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Water Security in the Nile Basin360°ANALYSIS

Cooperation is key in sharing the resources of the world’s longest river.

The Nile is the longest river in the world, flowing for more than 6,660 kilometers from its origins in the hills of Burundi and Rwanda to the Mediterranean Sea. The river consists of two distinct basins: the White Nile and the Blue Nile. It has a basin area of more than 3 million square kilometers, extending over 11 countries that share the river with very distinct variations, interests, contributions and uses.

The stakes and interests of Egypt, Ethiopia, South Sudan and Sudan are classified as very high; those of Uganda as high; the interests of Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania as moderate; and those of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Eritrea as low. Those variations present themselves quite well in the fact that Ethiopia contributes about 86% of the total flow of the Nile waters, but uses only about 1%, while Egypt and Sudan use almost the entire flow of the river, and do not contribute any to its flow.

The Nile River faces a number of acute challenges. Its annual flow is limited to only 84 billion cubic meters as measured at Aswan in Egypt. This amount represents 6% of the annual flow of the Amazon and 25% of the Zambezi. A second major challenge is population growth. Close to 250 million people in these 11 countries live or depend on the Nile, and the number is expected to exceed 300 million by 2025. Climate change and environmental degradation are other challenges facing the river.

Dividing the Resources

The limited amount of water, the steady growth in population, and the current paradigm of contribution and uses of the waters of the Nile have heightened the issue of water security in the basin. Egypt and Sudan, the two lower riparians of the Nile, cling strongly to what they have termed as their “existing uses and rights” and insist that such uses and rights are non-negotiable, and cannot be harmed by other riparians’ uses.

They base these uses and rights on a number of treaties concluded during the first 60 years of the last century. The first of these treaties was concluded in 1902 between Great Britain and Ethiopia, which prevents Ethiopia from carrying out any project on the Nile that would affect Egypt’s water interests. Another treaty was concluded in 1929 between Great Britain on behalf of Sudan and its equatorial lakes colonies, and Egypt, which included a provision similar to that of the 1902 treaty.

Nile River

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The third treaty is the Nile Waters Agreement 1959 between Egypt and Sudan, under which the two countries allocated the entire Nile waters to themselves, leaving nothing for the upper riparians. Those treaties are totally rejected by the upper riparians, who refer to them as “the colonial treaties,” although only the 1929 qualifies as such.

On the other hand, the upper riparians are demanding equitable and reasonable utilization of the Nile waters among all the riparians, in accordance with the principles of international water law. They have challenged the validity of the 1902 and 1929 treaties, and have further indicated that they are not parties to the 1959 agreement and have not consented to it, and are, therefore, not bound by it. Consequently, the competing demands over the limited Nile waters have started escalating, and are becoming increasingly compounded by the steady increase in population, and intertwined in the overall Nile politics.

Nile Basin Initiative

In an attempt to bring the Nile riparians together to discuss and try to resolve these differences, the World Bank and some other donors started in 1997 to facilitate the establishment of a formal setting for cooperation among all the Nile riparians, which was called the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI).

The NBI was established as an intergovernmental organization, and has been viewed as a transitional arrangement to foster cooperation and sustainable development of the Nile River for the benefit of its inhabitants. It is guided by a shared vision “to achieve sustainable socio-economic development through equitable utilization of, and benefit from, the common Nile Basin water resources.”

The main objective of the NBI has been to conclude a cooperative framework agreement that would incorporate the principles, structures and institutions of the NBI, and that would be inclusive of all the Nile riparians. Work on the Nile Basin Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) started immediately after the NBI was formally established in 1999, and continued for more than 10 years.

However, the process has run into some major difficulties as a result of the resurfacing and hardening of the respective positions of the riparians over the colonial treaties, as well as Egyptian and Sudanese claims to their existing rights and uses of the Nile waters on the one hand, and the demands for equitable and reasonable utilization of the Nile waters by the upper riparians on the other.

In an attempt to address the controversy over the demands of Egypt and Sudan and the position of the upper riparians, the CFA drafters introduced the concept of water security. Article 14 of the CFA defines water security to mean “the right of all Nile Basin States to reliable access to, and uses of the Nile River system for health, agriculture, livelihoods, production and the environment.” However, this approach did not satisfy Egyptian and Sudanese claims to what they see as their existing rights and uses.


A second major challenge is population growth. Close to 250 million people in these 11 countries live or depend on the Nile, and the number is expected to exceed 300 million by 2025.


