Nile Waters--Hydrological Cooperation vs Hydropolitics

Nile Waters--Hydrological Cooperation Vs Hydropolitics


Paper Presented by Girma Amare to the VIII th Nile 2002 Conference (26 June 2000)


What makes the Nile river unique and challenging among most international basins,

besides its remoteness and the manifestation of  disproportionate level of

development within the basin, is the almost total absence of any meaningful

cooperation and comprehensive agreement among the ten watercourse states. This

negative feature which is peculiar to the Nile has become an obstacle, so far, for any

effective cooperation, development of joint projects and investment in the basin -

thus causing the Nile to flow  without any significant contribution to the welfare of

its close to 300 million inhabitants who are among the most impoverished and where

five of the world's ten Least Developed Countries are found.


The major impediment on the road towards effective cooperation on the Nile, has

been the position of some lower riparian states who are bent on appropriating the

entire flow of the river to the detriment of other rightful states. There seems to be an

entrenched desire not to accept the legitimate rights of other riparian states to share

in its bountiful resources. Both history and nature have collided to lend credence to

this deep seated desire, sustained by a myth that "Egypt is the gift  of the Nile" to

assert monopolistic claim over the entire course of the river.


Historically, the reasons giving rise for such unfair status quo could be attributed to

British colonialism which had a deep interest in the control of the Nile for its cotton

plantation to supply its industries in Europe. "The colonial treaties and the

condominium over Sudan were designed mainly to protect Egypt's interests in the

basin, since for many strategic and economic reasons Egypt  had become the most

important Nile basin riparian state for the British colonizers."[1] After independence

Egypt pursued more or less similar goals in securing the flow of the river to meet its

own interests.


In contrast, upper riparian countries who were embroiled in endless conflicts and

general instability, were unable to give full attention to the development of their

water resources. In the absence of formidable challenge, Egypt in particular, carried

out  series of major water projects that had the consequences of not only

appropriating large portions of the Nile waters, but also bringing the flow within its

sovereign jurisdiction. It deployed all human, material and scientific resources to put

in place the legal and institutional structures that could enable it acquire full

monopoly over the river.


In this connection, some of the major step taken by Egypt,  by co-opting Sudan,

was the conclusion of the 1959 Agreement to appropriate all  the waters of the Nile

between themselves. In the agreement Sudan as a junior partner, was allotted 18.5

billion cubic meters of water while Egypt retained 55.5 billion cubic meters  __ which

is the lions share.


Egypt and Sudan have made a provision in the Agreement "to study together" and

"adopt unified view" on other riparian claims to share in the Nile waters.   "If such

studies result in the possibility of allocating an amount of the Nile waters to one or

the other of these territories, then the value of this amount as at Aswan shall be

deducted in equal shares from the share of each of the two Republics."


Neither of the upper riparian states were consulted nor given advance notice.

Nevertheless, all the upstream states have dully rejected the 1959 Agreement and

have expressly stated, at different occasions, that they are not bound by it on the

basis of the cardinal principle in the Law of Treaties: res inter alios acta. 


Egypt and Sudan, however, continue to act as if the Nile starts in Sudan and ends in

Egypt. They have refused to heed to the call by other riparian states for the

equitable utilization of their shared resources. Despite divergence of views between

the two down stream countries in the use of the Nile waters, they have, however,

found it in their common strategic interest to forge common positions and challenge

any move by upstream countries to utilize water from the Nile. This uncompromising

attitude has always marred relations between the upper and lower riparian countries

of the Nile.


With the aim of consolidating absolute control over the Nile, Egypt has proceeded

with the construction of the Aswan High Dam within its own territory by rejecting

other less controversial projects like the Century Scheme. In the words of Arun, the

construction of the Aswan High Dam made a marked departure from former plans

known a the Century Plans, which had the aim of building  series of dams along the

entire course of the river, to regulate and optimize the use of the river among all the

riparian states.


