The Hydropolitical Perspective of the Nile Question
The study has highlighted the hitherto existing hydropolitical positions of the Nile
riparian states which have so far hindered the forging of cooperative agreements.
Egyptian policy could be summed up as 'water security'. It is a policy which,
among other things, intends to block all venues to issues that are related to water
redistribution. It also considers all the pre-existing agreements on the utilization
of the Nile waters as sacrosanct. The Egyptians have so far tried to safeguard their
water policy by making continuous threats of war and at times by blocking
financial loans that are earmarked to upstream countries like Ethiopia. Sudan, on
the other hand, has always been in a real state of hydropolitical dilemma. On the
one hand, a cooperation with Ethiopia, particularly on the establishment of
reservoirs on the upper Blue Nile catchment, would be to Sudan's advantage
firstly, in terms of minimizing siltations in its dams and secondly, in obtaining more
water in its agricultural fields by gravity flow. On the other hand, they have a
downstream neighbor viz. Egypt which has a special 'historical interest' in them
and which, as a result, monitors all events (may or may not be related to the waters
of the Nile) that are unfolding in their territory. In simple terms, the Egyptians
consider the Sudan as the key to their appropriation of the Nile water. Ethiopia
has all along aired its grievances for being systematically excluded from all
Nile-related treaties and has on many occasions reiterated its natural right to use
the portion of the Nile water that flows in its territory. In the face of the
burgeoning population growth, recurrent droughts and famine and the crippling
dependence on rain-fed agriculture, the need for Ethiopia's share of the waters of
the Nile has become more pressing now than ever before. When it comes to the
White Nile upstream riparians, either due to the prevalence of large and stable
amount of rainfall within their territories and/or the availability of other options
other than the Nile, they seem to show a tendency of being complacent or
indifferent to the vital question of water redistribution. The blossoming population
in the region would, however, ignite the need for more water, if not now at least in
the foreseeable future.
Apparently, the establishment of a multitude of Nile-based organizations indicates
a glimmer of hope in the basin. It should, however, be noted that these
organizations will become fruitful if and only they shift their agenda from
technicalities to the outstanding problems of water redistribution. The paper has,
by way of conclusion, proposed some win-win solutions that could bring the
stalemate to an end. These include: (a) the scrapping of the 1959 bilateral
agreement and its replacement with a multilateral and comprehensive treaty that
would accommodate the interests of all the Nile riparian states; (b) the transfer of
much or all of the storage of Lake Nasser upstream to the Ethiopian highlands
which has a much lower evapotranspiration; (c) the import of 'virtual water' that
is embedded in food staples instead of fully relying on shared water and (d) to
apply modern water saving technologies such as drip irrigation which could help
in having more water in the basin.
Keywords: equitable sharing, food security, out-of-basin transfers, hydropolitics,
water security, 'win-win' solutions, zero-sum game.
1. Overview and Introduction
Because of population increase and increasing demands for more water for
agriculture and industry, a large number of countries fall into the category of
'water-scarce' nations. It is projected that in Africa alone 300 million people, a third of
the continent's population, will be forced to live under water scarcity situations by
the year 2000. Nine of the fourteen countries that make up the Middle East already
face the problem of water scarcity. The ten Nile riparian states, including Burundi,
Congo Democratic Republic (the former Zaire), Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya,
Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda, all with some territory in the basin, have a
high rate of population growth (3% on the average) that could make water to become
a scarce resource. No other river basin in the world is shared by as many states as is
the case with the Nile. Currently, these states possess 40 % of Africa's population
and envelope 10 % of its landmass. The total population of the basin will rise from
245 million in 1990 to 859 million by the year 2025 (Tvedt, 1992: 85). The population
of the three principal Nile basin countries, viz. Egypt, Ethiopia and the Sudan, who
now stand together at 157 million, is projected to reach 388 million by the year 2050
(BBC News Online, July 17, 1999). Looked at from another perspective and
considering the current population projections, Egypt's population, which is now
about 10% larger than that of Ethiopia, would be 20% lower by the year 2025
(Whittington, D and McClelland, E., 1992: 146). Given these scenarios, one could
easily guess the high potential demand for water by each of the riparian states,
particularly by Ethiopia, for different activities, the most important of which are food
and agriculture. Thus, unless some working mechanism is found to alleviate the
problem, disputes over the distribution of the waters of the Nile could presumably
become a potential spot of conflict and contention.
Water is ambient and the consequences of its use or removal by upstream
countries are immediately felt downstream. Unless an international
watercourse such as the Nile is viewed as a unified whole, human
undertakings in any part of the system, more particularly in the source
country, could adversely affect lower riparian states. Much of the strain
surrounding shared waters stems from the fact that one nation's gain is
usually another's loss. If Ethiopia develops upper Nile waters, Egypt will
lose out, and if Egypt insists on maintaining the status quo, that is, insisting
on becoming the sole beneficiary of the Nile, all other riparian states will
lose out. This is what is called a zero-sum game and results in tension,
distrust and even war if one is certain to win. As early as the mid-1980s,
the U.S. government intelligence services estimated that in at least 10
places in the world war could break out over dwindling shared-water
resources (Starr, 1991: 17). The major crisis spots are, according to the
same sources, the Middle East and the Nile basin. Syria and Iraq were
very close to full-scale war in 1975 because of disagreements over the use
of the Euphrates. Disputes between Turkey, Syria and Iraq were common
during the 1980s over the usage of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. That is
why one writer (Sachitanand, 1999) prophesied by stating that "Conflicts
around the world may soon shift from religion, race and territory to plain
and simple water" or as one scholar (Elhance, 1999:5) has put "...in a
geopolitical sense, water is likely to become the 'oil of the next century'".
