Sharing the Waters of the Nile: Conflicts and Co-operation

, by  Larbi Bouguerra, Olivier Petitjean

The waters of the Nile represent an important resource for different countries that share this river’s catchment basin. For historical reasons Egypt has always exploited most of the river’s flow. The size of its population, as well as its almost total dependence on the waters of the Nile for its water supply, have made this country particularly touchy regarding any attempts by the countries situated upstream to undermine the existing way in which the waters are shared, or the building of new infrastructure. The Nile basin is therefore subject to recurrent political tension as well as to numerous initiatives aimed at introducing joint management of the waters by all the countries involved.

The Nile is 6,671 kilometres long. This makes it the second longest river in the world, after the Amazon. The watershed covers almost 3 million square kilometres, which is equivalent to the surface area of one tenth of the entire African continent. It is made up of the confluence of the Blue Nile and the White Nile, which occurs at Khartoum. The White Nile rises in Lake Victoria, which is an immense fresh-water reserve of 69,485 square kilometres. But the Blue Nile, which rises in Lake Tana (or Tsana), in Ethiopia, along with other Ethiopian rivers, is by far the greatest source of the waters of the Nile, and accounts for 84% on average of the river flow. This increases to 95% in the rainy season. Ten countries, Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya, as well as Eritrea, Rwanda, Burundi and the Congo-Kinshasa, share the Nile’s catchment basin. For historical reasons however, it is Egypt that has helped itself to the lion’s share. Nevertheless, the countries that lie upstream are increasingly questioning this situation.

Questioning the historical sharing of the waters

The sharing of the waters of the Nile is mainly governed by a treaty that was signed in 1959 between Egypt and the Sudan at the occasion of the building of the Aswan dam. This treaty, which is based on an estimated flow of 85 billion cubic meters at the Aswan dam, grants 55.6 to Egypt and 18.5 to the Sudan. This way of sharing was a reflection of the difference in population between the two countries, as well as their desire and ability to use the water both for agriculture and economic ends when the treaty was signed. This treaty followed various others that were signed in the colonial period (dating from the end of the 19th century). These agreements bore witness to the privileges that were granted by the British authorities to Egypt and its needs in water, compared with the countries situated upstream, including their own colonies (Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda). In 1891, when the Rome Protocol was signed between Italy and Great Britain on the borders between Eritrea and the Sudan, it stipulated that the Italian colonial authorities would refrain from building any dams on the river Atbara, the last great tributary of the Nile before it flows into the Mediterranean, to avoid reducing the river’s flow. Agreements that include similar clauses were concluded between Belgium, concerning the Congo (1894), with the Ethiopian empire (1902), with France, and also with Italy. This was important, given the Italian presence in Ethiopia and Eritrea (1906). The last major treaty of the colonial period was signed in 1929 between Egypt and the Sudan (which was at that time jointly occupied by Egypt and Britain). It again accords the privilege to Egyptian needs, and “the natural right” of this country to the waters of the Nile. All projects of dams or changing of the course of waters upstream was subjected to prior approval by the Egyptian authorities. The flow of the river at Aswan was divided as follows: 48 billion cubic meters for Egypt, 4 billion for the Sudan, with 32 billion that would continue to flow into the Mediterranean Sea.

It is the latter agreement that was revised in 1959, essentially to the benefit of the Sudan, and to a lesser extent of Egypt, and to the detriment of the Mediterranean sea (whose “share” was substantially reduced, which has also affected the delta region). The 1959 treaty was signed at a time when the infrastructure of all the countries that lie upstream were not widely developed, and when their population was substantially lower than today. Any projects that these countries might have to develop their installations and build dams on the Nile and its tributaries would have the result of reducing the flow to the Aswan dam, and therefore of potentially reducing the amount of water available to Egypt. It is therefore understandable that the East African countries wanted to renegotiate or do away with the existing treaties, which they consider anachronistic and marked by the seal of the colonial period, and that in no way take their interests into consideration. Egypt, on the other hand has shown a categorical refusal to re-examine its share of the waters of the Nile, and regularly leads people to believe that it is prepared to take military action to ensure the respect of what it considers as a natural right. And it is by far the leading military power in the region. An armed water-related conflict took place in the 18th century, between Egypt and Ethiopia.

The particularly sensitive nature of the question of the Nile for the Egyptians can be explained partly by historical and strongly symbolic reasons, and partially by a genuine need for water. There is an organic connection between the birth of the Egyptian civilisation and the floodwaters of the Nile, which led Herodotus to present Egypt as “a gift of the Nile” as early as the 5th century B.C. This close link has been reinforced in more recent times by the building of the Aswan dam under Nasser’s regime, as it symbolised Egyptian and Arab nationalism. This is all the more so, as Egypt has an undeniable need for water. The country is almost totally dependent on the Nile for its water supply (unlike those countries that are situated upstream and have other resources). It also has to cope with ever-increasing demands that are due to the needs of increased population. It is increasingly difficult to satisfy these needs because of urban growth and the problem of water pollution of the river. These needs are further increased by the various projects aimed at improving or recovering land for agricultural use (these projects have also become necessary because of the increased population). The most famous and controversial of these projects is the one at Toschka. This project quite literally aims to “green the desert”, and it requires 5 billion cubic litres of water per year, which corresponds to almost 20 billion more that their theoretical share of the Nile’s waters. The edginess of the Egyptian government is on the same scale as their vulnerability. Any announcement concerning a project linked to the Nile in another country is perceived as an issue of national security for Egypt.

