Water politics in the Nile Basin

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The Nile, its tributaries, and the countries of the region

The Nile river is subject to political interactions. It is the world's longest river flowing 6,700 kilometers through ten countries in northeastern AfricaRwanda, Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Sudan and Egypt with varying climates.

Considering the basin area of the Nile, Sudan has the largest size (1.9 million km²) whereas, of the four major tributaries to the Nile, three originate from Ethiopia – the Blue Nile, Sobat and Atbara. The modern history of hydropolitics in the Nile basin is very complex and has had wide ramifications both for regional and global developments.[1]


The following table sort of demonstrates [2] the water availability in each country within the Nile basin, and researchers' estimates of decrease in water availability to these countries, due largely to an increase in the countries' populations.

Country Population 1995 (millions) Population 2025 (millions) GNP per capita 1996 (US $) Population below the poverty line (1US$/day) (PPP) (%) Per capita water availability 1990 (m³) Per capita water availability 2025 (m³)
Burundi 6.4 13.5 170 655 269
DRC 43.9 104.6 160 359,803 139,309
Egypt 62.9 97.3 1,090 7.6 1,123 630
Ethiopia 55.1 126.9 100 33.8 2,207 842
Kenya 28.8 63.4 320 50.2 636 235
Rwanda 8 15.8 190 45.7 897 306
Sudan 28.1 58.4 4,792 1,993
Tanzania 29.7 62.9 170 16.4 2,924 1,025
Uganda 21.3 48.1 300 50 3,759 1,437

Sudan also has hydraulic potential and has created four dams in the last century. This has resulted in the development so far of 18,000 km² of irrigated land, making Sudan the second most extensive user of the Nile, after Egypt.[3]

While Egypt is highly dependent on the Nile, there are factors that may lead to the necessity of conflict over the distribution of the Nile's water supply. For example, Egypt has such an agriculturally-dependent economy. Further, Egypt is already dependent on virtual water imports, a strategy which may lead that country to attempt future water conflicts.[4] Ethiopia's tributaries supply about 86 percent of the waters of the Nile. Egypt has historically threatened war on Ethiopia and Tanzania over the Nile river. Egypt armed Somali separatist rebels in Ethiopia during and since the Somalia invasion of Ethiopia in the 1970s.[5] Over the years, the involved states have put agreements and treaties into place so that conflict can be controlled.

Egypt and the Nile[edit]

Egyptian civilization has sustained itself utilizing water management and agriculture for some 5,000 years in the Nile River valley. The Egyptians practiced basin irrigation, a form of water management adapted to the natural rise and fall of the Nile River. Since around 3000 BCE, the Egyptians constructed earthen banks to form flood basins of various sizes that were regulated by sluices to floodwater into the basin where it would sit until the soil was saturated, the water was then drained, and crops planted. This method of agriculture did not deplete the soil of nutrients or cause salinization problems experienced by modern agricultural methods.[6]

Egyptian Colonization[edit]

In 1875, the Conservative government of Benjamin Disraeli bought the indebted Egyptian ruler Ismail's 44% shareholding in the Suez Canal for £4 million to secure control of this strategic waterway, a channel for shipping between the United Kingdom and India since its opening six years earlier under Emperor Napoleon III. Joint Anglo-French financial control over Egypt ended in outright British occupation in 1882. In 1898, the British reconquered Sudan, cleared vegetation along the Nile River and created alternative drainage paths to divert water and improve flow.

Treaties Affecting Nile Water Use[edit]

Treaties have resulted in inequitable rights to the use of Nile water between the countries of the Nile Basin.