Even the World Bank's Vice-President, Ismael Seageldin, has once said
"Many wars this century were about oil, but the wars of the next century
will be about water" (Daily Mail and Guardian, 20 December 1999). It is
such scenarios that make up the content of Hydro-(Water) Politics. In
simple terms, hydropolitics prevails when water disputes shape the political
landscape in a region and when it is taken as a strategic resource of
political significance. Put explicitly, "hydropolitics is the systematic study of
conflict and cooperation between states over water resources that
transcend international borders" (Elhance, 1999:3).
For historical and geographical reasons, all the basin's riparian states have not been
in a position to utilize the waters of the Nile equally. Egypt has been the most
aggressive user of the Nile waters. Next in line comes the Sudan and to some extent
Uganda. The other riparian states remained more of mere onlookers than users. The
utilization of the Nile waters by Egypt, be it for flow regulation or power production
or irrigation, which until recently has been confined within the Nile basin, has since
the mid-1990s made a digression involving out-of-basin moves. These so-called New
Valley Development Projects embrace the newly designed Toshka and El-Salam
(Peace) Canals. In the first project, also called South Valley Scheme, they are actually
building up a canal that would be fed by 25 million m3 of water per day from Lake
Nasser (eventually carrying 5.5 billion m3 of water a year) whereas in the second it is
intended to transfer the Nile water to the huge land reclamation project in Sinai
Desert at a rate of 160 million m3 per second (BBC News Online, 27 October 1997).
The hydraulic works that are carried out or planned to be carried out within and
out-of-basin have been conducted without establishing a basin-wide comprehensive
agreement or treaty on the utilization of the Nile waters. The existing legal
agreements, that are in most cases bilateral, fail to be binding for two reasons (a)
most of them have been induced by colonial forces and (b) they lacked
comprehensiveness involving all the riparian states. Most of the treaties were
signed by colonial powers during their rule in the basin. In the process, these
powers either ignored independent Ethiopia and the then colonized upstream
co-basin countries or imposed their will on them. For strategic and economic
reasons, the treaties favored the British colonial interests in their colonies of Egypt
and the Sudan with the former being literally given a unilateral right to the use of the
Nile waters as if the river rises, gushes and ends within its territory. None of the
agreements protected the natural rights of the upper riparian states. The upstream
countries had not been parties to those agreements, nor do they legitimize them
(Yacob, 1997). The Egyptians have, hence, all along attempted to create continuity
without change. As has succinctly been put by Elhance (1999), the Egyptians
inherited the colonial-era mentality after independence pursuing the same
This paper is intended to address the above-stated issues in the context of the Nile.
A brief analysis of the hydropolitcal positions of the co-basin states will be followed
by the discussion of the moves that have so far been made to forge cooperation
amongst the Nile riparian countries. Some plausible win-win solutions will also be
forwarded before wrapping up the paper.
2. The Hydropolitical Positions of the Nile Riparian States
This section will attempt to examine the hitherto existing positions of each
of the Nile riparian states on the question of Nile water utilization. By doing
so, it tries to reveal the raison d'ętre for taking up divergent positions, its
continuity and change, if any, and how these, in turn, have created
stalemate and/or grounds for despair in the Nile community. Besides, the
rhetoric and bluff of war that lead to mutual suspicion will be uncovered.
2.1. Egypt's 'Water Security' Policy
Egypt claims that she has natural, acquired and historical rights on the Nile
and will be governed by the hydrpolitical doctrines of 'primary need', 'prior
use' and 'acquired water rights'. As a result of these claims, "her [Egypt's]
top foreign policy priority has always been to safeguard the uninterrupted
flow of the Nile water" (Yacob, 1997: 15). To make both ends meet, they
argue that 'the Nile is Egypt and Egypt is the gift of the Nile'. Reacting to
this age-old dictum, Kinfe Abraham countered by saying that "Egypt may
be the gift of the Nile but is not the Nile also a gift to the countries where it
originates and from where it carries rich alluvial soil to the terraced fields of
Aswan?" (1997: 8). The Egyptian Ambassador to Ethiopia, Marawan
Badr, went even further by stating that "the concern with the Nile waters
[by Egypt] is not just a national security issue but rather a national survival
obsession" (Addis Tribune, 7 August, 1998). As a result of the 'Nile water
obsession', the Egyptian position concerning the development and
utilization of the Nile waters has all along been governed by the principle of
'absolute territorial integrity', which is in contradistinction to the Helsinki
and International Law Commission (ILC) Rules.