    ( Hydro-politics in the Third World, Conflict and Cooperation in

        International River Basins (19990) by Arun P.Elhance)


                   The Century Storage Scheme


The principal objective of the Century Scheme was the regulation of the whole of the

Nile river as an integrated and natural basin. "The basic notion is simple: to remove

the unpredictable element from the Nile discharge would require storing several

successive annual floods; that is, storing annual difference between real needs and

total discharge"[2]  The proposed projects on the Nile were expected to benefit all

the countries on the entire course of the river i.e. both the upper and  lower riparian

states.  The projects had the ardent support of  the Sudan and the upper riparian



However, all the proposals under the Century Scheme were abandoned in favor of

the construction of a single giant Aswan High Dam which would provide Egypt with

adequate supply of water and complete control over the whole of the Nile. The main

objective of the High Aswan Dam was to secure a source of water within Egyptian

territory and creating  a strong bargaining position in future hydropolitics  with



Branded as Nasser's "pyramid"  by some critics, and "the most recent (and surely

not the last)  manifestation of Egypt's struggle to dominate rather than coexist with

the Nile Valley, the dam has drawn fire and acclaim since its very inception in the late

1950s[3]".  In the words of Arun " The  Century Storage Scheme had a major flaw

from the Egyptian perspective in that all of the proposed projects were to be located

outside its territory.  This did not sit well with the highly nationalistic  leadership

that came to power in Egypt  under Nasser in 1952."[4] The multi project Century

Storage Scheme proposal of 1946 was thus mostly put aside in favor of the plan for

one giant water project within Egyptian  territory.  Thus the Century Storage Scheme

which if pursued to successful completion would have opened wide opportunities

for fostering interstate cooperation between the countries of the Nile, was dashed

simply to satisfy the monopolistic desire of one single country- Egypt.


                  The Nile as a Hydrological Unit


In contrast to geo-political considerations and national interests of states, the

hydrological nature of river basins do not encourage or lend support to separate or

unilateral developments.   By its own nature, the utilization of transboundary rivers

dictates joint and cooperative  management to attain optimal and sustainable

development.  River basins form a system which need to be managed as an

integrated whole to derive maximum benefits.  Unlike sovereign territories of states,

international watercourses do not follow geographical or political boundaries.  They

are anathema to geographical boundaries and do not recognize political divisions of



To derive maximum benefits, avoid wastage, and save water, it is absolutely

essential that states sharing international watercourses forge closer cooperation

among themselves to optimize this finite commodity.  It is in their own national

interest to conserve and develop their shared natural resources through mutual

consultation and cooperation.  Water after all is a most essential biological need and

valuable economic good.  Competition and rivalry  will only help to deplete it and

cause permanent damage to the very resource on which livelihood and welfare of the

people depend.  Hence, states bordering international watercourses have no other

option but to cooperate.


The greatest dilemma and challenge, however, under international law in the use of

international water resources is how best to strike a balance between this inherent

natural attribute of water as a hydrological unit and the conflicting interests of states

to utilize its waters to serve their ever increasing demands.  The dilemma is even

more compounded, today, considering the rapid growth and advancement in

technology which can enable one country to appropriate all waters of a given shared

river for itself.  The search for solution then should, out of necessity, be compatible

with the environmental, ecological sustainability of the  whole basin while at the

same line satisfying the vital needs of each riparian state for the use of water.


It is only in the proper understanding and appreciation of  this  inherent nature and

complexity of rivers,  that states are compelled to assume their concomitant

obligation to try, no matter what, to resolve their differences and enter into

cooperation to achieve optimal and sustainable development of their common fresh

water resources.  In this regard,  water in its own nature, having multiplicity of use

can afford a number of possibilities in the search for solutions.  Based  on the

natural phenomenon of rivers, a number of countries in many parts of the world have

devised various means and  ways, depending on  their relative advantage to share

and develop international watercourses traversing their territories. It is estimated

that there are close to 300 agreements between states dealing with the sharing of

this vital resource.


The Nile can not be an exception to this general law of international rivers.  It is

incumbent upon the ten riparian states to seat and  negotiate a workable formula for

the sharing of the Nile bounty.


