The Hydropolitical Perspective of the Nile Question


The Hydropolitical Perspective of the Nile Question


By Tesfaye Tafesse, June 29,2000




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,

'virtual water',


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 " 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

protectionist policy.


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, " 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 [1986],

Technical Cooperation Commission for the Promotion and Development of the Nile

(TECCONILE) [1992] and the Nile Basin Cooperative Framework [1997]. 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

water demands.


(b) Some Nile experts such as Whittington and McClelland have suggested

the establishment of reservoirs on the Blue Nile in Ethiopia, for, they say

" 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 " 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

downstream evapotranspiration and seepage); and (d) if the import of 'virtual water'

in food staples is opted to make more water in the basin.




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