Irrespective of the objections raised against the hitherto existing colonial
and post-colonial treaties and agreements by the other co-basin states,
Egypt still considers them as legally binding and non-amendable. They are
repeatedly heard stating that they are willing to discuss future development
plans on the Nile with other riparian states, particularly with Ethiopia, on
condition that the legitimacy of the 1959 agreement is acknowledged or the
status quo is maintained. As has been shown time and again, Egyptians
seem to be more interested in talks on technical issues leaving aside
fundamental principles of international water law and equitable water
sharing. This has been succinctly put by Yacob, (in Sisay, April, 1999),
where he said that Egyptian interest revolves around "...drops of water that
could be conserved and acres of land that could further be irrigated". If
one is willing to come out with a fair and equitable distribution of the Nile
water, the agenda of the various Nile meetings should gravitate away from
science, technology and data towards the redistribution of the Nile water.
The other items become meaningful and effective if and only if one could
be in a position to put the horse before the cart and not the other way
round, as it has been the case so far.
The Egyptians also forward another argument to maintain the status quo.
They argue that 98% of their country is desert, their rainfall amount is
literally nil (the annual amount in Cairo being 25 mm only reaching to the at
most 200 mm in Upper Egypt on the Mediterranean coast), disallowing
them to carry out rain-fed agriculture. On the other hand, they say that
Ethiopia and most of the other riparian states receive enough rainfall to
conduct rain-fed agriculture that may not necessitate irrigation agriculture.
By so saying, they forget the facts that firstly, rainfall amount in Ethiopia is
erratic and not uniformly distributed and secondly, the areas that are
located within the Blue Nile (Abbay) and the other Nile catchments in
Ethiopian territory are frequently hit by drought and famine. In addition to
these, as has rightly been confirmed by Zewdie Abate (in Waterbury,
1994:52), the highlands of Ethiopia that lie on the Nile's watershed are
over-farmed, over-populated and have already exhausted their cultivable
potential. According to the same author, Ethiopia has no other way except
turning its efforts to the development of its western watersheds where there
is an irrigable potential land area of 900,000 ha in the Blue Nile (Abbay)
basin and 1.5 million ha in the Sobat (Baro-Akobo) basin.
Historically, a number of hydropolitical conflicts arose between the Nile
riparian states. As it could be guessed, Egypt has always been the central
figure in almost all of the discords. Yacob (in Sisay April, 1999) explicated
the situation when he said that as part of the wider strategy of incorporating
the entire Nile basin, Egyptians have incited sixteen major conflicts against
Ethiopia spanning between the Gadarif battle of 1832 and the battle of
Gura in 1876. In the past two decades alone, Egyptian leaders have, on
several occasions, threatened to go to war with Ethiopia if it develops the
Nile tributaries in its territory for purposes of irrigation and power. There
is, hence, a continuity in the axiomatic policy of every Egyptian regime. In
what follows, I will cite some instances where threats of war and
conflict-laden statements have been issued by Egyptian leaders and
(1) Shortly after signing the US-sponsored Camp David Accord in 1979, President
Anwar Sadat stated that "...the only matter that could take Egypt to war again is
water" (Postel, 1991: 12).
(2) Immediately after the Camp David Accord, Sadat intended to supply 400 million
m3 of the Nile water per year to the Israeli Negev desert and to the Gaza Strip in
exchange for a Palestinian solution and the liberation of Jerusalem (Anderson, 1991:
13 and Falkenmark, 1989: 351). In fact, when Mengistu, the then Ethiopian head of
state, heard Sadat's plan, he retaliated by saying that "...he will press ahead with
hydraulic projects on the Blue Nile" (Anderson, 1991: 13). Sadat then reacted by
saying that "...if Ethiopia takes any action to block our right to the Nile waters, there
will be no alternative for us but to use force" (African Recorder, cited in Anderson,
1991). The plan, nonetheless, did not materialize but was again raised as an issue in
1993. Surprisingly, Mr. Arafat is said to have pointedly "...solicited the reaction of
prime minister Meles Zenawi on the idea of building the said canal to pump water
from the Nile to [the] Gaza strip" (Kinfe, 1997: 5). This shows that the issue is still
(3) As Hultin has pointed out, "...it is not so much what Ethiopia or other
riparian states for that matter have done with regards to the waters of the
Nile, but rather what they might be doing that is the cause of anxiety in
Cairo" (1995). This potential threat is the basis of a very real fear that
dictates much of Egypt's water security policy. This is best testified by
Boutros Ghali's speech, (who was then Egyptian Minister of State for
Foreign Affairs) in September, 1989 to the members of the US congress
where he said that
what is worse is that each Nile country expects different benefits from the control
and management of water resources. ...The other African countries have not reached
the level of agriculture through irrigation that we have, and therefore are not as
interested in the problem of water security. It is the classical difference in attitudes
found among upstream and downstream countries which are on the same
international river (Starr, 1991: 22).
(4) Boutros Ghali again stated on another occasion in 1990, that "...the
next war in our region will be over water and not politics" and added that
"the national security of Egypt is in the hands of eight other African
countries in the Nile basin" (Rowley, 1993: 195). By so saying, Ghali was
trying to underscore water's special role in Egyptian life and the
international friction that could result if a change of the status quo is
(5) In 1991, Cairo warned that it was ready to use force to protect its access to the
waters of the Nile in case Ethiopia and the Sudan plan to build dams on the Nile
(BBC News Online, 16 March, 1999).
(6) More recently, being suspicious of Addis Ababa's designs on the Nile, President
Mubarak of Egypt threatened to bomb Ethiopia if they plan to build any dams on the
Nile (BBC News Online, 11 October, 1999).