Unfortunately, hydropolitics has taken the front seat in  the inter play of forces

among the riparian States of the Nile.  Their relationship is marred with suspicion

and misunderstanding. There is, mistrust and recrimination among the Nile States

regarding each others motives.  It is not uncommon  for Egypt to always find an

Israeli conspiracy on any project in Ethiopia to raise sometimes deliberately false

alarms as a deterrent to any challenge to its monopolistic claim over the Nile.


One would get lots of insight from the recently held conference in Cairo aptly

entitled the "Arab Waters". As its very name signifies there is a systematic and well

thought out campaign to portray Nile as an exclusively Arab  water, and the rest

posing threats against Arab interests, although the Nile  wholly originates in African

States.  There could be no purpose served in such exercise unless aimed at driving a

wedge between what are called African and Arab States.  After all, only two of the

ten riparian states of the Nile can correctly be referred to as Arabs while the rest are

Africans.  Engaging in such polemics and diatribe will only help in exacerbating

tension and increase the risk of confrontation.  The best course of action for the Nile

riparian states is to face squarely their hydrological unity and interdependence and

endeavor to work out  formulas to cooperatively develop integrated joint projects for

transboundary benefits.


As long as disputes over water linger unsettled, it is bound to have spill over effect

on the development of amicable relations among the riparian states.  It can also

hamper the riparian states from making substantial improvement in their bilateral and

multilateral relations.  "Interstate relations are similarly strained in the Nile Basin,

where Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan have each blamed the other from time to time of

fomenting unrest and supporting rebellion within their neighboring territories"[5]


The hydropolitics of water in the Nile that tends to see a "Zero- sum game where

one player's gain is seen  as other's loss is incompatible with hydrological character

of water.  It is deeply flawed and cannot bring long-lasting solution among the

riparian states.  Continued lack  of hydrological cooperation exacerbates tension. In

the absence of hydrological cooperation, competition for water could lead to the

depletion of the water resources and degradation of the environment "From the long

term perspective lack of cooperation in international basins turns out to be

"lose-lose" or beggar- they - neighbor" game  for all the players.  Therefore the

hydropolitcs of water on the Nile should give way to hydrological cooperation with

the aim of achieving a 'win -win' game for all concerned to cooperatively develop its

vast potential for the beneficial use of all its riparian states.


It is important to maintain cooperation among the watercourse states on the use of

their transboundry resources even when there is no friendly relations between

them.  "The covert hydropolitical cooperatives between Israel and Jordan, which

coexisted with and then outlasted a state of war between the two countries is a case

in point.[6] Even though the pendulum of political relations between lower and upper

riparian states may fluctuate depending on a given situation, it is always advisable

that the riparian countries who are intrinsically linked to each other by the great river

keep close contact on regular basis at scholarly, technical and experts level. [7]  The

hydrological interdependencies between the riparian states dictates from taking

unilateral actions affecting the natural basin.  In this regard, the series of Nile 2002

Conferences on the Nile afford an ideal forum for discussion between the riparian

states devoid of political positions.  The Ethio-Sudan and Ethio-Egypt technical

experts committee on the Nile can also make positive contribution towards such



Reaching an amicable solution in negotiation over an international river may prove

frustrating  and at times, insurmountable left only to the concerned parties

themselves. Under this situation, the facilitation of neutral third parties may play a

significant role.  In this regard, the role of the World Bank in inducing the 1960 Indus

Water Treaty between India and Pakistan is worth mentioning.  Other areas where

third parties can make a difference is in participating in capacity building program

within  the Nile riparian countries.


It is worth noting, here, that water in its hydrological element affords ranging

opportunities for the distribution of benefits among the different countries drained

by the river.   As already indicated, water has in its nature a multiplicity of uses.

Depending on the geographical location and hydrographic, hydrological, climatic,

ecological and other natural factors water can be used in variety of ways in different

circumstances.  Where water may be most useful for hydropower  generation in one

area, it may be more practical for irrigation in other parts of the basin.  Interstate

cooperation could find appropriate remedy to apportion benefits for  each country

depending on its relative location and natural advantage.


