The River Nile has always been the region of great importance. Nowadays, one can see two competitors, the source and mouth countries, which try to gain control over the water resources in order to satisfy their urgent needs. As the population of these countries is rapidly growing and the economic advancement becomes the issue of significance, both groups claim they have their rights to use the River Nile’s water. The recent literature on the history of the conflict and its development up to the present day has been examined. The information about the Egypt’s monopoly on the usage of water and the concerns connected with the water-scarcity tendencies and resource sharing is emphasized. The conclusion that pertains to the necessity to collaborate and take into account the interests of all countries is drawn.
The River Nile, one of the longest and largest rivers in the annual water flow, has always been the main backbone for civilizations which thrive on and around its long valley floor, especially the lower northernmost parts of it. While historically there has been no apparent conflict over the share of access to the Nile’s waters among different countries, today, the situation has changed. Due to the rapidly expanding populations and economies of the communities that rely directly on the Nile as the main source of fresh water, there is a growing conflict between two sets of countries: source countries and mouth countries. The former group includes the territories where the Nile River begins and flows from the rainforests to the large falls. To the north, the countries from the latter group are situated; the river streams for hundreds of kilometers up north of the African continent and flows into the Mediterranean Sea.
The present paper aims at a closer look into the details of that conflict. It will be considered what the future is likely to hold for these countries, especially after the numerous attempts to broker a deal and negotiate the rights on the river.1
Geographical and Historical Background
The River Nile runs through the territories of 11 countries; the water of its major tributaries, the White Nile and the Blue Nile, comes from Lake Victoria, the mountains of Burundi, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the first case and Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Sudan in the second one.2 Many researchers also include the Atbara which flows from North-West Ethiopia to the Nile in East Sudan.3 More than three thousand square kilometers are supplied with water by the river, and it is the sole source of renewable fresh water in this region. Owing to the influence of the river, the Basin’s climate is tropical in the equatorial area not far from the Great Lakes and the Ethiopian highlands; in comparison, the climate is dry in Sudan and Egypt.
More than 450 million people who live in both source and mouth countries depend on the River Nile’s water sources, and the population is expected to continue to grow.4 Agriculture is the most sensitive to any changes sector of the economy because some of the countries, such as Egypt, have no other sources of fresh water and exclusively count on the Nile in relation to crops irrigation. Ethiopia also serves as the example of a country with the expanding population, and it urgently needs water to satisfy its agricultural needs. Under these circumstances, the dangerous water-scarcity tendencies registered in the last century are even more alarming. The reason for this phenomenon is the climate change that has made a substantial impact on the river basin.
From the historical perspective, there have been no conflicts pertaining to the usage of the river for a long time. The first difficulties are associated with the colonial history that is marked by many bilateral and trilateral treaties which addressed water allocations issues. Nowadays, the past events continue to be significant. The present-day context is marked with the concerns over the extension of the conflict. In spite of this serious situation, some riparians, namely Egypt and Ethiopia, have ambitious plans to use more water and launch hydroelectricity projects along the Nile.5 Therefore, the current situation is complicated because of the perplexing history and the growing needs of all parties.
The History of Treaties and Agreements
The studies of the relationships among different countries depending on the River Nile and its resources are based on the consideration of the treaties and agreements that have been negotiated for a long period of time and their long-term influence. According to Kimenyi and Mbaku, the first agreement was concluded in 1929 between Egypt and Great Britain: the terms of the utilization of the waters of the Nile River were discussed.6 It is considered that the most important issue is the annual water allocation of 48 billion cubic meters gained by Egypt while the treaty allowed Sudan only four billion cubic meters. As Paisley and Henshaw point out, the early treaties mainly benefited the downstream states, Sudan and Egypt, without much benefit to the now nine upstream states.7 Thus, the first agreement serves as a perfect example.
Later on, a new bilateral agreement was signed between, again, Egypt and sovereign Sudan in 1959. The water allocation rates were increased for both states. Similar to the previous agreement, other parties, even Ethiopia the highlands of which supply the river with water, were not considered, and this fact is often discussed in the academic literature. Said demonstrates that the situation often becomes the example of unremitting and open conflict, or, at least, incipient and barely camouflaged competition.8 Between 1929 and 1959, there were more agreements, known as the Nile Waters Agreements, that established unfavorable policies concerning the specific regulations of construction projects: none of them could be carried out on the Nile River or any of its tributaries until the Egypt’s approval is obtained. Naturally, this state of affairs could not be accepted by the countries that had no access to the water resources, and disagreements occurred.
In spite of the history of fruitless negotiations over allocation and development, the first important steps were taken in the 1980s, namely the research pertaining to technical issues and the resources policies.1999 is notable for the shift of paradigm: the Nile River riparian states, except for Eritrea, signed the Nile Basin Initiative making an attempt to promote cooperation on the use of the common Nile Basin water resources, and the states started working on developing a permanent legal and institutional framework for governing the Nile River resources9. This event is viewed as the turning point in the relationships among the River Nile Basin, but, at the same time, researchers express the opinion that the modern events will bring more troubles and tension between the source and mouth countries since some contradictions.10
The Egypt’s “Historical Right” Argument
The essence of the today’s controversy embodies the past challenges and simultaneously reflects the tendencies of the development of the countries. The Entebbe Agreement is being widely discussed. On the one hand, mouth countries, particularly Egypt, claim that they have the “historic rights” to the River Nile and its resources. It means that the country which historically defended its share should remain the main consumer of the water resources. Indeed, the country not only heavily depends on them but also has been involved in significant historical events.