The Ethiopian Foreign Minister, Seyoum Mesfin, did consider Egypt's continuous
threat as an "...irresponsible instance of jingoism that will not get us anywhere near
the solution of the problem" and added that "...there is no earthly force that can stop
Ethiopia from benefiting from the Nile" (Addis Tribune, 30 January, 1998).
As pieces of evidence suggest, besides the rhetoric and threats of war, the
Egyptians have been seen leaving no stone unturned to destabilize Ethiopia. This
was aptly put by Daniel (1999), when he said that "Egyptian national security has
always been either to dominate Ethiopia or to neutralize whatever unfriendly regime
that might appear there". Elhance (1999:65) has also underlined Egyptian position
towards the other upper riparian states by stating that "...Egypt has an interest in
ensuring that the upstream riparian states remain weak, unstable and
underdeveloped and thus incapable of constructing large water projects upstream".
Three recent instances could be cited to testify to Egyptian expediency in
undermining and destabilizing Ethiopia: (a) they impounded the Somali reconciliation
process in which Ethiopia was mandated by the Organization of African Unity
(OAU) and the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), when they
brought the warring Somali factions to Cairo. This was done to "...undermine
Ethiopian aspirations and meanwhile reduce its dependence on Blue Nile water"
(Africa Confidential, June, 1998: 5) or as has been put by Gilkes (1999:577) "Egypt
[used] Somalia as an element in its efforts to influence Ethiopia's policy on the Nile";
(b) after the assassination attempt against the Egyptian President, Mubarak, in June
1995 in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, Egypt impaired and dashed Ethiopian
efforts in bringing the culprits to justice by blocking United Nation's sanctions
against the Sudan and (c) as has been stated by The Economist magazine editor,
Richard Dowdon, quoted by BBC News Online (11 October, 1999), "part of Egypt's
motivation for supporting Eritrea in its conflict with Ethiopia is its mistrust of Addis
Ababa's plans for the Blue Nile".
The rhetoric, uncompromising stand, stubbornness and confidence of the
Egyptians is borne out by the following two factors:
(i) They are confident that Ethiopia, as a poor country in the Horn, could not
generate financial resources internally to undertake hydraulic works. This is also
confirmed by Rowley who stated that "Egypt need not worry too much as yet if
Ethiopia threatens to dam the origin of the Blue Nile because she [Ethiopia] is not a
financially fit state to afford such an expensive scheme" (1993: 95). This is a weak
argument simply because even if the international financial institutions such as the
World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) do apply their
double-standards and reject Ethiopia's financial request, they should not overlook
the possibilities of developing own sources to fund hydraulic projects, if not now at
least in the foreseeable future,. For instance, the Blue Nile (Abbay) and Atbara
(Tekeze) base line studies have been conducted with own resources in the face of
the financial institutions' refusal to fund them. This could as well be replicated in the
building of dams and canals in Ethiopia.
(ii) As one of the biggest recipients of US aid ($2.2 billion/year) and good friends to
the West, a friendship that was forged after the signing of the Camp David Accord
with Israel in 1979, the Egyptians are sure they have both the political clout and
economic leverage over the giant international financial institutions such as the
World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) [Smith, 1990]. In 21 years
since 1979, Egypt has received some $21 billion in economic aid from the US plus
over $25 billion in military aid (Sullivan, 1997: 36).
It was using these changing political and economic circumstances that the
Egyptians have in the past blocked loans that were directed to finance hydraulic
projects in Ethiopia. For instance, in the early 1990s, Egypt was reported to have
blocked an African Development Bank loan to Ethiopia for a project that Cairo feared
would reduce downstream supplies (Postel, 1992). Egypt is also said to have "…tried
strenuously to bloc World Bank financing of an irrigation project in Ethiopia
(Finchaa) which would use water from a tributary of the Blue Nile" (Whittington &
Haynes, 1985:147). Such kinds of moves may create a temporary set back but fail far
from being a lasting solution to the hydropolitical problems enveloping the Nile
basin. How long will Egyptians go on threatening and destabilizing Ethiopia and
how long will they be successful in blocking development loans that are directed to
Ethiopia? These would not take the Egyptians any where. Instead of becoming
myopic focusing on small conduits, it would be preferable to look at the problem
from a long-term perspective so as to find a lasting basin-wide solution (for details
refer to Part 4).
2.2. Sudan's Hydropolitical Dilemma
Sudan looks at Egypt as the only sister Arab country in the Nile basin
whereas Egypt considers Sudan as the key to their appropriation of the
Nile water. The relations between the two countries have, however, been
changing their rhythms from time to time. It went lower after the ousting of
Nimeiry, more particularly after the military coup d'etat that brought Omer
el Beshir to power. Tensions rose higher after the June 1995 assassination
attempts at the life of the Egyptian President, Husni Mubarak, in Addis
Ababa, where the Sudanese had been alleged to be behind it.
Given the facts that about two-thirds of the area of the Nile lies within the
Sudan and its closeness to Egypt have galvanized Egyptian special interest
in the Sudan across history. This is best illustrated by Howell et al
(1988:32) when they reiterated by saying that "…what means life or death
to Egypt means only the difference between sufficiency and stringency to
the Sudan". This is the reason why the Egyptians have gone time and again
to the extent of meddling in Sudanese internal affairs because they have
"...a fear that a hostile government [in the Sudan] could restrict the [Nile]
river's water" (Wedeman quoted on CNN Online, 30 October, 1999).
