. The first steps have been taken, but pressures on the Nile’s limited resources will only increase over time.

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