Through joint projects watercourse states can develop schemes to save more water

in the basin.  While some marshlands could be drained to add surplus into the

stream, other conservation projects could be developed in highland areas to

conserve water. Instead of erecting huge dams in the sands of the Sahara which is

exposed to extreme evaporation, siltation, and seepage water could easily be

conserved in the cool and temperate highlands of Ethiopia. It is estimated that about

ten billion cubic meters of water is being lost in the Sahara because of the vast High

Aswan Dam.


The adoption of the Convention on the Non Navigational Uses of International

Watercourses in May 1997 by the UN General Assembly could also give sufficient

framework for the negotiation and conclusion of agreements.  The Convention

prescribes two  basic principles equitable utilization as the prominent and primary

concept followed by no significant harm as a guideline to be followed by states in

the appropriation of their shared water resources. Although the Convention has  not

yet come into force for lack of the required number of ratification, there is no doubt

that it reflects the general consensus by which states can negotiate their water

rights and duties.  The fact that the Convention was formulated as a general

framework and not in specific binding provisions is intended to give sufficient

latitude and flexibility for states in their negotiation to reach agreements.


              Basic Impediments toward Nile Cooperation


As has been stated, over and over again, the major stumbling block toward Nile

cooperation has been the desire by some lower riparian states  to have full and

unchallenged control over the Nile.  In particular, the demand by Egypt over the Nile

is not only limited to satisfying its water needs but goes far beyond, to securing its

strategic interests.  Egypt may not be satisfied just to ensure its water needs but

also to have full control of the Nile waters within its territory which gives no room

for negotiation with upper riparian states.


Depending on the decision of other Nile riparian states for the flow of Nile water has

always remained a nightmare for Egyptian policy makers. This sense of vulnerability

and insecurity, has always formed the corner stone of Egyptian policy on the Nile.


To remedy their Achilles' heels, Egyptian policy makers have pursued two track

policy of cooperative effort in guaranteeing the  uninterrupted flow of water as long

as it serves their interest and resorting to arms twisting to secure unimpeded flow of

the water.   One can only make note of the threat by former President Sadat to resort

to arms if their interest on the Nile is to be jeopardized. As long as this perception of

extreme vulnerability of Egypt persists, it might harm the effort for cooperative

relations among the riparian states compatible with the hydrological

interdependency of the states.


               Some Positive Developments on the Nile


It is interesting to note that, despite the hard feelings,  Nile riparian States  have now

embarked on a new spirit of cooperation, with clear departure from the past, on a

path towards working together.  This spirit is triggered, for the first time in the Nile

history, by an Agreed Minutes Signed between nine of the riparian states,  in

September 1998 in Arusha, Tanzania.


The Agreed Minutes does not say much by way of substance on the type or extent

of the cooperation.  It merely asserts, albeit in a more general and cautious tone, that

the countries of the basin are embarking on cooperation "without prejudice to all the

rights and obligation each riparian state has under international law to the equitable

use of the Waters of the Nile"


Under the arrangement the Nile countries have adopted  the Nile River Basin

Strategic  Action Program which sets the policy  guidelines for cooperation on the

Nile.  The Strategic Action Program comprises of two complementary sub-programs:-

the first being the Shared Vision which is developed  at the Basin - Wide level "while

the second is the Subsidiary Action Program  which realizes the vision through

action on the ground. " While the Shared Vision is being developed and promoted at

basin wide level, building commitment and clear goals, it needs to filter down to the

country local level.  However,  the Shared Vision  cannot stand alone, it has to be

reconciled and fed by actions on the ground actions which meet the needs of the

people and build trust and confidence among the riparian countries."


It is worth noting here that, all the Nile countries have agreed on Shared Vision for

the Nile Basin whose objective is " To achieve sustainable socio-economic

development through the equitable utilization of, and benefit from, the common Nile

Basin Water resources"


The envisaged cooperative framework charts a parallel approach towards Nile

development.  The task of the first  under the Shared Vision, will be the creation of

an enabling environment for investment and action on the ground, within a

basin-wide framework.  It comprises of 5 broad themes.