Sudan, however, finds itself in a real dilemma. On the one hand, it would
prefer to have a cooperative agreement with Ethiopia because the water
that could be stored on the Blue Nile (Abbay) can easily be delivered to
Sudan's agricultural lands by gravity flow at the same time reducing siltation
in the already existing dams in their territory which costs them lots of
money (Kliot, 1994: 68-69). That is why Whittington and McClelland
have commented on this issue by stating that "...the status quo that
excludes Ethiopia is not to Sudan's advantage" (1992: 153). On the other
hand, they have a neighboring state downstream, viz. Egypt, which
frequently knocks at their door when anything imagined or real surfaces on
the Nile water utilization. For instance, in August, 1994, Egypt had planned
and subsequently cancelled an air raid on Khartoum, when a dam had
presumably been planned to be built in the Sudan (Bleier, 1997: 116). The
Egyptians do also have other vested interests in the Sudan. In case of
Ethiopia's utilization of the Nile water, they would like to use Sudanese air
space and airbases to bombard Ethiopia (Waterbury, 1994: 46). The
Sudanese dilemma is further exacerbated by the fact that they are
economically dependent on Egypt. It is reported that there are an
estimated 2 million Sudanese working in Egypt (Kliot, 1994: 88-89). One
thing that can also be stated with certainty is that the Sudanese government
would like a quick revision of the 1959 agreement which entitled them to
only one-fourth of the total flow of the Nile.
2.3. Ethiopia's Position
The share of Ethiopia in terms of the Nile's drainage area, length and above all mean
discharge warrant the relative importance of all the three rivers that originate in
Ethiopia. The paradox lies in the fact that although Ethiopia provides 85 % of the
Nile's water, it has systematically been excluded from any treaty; nor has it been
allowed to utilize the portions of the Nile water that flow within its own territory.
The various Ethiopian governments have recognized no obligations to limit
their use of the Blue Nile for the sake of Egypt and/or the Sudan. No
Ethiopian government has recognized the various treaties, including the
1959 one, as binding. Ethiopia has always been the silent partner in all the
Anglo-Egyptian and later Egyptian-Sudanese negotiations. This
non-recognition of the colonially-induced treaties is also shared by other
upstream riparian states particularly Tanzania, where Julius Nyerere
repeatedly dismissed the treaties as null and void and non-binding.
Ethiopia has time and again reiterated her positions in the utilization of the
waters of the Nile river for irrigation and hydropower generation. The first
of such an official attempt was made as far back as February 1956, one
month after the independence of the Sudan (Ethiopian Herald, 1956). The
same Ethiopian claim to her natural rights to the Nile was aired some
months later in the midst of the Suez crisis. These views were again echoed
in an Aide Memoir of 23 September, 1957 to the diplomatic missions in
Cairo. The Memoir's content has been paraphrased by Daniel (1999) as
follows: "Ethiopia has the right and obligation to exploit its water resources
for the benefit of present and future generations of its citizens [and] must,
therefore, reassert and reserve now and for the future, the right to take all
such measures in respect of its water resources". Similarly, at the 1977
Water Conference at Mar del Plata, Argentina, Ethiopia aired her rights to
exploit her natural resources and also did the same in the 1981 UN
Conference on the Least Developed Countries. It even came out with a
ten-year investment plan, which, among other things, listed fifty irrigation
projects that could utilize 704,000 ha of cultivable land. Of these, 381,000
ha or 54% had been sited in the Blue Nile (Abbay) basin and 15,000 ha or
a mere 2% in the Sobat (Baro-Akobo) basin (Kliot, 1994: 67-68). In
short, as has been testified by Collins (1990: 277), Ethiopia has time and
again declared in official notes to Cairo and international organizations that
the country reserved its right to utilize the water resources of the Nile for
the benefit of its people, whatever might be the measure of utilization of
such water sought by other riparian states.
If the present rate of population growth (3-3.2% per annum) continues
unabated, which is highly likely to be the case, Ethiopia's population would
climb up from the current 60 million mark to 112 million by the year 2025.
