In Depth


In Depth

Nile: Troubled waters

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.

Is Africa's population growing too fast?

Ndirangu, Mwaura, Author of Kenya Today


“Populations are so dispersed that it’s very difficult for innovation to occur”


Most economic development comes from an increase in population. When you study nations like ancient Egypt and you ask yourself, why did these people develop so much while the rest were still living in the Stone Age, the first thing you discover is that the population congestion around places like the River Nile or the Euphrates, or the Indus River in India, forced them to come up with solutions to all the problems they created, because necessity is the mother of invention. It’s the same thing with Africa. In Africa you find the populations are so dispersed over a wide area that it’s very difficult for any kind of innovation to occur. We have a very rigid border system in Africa. My attitude is that people should be able to move from wherever to wherever without any complication, without any trouble, because immigrants help economies grow. 

Chris ?Ogedengbe?, Director of programme support and services, Population Council, Nigeria


“We cannot ?meet the nutritional needs of these people”


The current total fertility rate of Nigeria is 5.7 children per woman. At that rate, the population will double in 15-20 years, from 130m to 260m. In the northern region, girls get married at a tender age; at 15, 70% of them are married, many to older men, and so they become vulnerable to HIV/AIDS. If the population of Nigeria doubles, would it able to provide basic things for the people, especially vulnerable people aged under 15 and over 65? We cannot meet the nutritional needs of these people. Even to get the fertility rate down from 5.7% to 4.7% will take a lot of effort on the part of government, NGOs and international agencies. There will be a population explosion. There is no way we can disassociate politics from our way of life, and population is a factor. The issue is the quality of the population. If the quality is high, definitely we will have a more manageable democracy. 


Jean-Pierre Guengant?, Resident representative, Institut de Recherche pour le Développement, Burkina Faso  


“Economic development will be very difficult to realise”


The population in Sub-Saharan Africa increased from 100m in 1900 to 770m in 2000 and may reach 2bn by 2050. Such unprecedented growth, driven by high fertility, has been a strong handicap to having the human capital of good quality needed for development. The poorest have on average six children or more. The urban classes, better educated, about three. The problem is that nobody seems ready to say: “Look, having too many children will put all of us back.” At the present pace of very slow fertility decline, it will take 100 years or more to achieve what Latin America, the Caribbean and Asia have achieved over the past 50 years: demographic transition and women’s reproductive rights. Continued high population growth in a global context of recession definitely makes economic development, education and health for all very difficult to realise.

Should there be a United States of Africa?


Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem?, Deputy director for Africa, UN Millennium Campaign


??“The freedom ?of people to move, work and trade”


In the age of globalisation, the bigger the better, and the idea of African unity is not new. I am interested in the basic infrastructure that reclaims Africa for Africans, in terms of the freedom of our people to move, settle, work and trade amongst ourselves. Africa can begin to take the firm steps that will lead eventually to an AU government or a federation of African states in the future. Part of the reform necessary is to elect a pan-African parliament on universal adult suffrage of all Africans, the way European elections are held. That way, pan-Africanism ceases to be a conference matter and becomes part of the domestic agenda. President Muammar el Qadhafi has not invented pan-Africanism, he is only lending his political support and financial resources to say, ‘let us put our money where our mouth is and move this process forward’.


Nkosana Moyo?, Partner, Actis


??“The fundamental rationale has to be an economic one”


I think there’s got to be a two-speed approach. States that are ready up front can begin the process and allow a mechanism which clearly articulates the internal self-governance disciplines required by a state before it is admitted to such a club. The fundamental rationale has to be an economic one. Quite a lot of African states could be considered unviable entities. When you start looking at the economics of viability in a globalised world, you cannot help but be driven to an economic amalgamation of one sort or another. I think the problem at the moment is the steam and the emotion that come from personalising it and asking the question of whether Muammar el Qadhafi is the appropriate party at this time to be motivating such an initiative. As long as there is clarity about what countries need to do before they can be admitted to such an arrangement, Qadhafi could be the catalyst.


Yao Graham?, Coordinator, Third World Network??


“The difference is about how to achieve it”


Africa’s people predominantly support a United States of Africa. Among Africa’s politicians the difference is about how to achieve it. The reality is that even a ‘Now!’ stance requires steps that the gradualists will accept. Even as African leaders are fiddling, particular forms of unity and fragmentation are being imposed by external influences, for example by the EU through the its Economic Partnership Agreements, which are completely undermining the logic and fabric of Africa’s home-grown conceptions and approaches to unity. Place alongside this the histrionics and impractical stances of Muammar el Qadhafi, the unpredictable champion of ‘Unity Now!’, and it becomes clear that the issue is not whether a United States of Africa is needed, but rather the absence of the critical mass of the type of political leadership needed to achieve it.

Aid in Crisis: Who is helping whom?

International aid agencies are under attack – rich countries are cutting their budgets and African governments are questioning their motives 

Last Updated on Wednesday, 08 February 2012 15:42


Absolute monarchs and ?the freedom of the press


Bouba DialloMy children, it is with great sadness that I explain to you why I can no longer carry on with my work.?


It is with a heavy heart that I sit at this table, not to write news stories as is normally the case, but to tell you something in confidence: it is no longer feasible for me to carry on working in journalism, no matter how honourable people around the world think this profession is.


?In Niger, as in most parts of Africa, this job is hard, very hard. Working for the press is tantamount to being a prisoner. We are viewed by governments and lobby groups alike as pestilential spoilsports. This could be because we try to influence the expenditures of our officials in the public interest and that this is simply not acceptable to African leaders. Even when they reach power through the ballot box, our leaders are impervious to good governance and to any criticism by a journalist. Once in power, they become absolute monarchs. They believe themselves to be above the law and claim power over life and death.


So-called democrats can send a journalist to jail or have him beaten up for a misplaced comma. Pius Ndjawé has been arrested 126 times by President Paul Biya’s regime in Cameroon. Others less fortunate have been killed, as was the case in Burkina Faso with Norbert Zongo or in The Gambia with Haidara Daida. In some countries in the continent, reporters have simply gone missing, notably in Eritrea and Ethiopia.??


The situation may not be quite as alarming in Niger, but last year, eight of our journalists were in prison and one was in exile. This year we have already seen four journalists jailed in Niamey, one of whom is being detained for two months. In addition, on 21 February two Nigerien citizens were arrested and held in custody for having drawn a caricature of our president. Charged with having insulted the head of state, after seven days in detention they were eventually released. Niger’s Higher Communication Council – a supposedly independent administrative authority meant to “guarantee and assure the freedom and the protection of the press” – has become an instrument of repression. Getting access to information from the public administration is next to impossible.?


Another factor is the sheer difficulty of survival for our newspapers. As the papers have no financial support, they have no economic independence.


?Part of the blame, too, can be placed on us journalists. Many entered the job as fortune hunters and so the basic rules of the job are blithely ignored, leaving real journalists ashamed to be associated with the business. We are faced with a choice between mediocre content or empty newspapers.?


After so many years of hard work, my hopes have been dashed. I wanted to bring about change, to eradicate the growing ignorance in our society and to encourage the exchange of ideas to achieve development. But I have reached the end of the road, which is why I ask you to understand. Please reassure yourselves, my dear children, writing has become a drug for me, so I can write something else…??


Your loving father. 

A fractured nation


Those who fled the bloody reign of Sékou Touré have been kept at arm’s length, though a thaw may begin to bring them home to help Guinea’s development

Last Updated on Friday, 02 March 2012 16:11



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