          1. 1.        Cooperative Framework (Project D3, ongoing)


          2. 2.         Confidence building and stockholder involvement


          3. 3.        Socio-economic, environmental and sectoral analysis


          4. 4.        Development and investment planning


          5. 5.        Applied training


Most important of the five themes is the first one - the Cooperative Framework D3,

which is an ongoing program sponsored by the UNDP where three experts from each

riparian countries are represented to draw up the general principles governing

relations between all the watercourse countries on the use of the Nile waters.  Most

importantly, the experts are charged to adopt basic principles on the Nile, similar to

those already in place and  applicable  in other basins, which could enable the

riparian states to share and allocate the waters of their shared resources.  The

Committee of Experts, after deliberating  on the principles for the Framework

Agreement on the basis of the Convention on the Non Navigational Uses of

International Watercourses, for the last three years could not come up with an

agreed framework and has decided to submit its report to the Nile COM for further



The second track which is the Subsidiary Action Program, will comprise actual

development projects at the sub-basin level, involving two or more countries.  This

is expected to allow the move from planning to action.


In order to implement the Subsidiary Action Program Nile countries are expected to

participate on the basis of the sub-basin they share in common.  As a result, the

countries of the Nile are sub divided into - Eastern Nile consisting of Ethiopia,

Eritrea, Sudan and Egypt and 2 and the Southern Nile consisting  of Burundi,

Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, DRC Sudan and Egypt.


For the purpose of maintaining dialogue among the riparian states, the Nile countries

have created a transitional institutional Framework.  First, the (Nile-COM) is the main

policy and guidance forum for Nile Basin Cooperation.  The Nile COM has

established the TAC  as an inclusive transitional initial mechanism to coordinate

joint activities.  Once the international and legal mechanism being developed at the

D3 came to successful completion, it will take over the task entrusted to the TAC.

The Nil-Tac will establish working groups to undertake specific tasks.


What makes the present cooperation framework different from the past, is the active

participation of the World Bank and other international organizations like the UNDP,

FAO and CIDA as facilitators.  It is hoped that the participation of the World Bank

and its partners will facilitate cooperation among the Nile States and encourage

development of this vast and huge resource for the benefit of  close to 300 million

peoples where some of the most impoverished and  5 of the 10 least developing

countries in the world are found.  In doing so, it is hoped that the World Bank will

also play a positive role in reconsidering its lending policy by which lower riparian

countries as in the past will not be allowed to dictate terms by taking undue

advantage of the "no objection clause" to veto or prevent the implementation of

projects on the upper reaches of the Nile, where poverty, malnutrition, drought and

famine are rampant.  The intervention of the Bank  along with the donor community

can play a big role in building the confidence to bring about conducive atmosphere

and induce a change in the unjust status quo which is prevailing on the Nile today.






It is obvious that the Nile has remained intractable and challenging both in terms of

not being amenable to negotiation as well as remaining untapped, and  under-

utilized river, with almost no significant benefit to large number of its peoples.  This

state of affairs cannot be tolerated to continue, if the enormous potential of this

world's longest river should be developed, impending tension removed and

conducive atmosphere for investment created for the benefit of its highly

impoverished and malnourished peoples.


The Nile is no exception to other international basins which have managed to find

amicable breakthroughs and reached arrangements for the reasonable and equitable

utilization of the water resources.  The sustainablity of the river as well as the

prosperity of the peoples of the basin is best served through cooperation of the

riparian states.  They are interdependent on each other and their future development

is inevitably linked to the hydrological cycle of the river.


Attempts, hitherto pursued one way or the other, to deny or exclude some from their

natural and legitimate rights cannot succeed and must not be tolerated any longer.

The yearning for the proper allocation of water among the Nile riparian countries

cannot be postponed indefinitely.  Sooner  than later this issue has to be addressed

if there is going to be lasting and durable cooperation on the Nile.


It must be the realization and proper recognition of this inevitable reality, that has

recently prompted the nine riparian states, though belatedly, to embark on a path

towards Nile Basin Cooperation in 1998 in Arusha.  It is too early at this stage, to

comment on the prospect of this nascent initiative.  However, one can say it is the

way forward considering the history of the Nile, which is devoid of such experience.

One would only hope it will gather momentum and gain confidence, nourished by

experiences from other river basins and assisted by international partners whose

intervention has made a difference elsewhere in the world.