  • April 15, 1891 – Article III of the Anglo-Italian Protocol. Article III states that "the Italian government engages not to construct on the Atbara River, in view of irrigation, any work which might sensibly modify its flow into the Nile". The language used in this article was too vague to provide clear property rights or rights to the use of water.
  • May 15, 1902 – Article III of the Treaty between Great Britain and Ethiopia. Article three states “His Majesty the Emperor Menilik II, King of Kings of Ethiopia, engages himself towards the Government of His Britannic Majesty not to construct or allow to be constructed any work across the Blue Nile, Lake Tana, or the Sobat, which would arrest the flow of their waters except in agreement with His Britannic Majesty’s Government and the Government of Sudan" This agreement has become one of the most contested agreements over the use of the Nile waters. The aim of this treaty was to establish the border between Ethiopia and the Sudan. One of its articles, number III, related to the use of Nile water. The English version, as reviewed by Britain and later by the Sudan, read: "His Majesty the Emperor Menilik II, King of Kings of Ethiopia, engages himself towards the Government of His Britannic Majesty not to construct or allow to be constructed any work across the Blue Nile, Lake Tana, or the Sobat, which would arrest the flow of their waters except in agreement with His Britannic Majesty’s Government and the Government of Sudan."[7] The Amharic version, however, gave a different meaning and understanding to Ethiopia[8] and "was never ratified by this country."
  • May 9, 1906 – Article III of the Agreement between Britain and the Government of the Independent State of the Congo. Article III states "The Government of the independent state of the Congo undertakes not to construct, or allow to be constructed, any work over or near the Semliki or Isango river which would diminish the volume of water entering Lake Albert except in agreement with the Sudanese Government". Belgium signed this agreement on behalf of the Congo despite the agreement favoring only the downstream users of the Nile waters and restricting the people of the Congo from accessing their part of the Nile.
  • December 13, 1906 – Article 4(a) of the Tripartite Treaty (Britain-France-Italy). Article 4(a) states “To act together... to safeguard; ... the interests of Great Britain and Egypt in the Nile Basin, more especially as regards the regulation of the waters of that river and its tributaries (due consideration being paid to local interests) without prejudice to Italian interests". This treaty, in effect, denied Ethiopia its sovereign right over the use of its own water. Ethiopia has rejected the treaty their military and political power was not sufficient to regain its use of the Nile water.
  • The 1925 exchange of notes between Britain and Italy concerning Lake Tana which states "...Italy recognizes the prior hydraulic rights of Egypt and the Sudan... not to construct on the head waters of the Blue Nile and the White Nile (the Sobat) and their tributaries and effluents any work which might sensibly modify their flow into the main river." Ethiopia opposed the agreement and notified both parties of its objections:

"To the Italian government: The fact that you have come to an agreement, and the fact that you have thought it necessary to give us a joint notification of that agreement, make it clear that your intention is to exert pressure, and this in our view, at once raises a previous question. This question which calls for preliminary examination, must therefore be laid before the League of Nations."

"To the British government: The British Government has already entered into negotiations with the Ethiopian Government in regard to its proposal, and we had imagined that, whether that proposal was carried into effect or not, the negotiations would have been concluded with us; we would never have suspected that the British Government would come to an agreement with another Government regarding our Lake."

When an explanation was required from the British and the Italian governments by the League of Nations, they denied challenging Ethiopia’s sovereignty over Lake Tana.[9] Not withstanding, however there was no explicit mechanism enforcing the agreement. A reliable and self-enforcing mechanism that can protect the property rights of each stakeholder is essential if the principle of economically and ecologically sustainable international water development is to be applied.

  • May 7, 1929 – The Agreement between Egypt and Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. This agreement included:
    • Egypt and Sudan utilize 48 and 4 billion cubic meters of the Nile flow per year, respectively;
    • The flow of the Nile during January 20 to July 15 (dry season) would be reserved for Egypt;
    • Egypt reserves the right to monitor the Nile flow in the upstream countries;
    • Egypt assumed the right to undertake Nile river related projects without the consent of upper riparian states.
    • Egypt assumed the right to veto any construction projects that would affect her interests adversely.

In effect, this agreement gave Egypt complete control over the Nile during the dry season when water is most needed for agricultural irrigation. It also severely limits the amount of water allotted Sudan and provides no water to any of the other riparian states.