Egypt and Sudan demanded and insisted that Article 14 of the CFA include a specific provision, to be added at the end of the article, which would oblige the basin states “not to adversely affect the water security and current uses and rights of any other Nile Basin State.” The position of Egypt and Sudan revived the longstanding disputes related to the treaties discussed above—Egypt’s veto power, and Egyptian and Sudanese claims to their existing uses of and rights to the Nile waters under the 1959 Nile Agreement.

This position is tantamount to a demand for an unequivocal recognition of those treaties as well as Egypt’s veto power. No wonder, then, that this position was totally rejected by the upper riparian states. They suggested, as a compromise, leaving the issues related to Article 14 to the Nile Basin Commission to be established after the CFA enters into force. This compromise was rejected by Egypt and Sudan.

Thus, rather than assisting in the resolution of controversies over the principles of equitable and reasonable utilization, and the obligation against causing significant harm to existing rights and uses, introduction of the third concept of water security simply widened the gap and exacerbated the differences over the two principles between the Nile lower and upper riparians, and on the CFA as a whole.

The CFA needs ratification by six countries to enter into force. Thus far, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Tanzania have ratified the CFA. Hence, the differences over the CFA persisted and have been exacerbated by the signature and ratification of the CFA.

The CFA lays down some basic principles for the protection, use, conservation and development of the Nile Basin. Those principles include cooperation among the states of the Nile River Basin on the basis of sovereign equality, territorial integrity, mutual benefit and good faith, sustainable development, equitable and reasonable utilization, and prevention of significant harm. It establishes the Nile Basin Commission (NBC) for promoting and facilitating the implementation of the principles, rights and obligations set forth in the CFA, and for serving as an institutional framework for cooperation among the Nile Basin states.

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam

Less than a year after the signing of the CFA by five states, and as if the differences over the CFA were not enough, Ethiopia announced in March 2011 that it was embarking on building the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile, about 20 kilometers from the Sudanese border. The GERD is 145 meters high, with a storage capacity of 74 BCM. The installed capacity of the GERD is 6,000 megawatts, with 16 turbines—each expected to generate 375 megawatts. The cost is estimated at close to $5 billion, which Ethiopia announced it would cover from its own resources, with no resort to external funding. The GERD would, upon completion, be the largest dam in Africa, and the 10th largest in the world. It is worth adding here that the hydropower potential of Ethiopia exceeds 45,000 megawatts, with 30,000 from the Nile alone.

Nile River

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Egypt and Sudan opposed the GERD vehemently, contending that the GERD will decrease considerably the amount of Nile waters reaching Sudan and flowing thereafter to Egypt. Egypt further claimed that the GERD will turn a large part of its irrigated lands into desert, and will result in a considerable decrease of the hydropower generated by the Aswan High Dam. Sudan was also concerned about the safety of the GERD, and the tragic consequences it would face if the dam were to break down.

However, meetings between the three countries continued, on and off, at both the technical and political levels for almost four years. During those years the GERD became, gradually and incrementally, a fait accompli, and finally Sudan and Egypt accepted that reality. This acceptance was explicitly reflected in the Agreement on Declaration of Principles on the GERD signed by the heads of state of the three countries in March 2015. In return, Ethiopia agreed that two studies on the effects of the GERD on Sudan and Egypt would be carried out by independent international consultants, and indicated that it would take the recommendations of the studies into account. Ethiopia also promised to give priority in the sale of the GERD power to Sudan and Egypt.

The Way Forward

Acceptance by Sudan and Egypt of the GERD is no doubt a landmark in the history of the Nile, and should be seen as a first and major step in the direction of cooperation. It has also laid to rest the persistent rumors and reports about an imminent armed conflict between Egypt and Ethiopia over the GERD.

The Nile waters are limited, but the Nile itself is a source for substantial benefits that could be collectively harnessed, developed and shared by all the riparians. The Lake Victoria’s wealth of fisheries; the vast irrigable lands of Sudan; the immense livestock fortune and extensive swamps of South Sudan; the huge hydropower potential of Ethiopia; and Egypt’s large capabilities in agro-industries are all benefits that can be sustainably harnessed from the Nile River.

However, these tremendous benefits can only be realized through genuine cooperation and planned collective action. Indeed, only through such cooperation can the Nile Basin countries move beyond the narrow definition of the volumetric water security, and expand in the realms of food and power security, all achievable from the Nile River, so as to pull the more than 250 million Nile inhabitants from hunger, poverty and darkness.

This way, the shared vision of the NBI of February 1999 of achieving sustainable socioeconomic development through equitable utilization of, and benefit from, the common Nile Basin water resources can finally be realized.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Clicksahead / Givaga / Egyptian StudioShutterstock.com 


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