The country is also frequently hit by recurrent droughts and famine and as
Kliot (1994:3) has correctly put it, "...drought and famine seem to be
permanently, if undeservedly, associated with the name of Ethiopia". The
Economist (1995:57) has also confirmed the desperate situation that
prevails in the country by stating that "Ethiopia, which supplies the bulk of
the water [to the Nile], suffers from dreadful famines and would clearly like
to store water and so increase its food production". Howell et al (1988:82)
have also depicted the agonizing situation that would tempt Ethiopia to
utilize the Nile water by stating that "Ethiopia, hard pressed to find
solutions to its crippling agricultural problems, will turn its attention to its
western watershed". Some 60 per cent of the country has a low moisture
balance index that would impede the carrying out of rain-fed agriculture
and, additionally, there is rampant soil erosion and environmental
degradation that lower agricultural return per unit area. All these situations
would necessitate the utilization of available water resources to attain first
and foremost food security. It goes without saying that Ethiopia's natural
right to the Nile, which is supported by the Helsinki and ILC Rules, would
entitle her to a fair and equitable share of the waters of the Nile. In fact, as
reckoned by Jovanovic (1985: 85), Ethiopia has all the right to claim up to
40 billion m3 of water per year for irrigation, reducing the flow to Sudan
and Egypt by 23% for irrigation within the Nile Basin and 39% if irrigation
is extended out-of-basin. However, due to lack of basin wide agreement
and financial bottlenecks Ethiopia's potentially irrigable land on the Nile,
which is estimated at about 3.35 million hectares, has remained untapped
to this day. The country presently utilizes not more than 1% of its irrigation
potential and 0.7% of its hydropower potential which is estimated at 8380
The problems in Ethiopia are two-dimensional. On the one hand, Ethiopia's
negotiating position in contrast with Egypt is weakened because of the
absence of facts on the ground i.e. irrigation or HEP projects and, on the
other hand, it has problems in terms of finance and man-power to harness
the river. Contrary to expectation, the on-going hundreds of earthen small
dam projects that are located in the northern parts of the country on the
watersheds and tributaries of the Nile may not push up Ethiopia's
negotiating position in the future. Besides, international funding requires
basin-wide agreement for which firstly, Egypt is adamant and reluctant to
strike a pact with Ethiopia and secondly, the funding organizations
themselves exercise a double-standard marginalizing 'less important'
countries like Ethiopia and favoring 'more important' ones such as Egypt.
And clearly, let alone Ethiopia even economically 'better off' riparian states
such as Egypt cannot undertake hydraulic projects without substantial
external funding from multilateral funding organizations.
There are now various indications that suggest Ethiopia's commitment to utilize the
Nile water. The Deputy Foreign Minister of Ethiopia, Tekeda Alemu, (quoted in
Tsegaye, 1998), has made Ethiopia's position clear by noting that "talks or no talks,
Ethiopia will exercise its rights to utilize its own water for its development". The
Ethiopian Foreign Minister, Seyoum Mesfin, too, reiterated the same position saying
that "...if our [Ethiopia's] proposal for an equitable sharing falls on deaf ears, we will
be forced to join in the scramble [for the Nile water] in order to obtain our fair share"
(Addis Tribune, 30 January, 1998). By the same token, Ethiopia's Prime Minister,
Meles Zenawi, has repeatedly called for changes in the way the waters of the Nile
are shared between countries in the region (BBC News Online, 17 April, 1998).
2.4. Complacency of the Upper White Nile Riparian States
Even though the Upper White Nile riparian states consider the colonially-induced
Nile water agreements unacceptable, they seem to be indifferent to the vital question
of a fair and equitable distribution of the Nile waters or, better said, it is not their top
priority at the moment. By omission or commission, they too dwell upon issues
related to hydro-meteorological data, water technology, water saving, etc., shoving
aside the real issue of Nile water redistribution. Such an indifference or complacency
of the Upper White Nile riparian states could be explained by two factors: (a) unlike
the principal Nile countries of Egypt, Ethiopia and the Sudan, they possess small
tails in the basin. Due to evaporation and seepage within the equatorial region and
the Sudd swamp in the Sudan, they contribute a relatively small amount of inflow to
the Nile (b) they have a relatively large and stable amount of rainfall and water
sources outside the Nile basin. So, except Uganda, all the other Equatorial riparian
states have a peripheral dependence on the Nile waters. That is why they are not
immediate threats to the downstream countries of Egypt and Sudan. But things
would certainly change in the future, particularly when the populations of the Upper
White Nile basin countries expand, generating the need for more water. A sign along
this direction has been reflected by Tanzania's Minister of Water, Musa Nkangaa,
when he said that "Water will top the list of priority policies of our countries in the
future" (Daily Mail & Guardian, 26 May 1999).
3. Moves Towards Cooperation: Breaking the Stalemate?
With the basic aim of forging cooperative agreements on a variety of issues, various
attempts had been made to set up a number of Nile-based organizations in the last
thirty years. The first such attempt was made back in 1967 when some Nile riparian
states established the Hydromet (The Hydrometeorological Survey of Lakes
Victoria, Kioga and Albert). The organization facilitated the collection of data on the
equatorial lakes. The fact that the objectives of the Hydromet failed to include water
redistribution persuaded Ethiopia to distance itself from the organization for the first
four years. It later joined the organization as an observer in 1971. Hydromet was
financed by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) for the first two
phases till 1982 and later using own resources till 1992. Most of the projects that had
been proposed by the Hydromet grouping remained far from being realized.
The Hydromet was followed by the formation of Undugu (Swahili for 'brotherhood')
grouping in Khartoum in 1983. It drew its members from riparian states viz. Egypt,
Sudan, Uganda and Congo Democratic Republic (the former Zaire) and non-riparian
state viz. Central African Republic. The objectives of the Undugu grouping had
been to forge cooperation in areas of infrastructure, environmental cooperation,
culture and trade. Ethiopia, Tanzania and Kenya opted to remain as observers in the
grouping. As stated by Bram (2000), the grouping was disbanded without achieving
what it ought to. The undugu grouping was later succeeded by the installment of
three more organizations till 1997: the Nile Basin Integrated Development ,
Technical Cooperation Commission for the Promotion and Development of the Nile
(TECCONILE)  and the Nile Basin Cooperative Framework . Almost all of
the above-stated organizations concentrated more on issues dealing with water
saving, storing and utilization; preparation of master plans in the co-basin states and
capacity building. The organizations secured financial support from the UNDP, the
World Bank and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) [Ministry
of Water Resources, Ethiopia, January, 2000].