  • The 1959 Nile Waters Agreement between the Sudan and Egypt for full control utilization of the Nile waters. This agreement included:
    • The controversy on the quantity of average annual Nile flow was settled and agreed to be about 84 billion cubic meters measured at Aswan High Dam, in Egypt.
    • The agreement allowed the entire average annual flow of the Nile to be shared among the Sudan and Egypt at 18.5 and 55.5 billion cubic meters, respectively.
    • Annual water loss due to evaporation and other factors were agreed to be about 10 billion cubic meters. This quantity would be deducted from the Nile yield before share was assigned to Egypt and Sudan.
    • Sudan, in agreement with Egypt, would construct projects that would enhance the Nile flow by preventing evaporation losses in the Sudd swamps of the White Nile located in the southern Sudan. The cost and benefit of same to be divided equally between them. If claim would come from the remaining riparian countries over the Nile water resource, both the Sudan and Egypt shall, together, handle the claims.
    • If the claim prevails and the Nile water has to be shared with another riparian state, that allocated amount would be deducted from the Sudan’s and Egypt’s and allocations/shares in equal parts of Nile volume measured at Aswan.
    • The agreement granted Egypt the right to construct the Aswan High Dam that can store the entire annual Nile River flow of a year.
    • It granted the Sudan to construct the Rosaries Dam on the Blue Nile and, to develop other irrigation and hydroelectric power generation until it fully utilizes its Nile share.
    • A Permanent Joint Technical Commission to be established to secure the technical cooperation between them.[10]

Nile Basin Initiative[edit]

The Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) is a partnership among the Nile Riparian states that “seeks to develop the river in a cooperative manner, share substantial socioeconomic benefits, and promote regional peace and security”. It was formally launched in February 1999 by the water ministers of 9 countries that share the river – Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo with Eritrea as an observer.

International Law Context[edit]

  • 1996: The Helsinki Rules on the Uses of the Waters of International Rivers – Adopted by the International Law Association at the 52nd conference held in Helsinki in August 1966, the rules govern use of waters of an international drainage basin except as may be provided otherwise by convention, agreement or binding custom among the basin States.
  • 1995: Protocol on Shared Watercourse Systems in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region signed at Johannesburg, 28 August 1995 recognized the following principles:
    • BEARING in mind the Helsinki Rules on uses of the waters of International Rivers and the work of the International Law Commission on the non-navigational uses of international watercourses;
    • RECOGNISING the relevant provisions of Agenda 21 of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, the concepts of environmentally sound management, sustainable development and equitable utilization of shared watercourse systems in the SADC Region;
    • CONSIDERING the existing and emerging socio-economic development programs in the SADC region and their impact on the environment;
    • DESIROUS of developing close co-operation for judicious and coordinated utilization of the resources of the shared watercourse systems in the SADC region;
    • CONVINCED of the need for coordinated and environmentally sound development of the resources of shared watercourse systems in the SADC region in order to support sustainable socio-economic development;
    • RECOGNISING that there are as yet no regional conventions regulating common utilization and management of the resources of shared watercourse systems in the SADC region;
    • MINDFUL of the existence of other Agreements in the SADC region regarding the Common utilization of certain watercourses.


Effects of Treaties and Policies on Nile Basin Water Use[edit]

During the colonial period, Britain effectively controlled the Nile through its military presence in Africa. Since Sudanese independence, Sudan has renegotiated with Egypt over the use of the Nile waters. The 1959 agreement between Sudan and Egypt allocated the entire average annual flow of the Nile to be shared among the Sudan and Egypt at 18.5 and 55.5 billion cubic meters respectively, but ignored the rights to water of the remaining eight Nile countries. Ethiopia contributes 80% of the total Nile flow, but by the 1959 agreement is entitled to none of its resources. However, the agreement between Egypt and Sudan is not binding on Ethiopia as it was never a party to it.[12] Since the early 1990s, Ethiopia has successfully countered Egyptian and Sudanese resistance to water development projects in Ethiopia to increase irrigation and hydroelectric potential.[13] Since May 2010, Ethiopia and the other upper riparian states have launched the Nile Basin Cooperative Framework Agreement in a bid to ensure an equitable utilization between all the riparian states of the Nile.[14]