Yet these are the very projects that have tended to increase in recent years. Ethiopia announced that they had planned grandiose projects – essentially dams – in order to increase the irrigated areas and to produce electricity. Uganda is also trying to catch up on its lack of electricity by building hydroelectric power stations on the river. The Sudan has also announced that they plan to build several new dams (they would result in flooding several sites of important historical value, just like the Aswan dam in its time). The Arab countries would finance these. Further upstream, the countries bordering Lake Victoria (Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya) are confronted by drought, and would like to gain access to the waters of this vast stretch of fresh water where the White Nile rises, in order to use it for agriculture and hydroelectric projects. With this in mind they are campaigning for the abrogation of the treaty that dates back to the colonial period, and that states that the lake is reserved for fishing and bathing. This treaty was imposed once again by the British to benefit the Egyptians. The latter responded by underlining the absence of control that had always existed in these countries as to the management of water resources, pollution and fisheries. Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda created a tripartite Commission of Lake Victoria to fight off criticism of this kind as well as to defend their interests against the countries that lie downstream.

Two additional factors complicate the situation. The first is global warming, the impact of which is still uncertain as far as the river is concerned, but whose impacts or premises have already become highly visible and dramatic in East Africa since the early 2000s, and have had an impact on the political stability in the region, as well as the situation in the Nile delta. The second factor consists of the disturbances linked to the geopolitical situation in the Arab world in general. The image of General Nasser and the Aswan dam, built thanks also to the close co-operation between Egypt and the Sudan, are a good illustration of the highly symbolic nature of the question of the waters of the Nile as viewed by Arab nationalism. Rightly or wrongly, the Egyptians suspect the Ethiopian and the Israeli governments of evil intentions aimed at them, hidden behind the agreements to build hydroelectric installations on the Blue Nile.

According to them, there is a tradition of the major powers using Ethiopia to bring pressure to bear on Egypt via the sensitive issue of the Nile, with a traditional counterpart of Egyptian support for local separatist movements. Conversely, the Egyptian reticence to intervene with the Sudanese authorities on the question of the Darfour hides the wish to not alienate a neighbour and ally that they need to defend their rights to the Nile. This is in spite of the fact that they have considerable influence, and are opposed to all the UN sanctions. Israel is also involved in building dams on the Nile in Uganda; this supports the fears (not to say paranoia) of the Egyptians. Certain existing canals already bring the waters of the Nile very close to the Israeli border...

But co-operation does exist

Even though the situation is tense and potentially explosive, many initiatives and joint projects outweigh the motives for conflict and they are the reflection of undeniable constructive good will on the part of the countries involved. They also demonstrate the importance that the international community attaches to the question of the Nile. This river has always been one of the main pathways for communication and exchange between the North and the South of the continent. The countries that are involved are all members of a co-operative structure for managing the river and resolving conflicts, known as the Nile Basin Initiative, NBI. It is based in Nairobi (Kenya) and Kampala (Uganda). There have been technical discussions underway for several years aimed at a new treaty. The signature of this treaty has been declared to be imminent for several months. There are only a few details left to be resolved. But the delay in signing shows how delicate the nature of a new agreement is, as it means modifying the status quo without modifying it too much... During the summer of 2009, another summit was held; it brought together the ministers in charge of water in all the countries of the Basin, and was supposed to have led to the signature of the new treaty. But this was finally pushed back by another six months.

Egypt has not shown any absolute ill will regarding the countries that lie upstream. On the contrary, they are trying to take steps (while still remaining in control of the situation...) to launch various initiatives of co-operation. They have launched a policy of technical co-operation with the countries that lie downstream, called a policy of Endugu (Undertanding in Kiswahili). They have also co-operated with Sudan on the dam project at Merowe, 350 kilometres north of Khartoum. Thee Bujagali dam in Uganda, where the Nile exits Lake Victoria, is also supported by the NBI, and therefore by Egypt (although it has come in for heavy criticism by environmentalists). According to observers, this is the key to the problem: Egypt could reach an agreement that does not undermine their share of the Nile with the trade off of increased technical and financial aid for the countries upstream.

The support of the international community is critical in helping to encourage and consolidate co-operation between the countries that share the Nile. This concerns financial aid, first and foremost. The introduction of the NBI has definitely helped to gain more international aid, as the case of the Bujagali dam shows. The World Bank theoretically refuses to invest in Sudan, due to the political situation of the country, but it still does so through the NBI. Technical support and expertise are equally important and the joint initiatives involving all the countries show that they provide a means of strengthening co-operation and helping people to work together. It is particularly worth noting the project, supported by Italy and the FAO, that involves information sharing and water management of the resources of the Nile should help people to take better-informed decisions. Another example is the Research Programme for the Nile Basin, of the University of Bergen (Norway) aimed at training high level personnel who will be responsible in the ten countries involved in water and eco-system management for the Nile Basin.

- Summary of « Le Nil : conflictualités et initiatives de paix », a collection of articles on the Nile basin by Larbi Bouguerra. C.f. All references and sources can be found at this address.
- For the current state on the recent negotiation within the NBI, c.f. Differences ’Narrowing’ Over Nile Waters, Adam Morrow et Khaled Moussa Al-Omrani, IPS News, 21st August 2009.

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