The organization that is designated as 'promising' by some writers (Bram, 2000;
World Bank, 1999) is the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI). It was incepted back in 1998 and
is still functional. Unlike its predecessors, this organization secured the membership
of all the Nile riparian states save Eritrea. It embraces projects at the macro (whole
basin) and micro (sub-basin) levels with the former designated as 'Shared Vision
Program' and the later 'Subsidiary Action Programs'. Its objectives revolve around
themes that are dealing with confidence building measures, awareness creation,
project identification and implementation. The various programs and measures of the
NBI are financed by the World Bank.
There have been various gatherings of water ministers and experts from the co-basin
countries recently. The seventh ordinary session of the Nile Council of Ministers for
Water Affairs (Nile-COM) took place on May 12, 1999 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
The need for basin-wide cooperation was reiterated in the meeting. It was at that
juncture that Ethiopia made its position clear by calling for an "...equitable utilization
of the resources of the Nile for effective and sustainable development of all
concerned towards a shared vision amongst the nine basin countries" (BBC News
Online, 12 May 1999). Following that, the Nile Basin Secretariat, which was formed in
Dar Es Salaam in February 1999, met in Entebbe, Uganda, in September of the same
year. It was decided at this meeting that there should be a joint discourse with a
common pursuit of the sustainable development and management of Nile waters
(Walta Information Center, 06 September, 1999). Last, but not least, the three
principal riparian states, viz. Egypt, Ethiopia and the Sudan, established the Eastern
Nile Subsidiary Action Program Team (ENSAPT) at their ministerial meeting that
took place in Khartoum on November 19, 1999. They approved an accord for the
joint utilization of Atbara (Tekeze), Sobat (Baro-Akobo) and the Blue Nile (Abbay).
Apparently, the creation of the aforementioned organizations and the various
endeavors that are made to attain a variety of objectives is a welcome sign that
indicates a glimmer of hope. But given Egypt's highly guarded water security, its
historical dominance and the various war threats that it has advanced against the
upper riparian states, most particularly against Ethiopia, it may be difficult to discern
a sudden change of heart by the Egyptians that could bring the stalemate to an end.
The Egyptians may go to the utmost in agreeing to divide newly acquired water by
reclaiming say the Machar and Sudd swamps that are located in the Sobat
(Baro-Akobo) and the White Nile river basins respectively. A fresh redistribution of
the Nile waters nullifying the 1959 and all the previous agreements remains an
Achilles' hill and the starting point of any discussion. This would literally imply that
the ball is in Egyptian court. Hence, the panacea to the problems enveloping the Nile
basin does not revolve around the multiplication of organizations but rather in the
anticipation of a breakthrough. It could be far from being a nerve-racking exercise if
the Egyptians revoke the 1959 and all the tilted colonial arrangements.
4. Plausible Win-Win Solutions
The most fundamental solution to the problems enveloping the Nile water
utilization is regional or basin-wide cooperation in water development.
Egypt has more to gain than any other co-riparian from increased
cooperation. According to Kinfe Abraham "...the attempt by Egypt to
maintain the status quo [leaning] on historical rights will be untenable
morally, ethically and politically, for it would be tantamount to depriving
others of life while caring for their own" (1997: 2). Zewdie Abate's
remarks deserve to be mentioned here: "...water management in the highly
water dependent Nile basin is a complex and multi-faceted challenge. A
broad and integrated approach should be taken" (1990: 149).
It is very difficult to come out with a cookie-cutter solution that can satisfy
each and every Nile basin state. Some suggestions could, however, be
made by way of a win-win solution to break the stalemate and pave the
way for settling such an overarching problem.
(a) First and foremost, Egypt and the Sudan must scrap the unfairly handled 1959
agreement, which was a bilateral deal that ignored the natural rights of all the other
riparian states. It should be revised and renegotiated to accommodate the interests
of the other co-basin countries, particularly Ethiopia, which contributes 85% of the
Nile waters. To this effect, an independent panel of international specialists could be
established who could come out with clearer guidelines for equitably distributing the
Nile water supply. The panelists would have to do their utmost to do justice and
equity in the distribution of the waters of the Nile by considering a number of
variables in the equation including water contribution to the basin, economic
conditions, degree of dependence on the river, food security status and potential
(b) Some Nile experts such as Whittington and McClelland have suggested
the establishment of reservoirs on the Blue Nile in Ethiopia, for, they say
"...it offers the greatest opportunity over the long term for dramatic
improvements in the overall management of Nile resources" (1992: 152).
Wild also echoed an identical proposal by saying that "…the main method
of achieving this [the exploitation of joint gains in the Nile basin] would be
the transfer of much of the storage of Lake Nasser upstream to the
Ethiopian highlands" (1995). Elhance too has underlined the same
argument when he reiterated that "…such a storage [on the Blue Nile in
Ethiopia] would have much lower evaporation rate than any alternative
storage reservoir that could be built within Egypt or Sudan or on the
headwaters of the White Nile" (1999:67). These and some other writers
argue by saying that the transfer could be of help in having much water in
the basin, reducing evaporation to a much lower rate than at Egypt's
Aswan High Dam, eliminating the annual Nile flood and diminishing
siltations in dams and barrages in the Sudan and Egypt. What is interesting
in this regard is that the water savings so made, which could be in the order
of 12-21.4 billion m3 per year (Kliot, 1994), would quadruple Ethiopia's
irrigated area without reducing supplies to Egypt and the Sudan.