Prospects of cooperation in the Nile Basin[edit]

Egypt continues to be the primary user of Nile water. According to Swain and Fadel, political instability and poverty in the other nine riparian countries has limited their ability to move toward socioeconomic development of the Nile.[15][16] According to Lemma, the greatest question facing the Nile riparian states is: Will the Nile Basin Initiative help them overcome the unjust and unequal distribution of Nile water resources? [17]

Other issues in hydropolitics[edit]

Pollution of the Nile River[edit]

While most of the river’s water quality is within acceptable levels, there are several hot spots mostly found in the irrigation canals and drainages. Sources of pollutants are from agricultural, industrial, and household waste. There are 36 industries that discharge their pollution sources directly into the Nile, and 41 into irrigation canals. These types of industries are: chemical, electrical, engineering, fertilizers, food, metal, mining, oil and soap, pulp and paper, refractory, textile and wood. There are over 90 agricultural drains that discharge into the Nile that also include industrial wastewater.[18] The water exceeds the European Community Standards of fecal contamination and there is a high salinization and saline intrusion in the delta. Salinization happens when there’s a buildup of salts in the soil. The soil cannot retain water which prevents anything from growing. Saline intrusion is when the ground is saturated with saltwater. The northeast Nile Delta region has a high incident rate of pancreatic cancer that is believed to be from high levels of heavy metals and organchlorine pesticides found in the soil and water. Exposure to cadmium is most commonly known through smoking, though it is believed that in this region, the exposure is from contact through the heavy metals and pesticides found in the soil and water.[19] Schistosomiasis (a disease caused by parasitic worms) has been found in irrigation canals along with benthic cyanobacteria forming mats. [1][20]

Irrigation Canals[edit]

Agriculture is the largest consumer of water in Egypt using about 85% of available water.[21] Drainage water from the agricultural fields contains pollutants such as pesticide residues, toxic organic and inorganic pollutants, salts and treated and untreated domestic wastewater. In the East – Delta drains – Faraskour, Serw and Hadous, samples of the water contained high levels of hookworms and other intestinal helminth eggs.[22] In villages where the only available water is from irrigation canals, women use the water for domestic purposes and also dump the used water back into the drainages. In some areas, low water levels do not reach the waterways, so farmers build illegal waterwheels to get the water up the canals to irrigate their land. Lack of drainage canals and the enforcement by officials to address these problems contribute to pollution of land and water. Villagers drinking polluted water have been affected with kidney and liver diseases.[23] Animal manure, dredged sediments from drains and sludge for fertilizer are leached and the contaminants are a major source of pollution. Agricultural drainage water reuse is used by farmers legally and illegally. Improper irrigation and lack of education on effective irrigation methods and crop production contributes to crop failure and polluting of canals. In areas where there is no formal operational structure for pumping water of individual diesel pumps, the tail-end users usually are not getting enough water to maintain crops.[24]

Government and farmers[edit]

There are twenty-five agencies under seven ministries that are involved in maintaining water quality, but communications and data-sharing between agencies are underdeveloped.[25] Water user associations, nongovernmental associations of farmers who organize an irrigation process of all agricultural land, maintain diesel pumps and deal with conflicts between farmers and water management. They have been around since 1988 but have lacked structure and the inclusion of women, who are seen as contributors to pollution of irrigation canals since they wash clothes, dishes and animals in drainages.[26]

The lack of planning, corruption I governmental departments, the neglecting of concerns and disbursement of low-quality land to the poor, the improper education of safe handling methods and improper irrigation and crop management for men and women, all contribute to poor water quality. Money is a major factor in improving thise areas, but in the case of erasing corruption and improving interdepartmental communication, stricter rules and enforcement can be done immediately. Increasing Water User Associations (WUAs) and establishing a communication chain between them and government departments ar recommended. Appointing field supervisors for designated areas to oversee WUAs and educate farmers on irrigation methods (like drip irrigation that applies water to the root zone and can reduce water use by 30 to 60 percent), effective water distribution during crop cycle, crop rotation and soil management. Field supervisors can also monitor water levels, check on the maintenance of pumps and report on drainage structures.

