Nile Dispute and the Dilemma of National Approaches

nileAmid deep political turmoil, there is a mounting concern in Egypt as Ethiopia forges ahead with its plan to build the $4.8 billion Grand Renaissance Dam on the Nile’s main tributary. The hydroelectric dam, to be Africa’s biggest, sounded the alarm bell for Egypt due to its possible impact on the flow of the river. After negotiations with Ethiopia and Sudan reached a dead-end, Egypt is now engaged in a diplomatic campaign aiming to halt European Support for the project. During a recent visit to Italy, Egypt’s irrigation minister asked his interlocutors to attempt to convince Italian companies to halt works on the dam. He was told that the Italian government has no authority over Italian companies operating abroad. However, Italy offered instead to mediate between Egypt and Ethiopia.

Increasing needs fuel inter-state competition

The Egypt-Ethiopia dam row takes place in a context of water scarcity in the region offering a vivid example of the irrationality of national approaches to the use of water in shared rivers. The surge in population growth, the expansion of industrial and agricultural activity and the irregularity of rainfall are putting enormous pressure on the Nile riparian states to meet the increasing domestic demand on water. This, in turn, fuels inter-state competition and leads to unilateral measures creating a situation that feeds into the pessimist forecast of a looming war over water in Northeast Africa.
Although conflicts over the Nile led more to cooperation than confrontation in the past, there are examples in recent history where national initiatives to secure water supply caused armed conflict. In the Middle East, Syria’s attempts at diverting the Jordan River during the 1960s raised Israel’s concerns over its water supply leading indirectly to the Arab-Israeli war of 1967. Syria and Iraq were on the brink of war in 1978 when the former completed the Thawra dam on the Euphrate River and began to fill in the lake Assad which reduced the flow of the river to Iraq. Turkey’s plans to build water reservoirs on the Euphrates and Tigris rivers impacted the water flow to downstream states simmering tension during the 1990s.
The current dispute over the Nile fits into the dilemma of collective action. The resort to unilateral approaches to the strategic use of shared rivers risks to impact negatively on other riparian countries’ supply of such a critical resource. For Egypt, the river represents its only source of water and has thus been at the heart of its national strategy to an extent of being spoken of as a matter of national security. It is no coincidence that the building of the Aswan Dam in southern Egypt was considered as the country’s biggest project in the 1960s by the then President Gamal Abdel Nasser. The dam created a significant water reservoir called Lake Nasser, the largest manmade lake in the world.

Nile River, a matter of national security

Egypt has maintained the upper hand over the bulk of the withdrawals from Nile since the 1929 agreement signed with Britain, the colonial power at the time in the Nile upstream countries. The agreement gave Egypt the right to veto any project that would affect the flow of the river. The deal largely favored Egypt to the detriment of upstream states. It has also buried attempts to put in place a collective management of the Nile basin, such as the Century Storage Scheme.
Developed in 1920, the Century Storage Scheme was designed to achieve a multilateral management of Nile flow that would enable all upstream and downstream countries to have a proportionate share of water. Under the project, a dam was supposed to be built in Lake Victoria where evaporation rates are lower in order to provide irrigation water for Egypt and Sudan as well as hydroelectricity for Uganda where the bulk of the rural population lacks access to electricity. The Jonglei canal was also included in the plan to maximize the Nile’s capacity through reducing evaporation. The canal was never achieved due to the civil war in South Sudan.
In 1959, Egypt signed another agreement with Sudan that reinforced its control of the Nile. The newly independent upstream countries questioned the legality of such agreements signed during the colonial era and called for a revision that takes into account their national development requirements. Egypt responded by systematically discarding any attempt that would alter the status quo.

Water, the only matter that could take Egypt to war again

The Nile is treated as a matter of national security in Egypt to an extent that any move to affect the flow of the river would constitute a Casus Belli. After securing peace with Israel, President Saddat of Egypt said that “the only matter that could take Egypt to war again is water”. During the 1990s when the Sudanese government spoke of revising the 1959 agreement the then Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak riposted that such a step would lead to a military response that is “beyond anything they can imagine”.
With the launch of works to build the hydroelectric dam, Ethiopia violates the colonial-era agreements in defiance of Egypt. For Ethiopia, building the dam is a matter of sovereignty and national pride on which high hopes are pinned. The dam will generate the electricity needed for 83% of Ethiopians with a potential for exporting the energy surplus. Works are ongoing as negotiations with Egypt come to an impasse. If a win-win solution is not reached and the amount of Nile water in the downstream is diminished, Egypt is very likely to consider an air strike, since it maintains a superior air force compared to all upstream countries combined.