Therefore, Egypt draws attention to the fact that Ethiopia should respect the previous agreements of 1929 and 1959 (the principle of historic rights was used in the first document).11 It is also emphasized that the reservation of the same rights is the issue of life and death as it has always been: it is the Nile’s seasonal flooding that has been guaranteeing its survival and progress throughout the whole history. In this respect, Egypt is going to follow its present-day policy and insist on its large share of the water resources.
The Counterargument of the Source Countries
The opposing party, the source countries, also claim that they have the right to make use of the River Nile’s resources. The upstream territories are characterized by the population increase: today, Uganda and Ethiopia are both experiencing extremely high population growth at about 3% per annum correspondingly.12 The steady economic growth instantiated by the developing agriculture, industries, and individual residences demands the river’s resources.
As a result, the regions that lack resources because of the Egypt’s and Sudan’s monopoly in the past maintain their rights. In this context, Ethiopia and other countries urgently need dams, irrigation networks, and pipelines. For example, the construction of Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam is a testament to its economic enhancement which takes place through new provisions for development along the Nile for riparian nations.13 Thus, one can see that Ethiopia and other source countries have their reasons for the arguments: not only the historical justice but also the current demographic trends and economic situation are taken into account. Hence, both sides are concerned with their prosperity ensured by the River Nile’s resources.
Overall, the present-day tension in the countries which are the part of the River Nile’s Valley is rooted in the past. It is stated that the unjust agreements of the past violated the rights of some regions that also depend on the water resources of the river and need them in order to make progress.14 As a result, Egypt, Ethiopia, and other stakeholders face a pressing problem of the distribution of the limited resources, and it accounts for the conflict environment.
The only reliable source of fresh water supply, the River Nile has had a significant influence on the transnational politics of the region and continues to do it. The Entebbe Agreement has changed the imbalance of control over the Nile and its resources, but the problems remain. Although Egypt and Sudan do not have a monopoly now, the confrontation between them and the source countries gives ground for concern. Multiple factors make an impact. The most significant instigators of the conflict are the population growth and the shift to the renewable sources of power, particularly electricity.
The stumbling block is the Grand Renaissance Dam construction. This project has arisen heated arguments since Egypt believes it will deteriorate the situation and lead to the water flow reduction: as long as the source countries put the dam intro practice, Egypt is expected to lose from 20 to 30% of its share of the Nile water and more than 30% of its electric power. Both parties understand that the loss of power is impermissible in the context of the population upsurge and believe that any concession will cause troubles.
If the current tendencies of water overuse and strong population growth continue, the possible reallocation of the Nile’s water supply to other riparian states poses a threat to Egypt, Ethiopia, and other countries because they will have to face the problem of managing the great water scarcity in future.15 These tendencies raise considerable concerns, and the task of paramount importance is to engage all Nile-nations in peaceful collaboration.
Di Nunzio, Jack. “Conflict on the Nile: The Future of Transboundary Water Disputes over the World’s Longest River.” Future Directions International. Web.
Keith, Bruce, Kevin Epp, Michael Houghton, Jonathan Lee and Robert Mayville. “Water as a Conflict Driver: Estimating the Effects of Climate Change and Hydroelectric Dam Diversion on Nile River Stream Flow During the 21st Century.” Center for Nation Reconstruction and Capacity Development (2014): 1-83.
Kimenyi, Mwangi S. and John Mukum Mbaku. “The Limits of the New “Nile Agreement.” The Brookings Institution. Web.
Melesse, Assefa M., Wossenu Abtew and Shimelis G. Setegn. Nile River Basin. New York: Springer, 2011.
Paisley, Richard K. and Taylor W. Henshaw. “Transboundary Governance of the Nile River Basin: Past, Present and Future.” Environmental Development 7, no. 1 (2013): 59-71.
Said, Rushdi. The River Nile: Geology, Hydrology and Utilization. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2013.
Tvedt, Terje. The River Nile in the Post-Colonial Age: Conflict and Cooperation Among the Nile Basin Countries. New York: IB Tauris, 2011.
- Terje Tvedt, The River Nile in the Post-Colonial Age: Conflict and Cooperation Among the Nile Basin Countries (New York: IB Tauris, 2011), p. 3.
- Paisley, Richard K. and Taylor W. Henshaw, “Transboundary Governance of the Nile River Basin: Past, Present and Future,” Environmental Development 7, no. 1 (2013): 61.
- Jack Di Nunzio, “Conflict on the Nile: The Future of Transboundary Water Disputes over the World’s Longest River,” Future Directions International, Web.
- Assefa M. Melesse, Wossenu Abtew and Shimelis G. Setegn, Nile River Basin (New York: Springer, 2011), 103.
- Mwangi S. Kimenyi and John Mukum Mbaku, “The Limits of the New “Nile Agreement,” The Brookings Institution, Web.
- Paisley and Henshaw, “Transboundary Governance,” 64.
- Rushdi Said, The River Nile: Geology, Hydrology and Utilization (Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2013), 106.
- Paisley and Henshaw, “Transboundary Governance,” 66.
- Di Nunzio, “Conflict on the Nile.”
- Bruce Keith, Kevin Epp, Michael Houghton, Jonathan Lee and Robert Mayville, “Water as a Conflict Driver: Estimating the Effects of Climate Change and Hydroelectric Dam Diversion on Nile River Stream Flow During the 21st Century,” Center for Nation Reconstruction and Capacity Development (2014): 17.
- Melesse, Abtew and Setegn, Nile River Basin, 136.