The World Bank has financed the agricultural drainage program in Egypt since 1970. The program equips agricultural land with subsurface drains, which are made of plastic pipes produced in government-owned plants in the Nile Valley and Delta. Landholders pay for the installation of drains on a 20-year interest-free annual installments. Subsurface drainage has shown to improve soil conditions and crop yield. Educating farmers on using subsurface drainages is needed to prevent a disruption of water supply to all connected fields. Since the drainages cannot be seen on the surface, a farmer who closes a drain to keep more water in his field prevent water from reaching users beyond it.[27]


Somaliland takes part Nile river solutions agricultural lands are not charged for water, but are for irrigation and drainage improvements, WUAs should be responsible for payment as it would produce a group responsibility of all members. Monitoring of water and soil quality should be left to the WUAs and reported to field supervisors which then report to the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation (MWRI) office. Since the effort to produce clean water will take time, steps that can be taken as short-term results are: Tapping into shallow wells for drinking water obtained from fields and unlined canals; since the soil acts as a filter it can remove contaminants. Consulting with farmers when designing irrigation systems for optimal performance should be taken into consideration. (IWMI, 2006) Informing the public of safe handling of food methods, the use of manure and mulching crop residue, less evasive tillage and rotating crops that do not need the same nutrients to improve the soils ability to hold water, and switching to short duration crops to decrease water consumption is advised. Proper application of reused drainage water during a crops growth cycle is optimal. In Giza, they have the largest governorate discharge of agricultural, industrial and domestic sewage that goes directly into the Nile through three drains without treatment. A solution is to construct three wastewater treatment plants with “activated sludge” and “high capacity”. “Activated sludge” is the cheapest technology that reduces E. coli and biological oxygen demand (BOD) concentrations and switching the Abu-Rawash treatment plant from primary to activated sludge.[28] Public and industrial awareness should also be promoted to reduce illegal dumping. Public awareness can help achieve efficient water usage and cleaner water. Increased monitoring of discharged areas and enforcing fines of illegal dumping should be integrated in already established government offices. Monitoring of these enforcements should be done by an outside source like the World Bank since they have provided Egypt with financing for improvements of water usage. If the World Bank finds the government has not enforced the established fines, then they can add exceptions to their loan agreements that would create incentives for enforcement of fines.


Some scholars downplay the geopolitical importance of water. Jan Selby and Thomas Gnyra, for instance, argue that whilst oil has been a principal cause of regional economic growth, adequate water supply has been a product. Selby claims the 'water wars' is also weak in terms of failed forecasts,[4] and that conflict in the last century was more often due to oil than water.