Existing agreements, inadequate and obsolete

In light of the lack of trust and the absence of genuine regional conflict resolution mechanisms, there is a reason to believe that national approaches to the use of Nile water may lead to confrontation and instability. The dispute over the Nile is further exacerbated by water stress caused by the dramatic increase in population growth. By 2050, Egypt’s population is expected to jump from 83 million to 130 million and that of Ethiopia will grow from 83 million to 174 million, while the population of both South and North Sudan will reach 76 million by the same year.
The agreements signed to regulate the water flow are inadequate and obsolete. Any move by upstream countries to build dams may ignite the fears of downstream states, notably Egypt, which uniquely depends on the Nile for its water supply. The demands of the new state of South Sudan to take its national interests in the Nile into account are further complicating the situation. As long as national initiatives are not subordinated to multilateral approaches involving all states concerned, tension will continue to simmer.

  1. You are leaving a very important fact out, which I find surprising. 1. Ethiopia was not colonized therefore, no European or Africa power can sign on its behalf. 2. None of the agreements you mention we’re discussed with or agreed by Ethiopia or the nations(not the colonizers) or the Nile basin countries. International rule dictates each country has a right to use its resources with in its borders. And any country that contributes 85% of the Nile water should be expected to settle for 1%, national security or not. We Ethiopians did not get this far in history selling our land and resources out. We defended our land through our blood. And we will do so. Egypt can strike the dam, but that would be the day it says goodbye to its free water.

  2. Egypt fought three major wars since the 1950’s.She lost all of them to a small country by the name Israel. 1956, 1967, and 1973. Egypt does not have any kind of treaty with Ethiopia or with the former British subjects.There is no inheritance rights. The best outcome for Egypt if she gets 30% of the Nile water, beyond that no one listen.By the way an in the mid 90’s Ethiopian engineering co. studied and proposed diverting the Nile to eastern part of Ethiopia’s low land. This option is very dramatic but feasible.

  3. this is very biased article the writer has no idea about the 1929 colonial era agreement, “With the launch of works to build the hydroelectric dam, Ethiopia violates the colonial-era agreements in defiance of Egypt” For you information Ethiopia is not a part of this agreement never signed, never consulted, the agreement is b/n UK Monarchs and Egypt’s puppets.

  4. Haileyesus kefyalew March 5, 2014, 9:41 pm

    It is better to make negotiations with ethiopia rather than campaigning to the world. It is our natural resource.we have the right to build what we want, not egyptians.assume that if ethiopia want to divert the source river at different places in her land what would you do? Killing the people of ethiopia with your smart military?
    Have you think the next step coming from ethiopian side? Think as a devil, poisoning the water (a fool assumption) it sound for us.
    You are doing this, poisoning the mind of ethiopian!!!!!!!!

  5. A well thought out and clear eyed article, I must say, save for one critical historical point. Ethiopia, a sovereign nation in 1929, was not signatory to the colonial agreements between Britain and Egypt. Actually, it was not even deemed worthy of being consulted. Such was the arrogance of the mind set of 1929 colonial Britain. I do not understand why learned writers such as Mr. El Jachtimi and others tend to skip over this fact. I say it is a critical point because such negligence infuriates Ethiopians for obvious reasons. More over, the British House of Lords at the time rejected the document (in lieu of British companies’ self interested demands for their east African plantations, and certainly not out of a sense of justice for the future of the native population) thus, rendering the agreement un ratified by Parliament and ultimately non legally binding and un enforceable. Such a lop sided agreement would no doubt make even the Brits of today blush. But that was then, the sun was never to set on the British empire. in the here and now, the need for a multi-national plan of usage indeed is paramount if the coming generations of the region are to survive and … well, even prosper. I do not know the details of The Nile Basin Initiative Agreement, but from what I understand, it was negotiated with the participation of experts and officials of both Egypt an Sudan, as well as the other riparian states, for over a decade. It was Egypt’s insistence on reversion to what would’ve amounted to veto power over the collective consensus decision making process of the member states that were to be made in future plans of use of the river’s resources. That being a de facto acceptance of the 1929 colonial agreement, It was naturally unacceptable the now sovereign riparian states. Be that as it may , one can assume the NBIA to be a good foundation for further dialog and problem solving. I thank the writer for a refreshingly constructive and hopeful direction for a way out of a generational quandary of the nations involved.

  6. First of all, the Grand Renaissance Dam does not stop any water flowing down the Blue Nile (though the the flow will be slightly smaller while filling it, which might take months or years). The water will be slowed only.

    Secondly, both Ethiopia and Egypt will benefit from the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Ethiopia will secure its need for electricity, and Egypt will have access to more water, because the dam can take away the biggest “peaks” in seasonal changes of water flow.

    The dam will create more power, more water (more for practical use, less in liters due to minor evaporation), more jobs and more political stability for the region as a whole. This article simply joins the line of warmongering propaganda from part of the Egyptian political landscape.


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