(c) There are some scholars who have made their own suggestions regarding the
future share of Ethiopia from the Nile waters. For example, Whittington and
McClelland have suggested that Ethiopia's share of the Nile water should be at least
equal to Sudan's. The approximate allocations they have forwarded are 52 billion m3
for Egypt, 14 billion m3 for the Sudan and 14 billion m3 for Ethiopia (assuming 6
billion m3 or more of water could be saved by building storages in the Blue Nile
basin of Ethiopia). However, the Egyptian engineer Shahin (1986: 19) proposed the
diversion of 2 billion m3 of water from Aswan to Ethiopia as a sign of good gesture
to alleviate drought problems in Ethiopia. The author of this paper has strong
reservations on both of the above proposals. As one could also easily guess, such
overtures may not be acceptable to Ethiopians. The author of this paper presumes
that the future share of Ethiopia should fall somewhere around the suggestions
made by Kliot (1994:95) where he says "...if principles of equity are adopted by all
the co-riparians of the Nile, and Ethiopia is allowed to go ahead with its Blue Nile
basin plan, Egypt and the Sudan would benefit from the construction of the
reservoirs on the Blue Nile and would lose no more than 25 billion m 3 of water".
(d) For an international river basin such as the Nile where there is water scarcity that
would fall short of satisfying the various human needs in the basin, scholars such as
Tony Allan (1997) suggest the import of 'virtual water' in food staples instead of
relying on shared 'watershed water'. It is under a situation where it takes about 1000
tons of water to produce every ton of grain that 80% of all the water consumption in
the Nile basin goes to agriculture. This should, somehow, be changed if one opts to
have water security in the future. The economic and financial situations in Egypt
and the Sudan could permit them to import 'virtual water' embedded in food staples.
Egypt has a huge oil and tourist revenue while the Sudan has recently begun
exporting oil with the first consignment of 600,000 barrels shipped to Singapore in
August 1999 (BBC News Online, 30 August, 1999). On the contrary, Ethiopia does
not have the financial resources to do so now. So, if Egypt and the Sudan import
some 'virtual water', they would leave some water to the hitherto disadvantaged
riparian states such as Ethiopia.
(e) Increasing joint efforts in the use of water-saving technologies such as
drip irrigation which pipes only as much water as crops need delivering it
directly to their roots (so-called green water). Besides, more efficient
on-field use and reduced release of water at Aswan for navigational
purposes could also save the much needed water in the Nile basin.
It could, in the final analysis, be stated that the allocation policy should establish
the minimum acceptable flow from each basin, the advantage of which is that it can
be used flexibly to set seasonal standards for natural and local anomalies and river
quality in fluctuating demands (Zewdie: 1990). Mechanisms should, somehow, be
sought by which "...an accommodation could be arrived at through direct
negotiations based on the principle of equitable share, common interest and
legitimate needs of each user state" (Shuval & IWRA, 1992: 133)
5. Summary and Conclusions
The Nile is one of the longest rivers in the world that flows south-north from the
Equatorial Lakes Region towards the Mediterranean Sea. In its long journey, it
traverses about ten independent African countries from Tanzania in the south to
Egypt in the north. About 85% of the total annual discharge of the Nile comes from
Ethiopia leaving the remaining 15 per cent to the Equatorial Lakes Region.
Unlike some other shared river basins in the world, there is no comprehensive
agreement in the utilization of the Nile waters. The hitherto existing treaties are either
bilateral or are deliberately planned by colonial forces to serve the interests of the
downstream countries, particularly Egypt. These have been done in violation of the
Helsinki and ILC Rules. Egypt's 'water security' policy is based on Nile water
obsession. They attempt to block all venues that can lead to a fair and equitable
distribution of the Nile waters. Whenever any co-basin country lays a plan to use
the water in its own territory, the Egyptians react by making threats of war. The
Sudan, on the other hand, has always been forced to fall under the whims of
Anglo-Egyptian and later Egyptian hegemony. Treaties, agreements and hydraulic
works in the Sudan have always been designed first and foremost to suit the
interests of Egypt. Ethiopia has all along aired her objections and reservations to the
water-sharing agreements and out-of basin transfers. It has also repeatedly made it
clear to both the downstream countries that it has a legitimate right to use the Nile
waters that flow within its own territory. The White Nile riparian states have so far
developed a peripheral interest in the distribution of the Nile waters.
The Nile riparian states could bring the stalemate to an end if and only if (a) the 1959
bilateral deal between Egypt and the Sudan is discarded; (b) water redistribution to
the basin countries is made by giving weight to factors such as present-day water
demand, food security status, degree of dependence on the Nile waters, the volume
of water contribution to the river, basin area, portion of the river within one's own
territory; (c) pragmatic solutions that could save water in the basin are made (e.g. the
establishment of dams and reservoirs in Ethiopia to reduce losses caused by
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