Others argue that there are more important foreign policy concerns than water, which relate to ideological, economic and strategic relations with neighbouring states (and with outside powers), and access to 'goods' such as foreign aid and investment, oil revenues and remittances, illegal economies and military hardware make water conflict a marginal concern.[4]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ See Tvedt, Terje (2004/2006). The River Nile in the Age of the British. Political Ecology & the Quest for Economic Power, IB Tauris (2004), American University Press, Cairo (2006), Waterbury, John (1979). Hydropolitics of the Nile Valley, University of Syracuse Press, and Tvedt, Terje (ed.), (2010). The River Nile in the Post-Colonial Age. Conflict and Cooperation among the Nile Basin Countries, IB. Tauris.
  2. ^ M Chatteri et al. (2002) Conflict Management of Water Resources. Hampshire, Ashgate Publishing Ltd. p. 146
  3. ^ T Tafesse. (2001). The Nile Question: Hydropolitics, Legal Wrangling, Modus Vivendi and Perspectives. London, Transaction Publishers
  4. ^ a b c J Selby. The Geopolitics of Water in the Middle East: Fantasies and Realities in the Third World Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 2. pp. 329–349 (2005)
  5. ^ Somalia and Ethiopia conflict, Egypt
  6. ^ S Postel.(1999) Egypt's Nile Valley Basin Irrigation http://www.waterhistory.org/
  7. ^ (Okidi, 1994:324; Tilahun, 1979)
  8. ^ Mesfin Abebe (addess of Nov. 24, 1994), in The Nile – Source of Regional Cooperation or Conflict?, 20 Water Int'l 32 (1995).
  9. ^ (Tilahun, 1970:90)
  10. ^ K. Mekonnen, The Defects and Effects of Past Treaties and Agreements on the Nile River Waters: Whose Faults Were they? (1999), http://www.ethiopians.com/abay/engin.html.
  11. ^ FAO Corporate Document Repository. (1995) Protocol on shared watercourse systems in the Southern African development community (SADC) region signed at Johannesburg, 28 August 1995. http://www.fao.org/docrep/W7414B/w7414b0n.htm.
  12. ^ http://www.fao.org/3/w7414b/w7414b13.htm
  13. ^ Ashok Swain. (2002) SAIS Review. The Nile Basin Initiative: Too Many Cooks, Too Little Broth. 22:2. pp. 293–308.
  14. ^ Abadir M. Ibrahim, The Nile Basin Cooperative Framework Agreement: The Beginning of the End of Egyptian Hydro-Political Hegemony, 18 Missouri Environmental Law and Policy Review 282 (2011). http://law.missouri.edu/melpr/recentpublications/Ibrahim.pdf
  15. ^ A. Swain. (2002)SAIS Review. The Nile Basin Initiative: Too Many Cooks, Too Little Broth. 22:2. pp. 293–308.
  16. ^ M. El Fadel. (2003)Journal of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Education: The Nile Basin: a Case Study in Surface Water Conflict Resolution. 32:7. pp. 107–117.
  17. ^ S. Lemma. (2001) Cooperating on the Nile not a Zero-sum Game. UN Chronicle. 3. p. 65.
  18. ^ NBI, 2005.Nile Basin Initiative, 2005. Nile Basin National Water Quality Monitoring Baseline Study Report for Egypt
  19. ^ Soliman, A, et al. 2005. Environmental Contamination and Toxicology: Geographical Clustering of Pancreatic Cancers in the Northeast Nile Delta Region of Egypt:
  20. ^ Khairy, A. 1998. Eastern Mediterranean Health Journal: Water Contact Activities and Schistosomiasis Infection in menoufia, Nile Delta, Egypt: Volume 4, Issue 1 pp. 100-106
  21. ^ Nile Basin Initiative, 2005. Nile Basin National Water Quality Monitoring Baseline Study Report for Egypt
  22. ^ Water Policy Program, 2002. Survey of Nile System Pollution Sources Report No. 64.
  23. ^ Land Center for Human Rights, 2005. Water Problems in the Egyptian Countryside Between Corruption and Lack of Planning, Case Studies of Two Egyptian Villages, Land and Farmers Series, Issue No. 32
  24. ^ IPRID Secretariat, 2005. Rapid Assessment Study Towards Integrated Planning of Irrigation and Drainage in Egypt Final Report 2005
  25. ^ Water Policy Program, 2002. Survey of Nile System Pollution Sources Report No. 64.
  26. ^ El Awady, N. 2005 Government-Imposed Non-Governmental Water Associations * A Solution or Just More Trouble? September 25, 2005 http://www.islamonline.net/servlet/Satellite?c=Article_C&cid=1157962441126&pagename=Zone-English-HealthScience%2FHSELayout
  27. ^ Knegt, J. 2000. Drainage in Developing Countries: A Review of Institutional Arrangements. Wageningen University The Netherlands
  28. ^ Said, A. 1999, Analysis of Nile Water Pollution Control Strategies: A Case Study Using The Decision Support System for Water Quality Management, JCID-CHID