Hydropolitics in the Nile Basin

Hydropolitics in the Nile Basin

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The Nile River is subject to political interactions. It is the world's longest river flowing 6,700 kilometers through ten countries in northeastern Africa – Rwanda, Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC),
Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, 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 following table M Chatteri et al. (2002) "Conflict Management of Water Resources". Hampshire, Ashgate Publishing Ltd. p 146 ] illustrates each country’s dependence on the source of water that is provided by the Nile River, and how researchers estimate a decrease in water availability to these countries, due largely to an increase in the countries populations.]

Water as a source of conflict

Egypt has a natural historical right on the Nile River, and principles of its acquired rights have been a focal point of negotiations with other upstream states. The fact that this right exists means that any perceived reduction of the Nile water supply to Egypt is tampering with its national security and thus could trigger potential conflict. There have been occasions when Egypt has threatened to go to war over Nile water. This is has been always because of a threat to Egypt's water supply by neighbouring states. 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.

While Egypt is highly dependent on the Nile, there are factors that prevent the necessity of conflict over the distribution of the Nile's water supply. For example, Egypt no longer has such an agriculturally-dependent economy. Further, Egypt is already dependent on virtual water imports, and we can see that pursuing this as an alternative may prove an efficient way of avoiding water conflict [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)] . On the other hand, consider the riparian state of Ethiopia, whose tributaries supply about 86 percent of the waters of the Nile, conflict could arise from the fact that Ethiopia has limited hydraulic power and only uses about one percent of the Nile. With this in mind, some academics argue that it is the fact that other riparian states simply do not have the resources to enter into conflict that conflict has not yet occurred. However, this is not the only reason that conflict has not occurred. Governments, over the years, have put agreements and treaties into place so that conflict can be controlled.

Egypt and the Nile

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 B.C., the Egyptians constructed earthen banks to form flood basins of various sizes that were regulated by sluices to redirect 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. [ S Postel.(1999) Egypt's Nile Valley Basin Irrigation http://www.waterhistory.org/histories/nile/t1.html.] In 1869, the Suez Canal was opened linking the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, creating an international transportation route and linking the resources of Egypt to international trade.

Egyptian Colonization

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.

Conflict management

Colonial Treaties Effecting Nile Water Use

Colonial 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.
* 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."

* 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 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 shard 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 constructs 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. [ K. Mekonnen (1999)The Defects and Effects of Past Treaties and Agreements on the Nile River Waters: Whose Faults Were they? http://www.ethiopians.com/abay/engin.html.]

Nile Basin Initiative

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, Eritrea, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

International Law Context

* 1966 Helsinki Rules – 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 SADC Shared Watercourse System Protocol - Protocol on shared watercourse systems in the Southern African development community (SADC) region signed at Johannesburg, 28 August 1995 recognized the following principals:
** 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. [ 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.]
* 1997 United Nations Convention on the Law of Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses.

Effects of Treaties and Policies on Nile Basin Water Use

During the colonial period, Britain effectively controlled the Nile through its military presence in Africa. Since Egyptian 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 respectfully, 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. Since the early 1990’s, Ethiopia has successfully countered Egyptian and Sudanese resistance to water development projects in Ethiopia to increase irrigation and hydroelectric potential. [ A. Swain. (2002) SAIS Review. "The Nile Basin Initiative: Too Many Cooks, Too Little Broth". 22,2. pp. 293-308.]

Prospects of cooperation in the Nile Basin

Egypt continues to be the primary user of Nile water. Accordinng 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. [A. Swain. (2002)SAIS Review. The Nile Basin Initiative: Too Many Cooks, Too Little Broth. 22,2. pp. 293-308.] [ 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.] 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? [S. Lemma. (2001) Cooperating on the Nile not a Zero-sum Game. UN Chronicle. 3. p. 65.]

Other issues in hydropolitics

Pollution of the Nile River

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. [NBI, 2005.Nile Basin Initiative, 2005. Nile Basin National Water Quality Monitoring Baseline Study Report for Egypt ] 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 build up of salts in the soil. The soil can’t 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. [Soliman, A, et al. 2005. Environmental Contamination and Toxicology: Geographical Clustering of Pancreatic Cancers in the Northeast Nile Delta Region of Egypt:]
Schistosomiasis (a disease caused by parasitic worms) has been found in irrigation canals along with benthic cyanobacteria forming mats. [http://www.who.int/water_sanitation_health/bathing/srwe1-chap8.pdf] [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 ]

Irrigation Canals

Agriculture is the largest consumer of water in Egypt using about 85% of available water. [Nile Basin Initiative, 2005. Nile Basin National Water Quality Monitoring Baseline Study Report for Egypt] 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. [Water Policy Program, 2002. Survey of Nile System Pollution Sources Report No. 64.] 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 don’t 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. [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] 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. [IPRID Secretariat, 2005. Rapid Assessment Study Towards Integrated Planning ofIrrigation and Drainage in Egypt Final Report 2005]

Government and Farmers

There are twenty-five agencies, under seven ministries that are involved in maintaining water quality, yet their communication and data sharing between agencies is underdeveloped. [Water Policy Program, 2002. Survey of Nile System Pollution Sources Report No.64.] Water User Associations which are non-governmental associations of farmers who organize an irrigation process of all agricultural land, maintain diesel pumps and deal with conflicts between farmers and water management. More information on Water User Associations can be found here. They have been around since 1988, but have lacked structure and the inclusion of women. Women are seen as contributors to pollution of irrigation canals since they wash clothes, dishes and animals in the drainages. [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] The lack of planning and corruption within governmental departments, the neglecting of concerns and disbursement of low-quality land to the poor, and the improper education of safe handling methods and improper irrigation and crop management for men and women, all contribute to poor water quality. Though money is a major factor in improving these areas, in the case of erasing corruption and improving interdepartmental communication, stricter rules and enforcement of them is something that can be done immediately. Increasing Water User Associations (WUA) and establishing a communication chain between these associations and government departments is recommended. Appointing field supervisors for designated areas to oversee WUA’s and educate farmers on irrigation methods (like drip irrigation that applies water to the root zone which 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. This program equips agricultural land with subsurface drains. These drains 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 the functioning of these subsurface drainages are needed to prevent a disruption of water supply to all connected fields. Since these drainages can’t be seen on the surface, if a farmer closes a drain to keep more water in his field it will prevent water from reaching users beyond. [ Knegt, J. 2000. Drainage in Developing Countries: A Review of Institutional Arrangements. Wageningen University The Netherlands]


Since agricultural lands are not charged for water, but are for irrigation and drainage improvements, WUA’s 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 WUA’s 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 don’t 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. [Said, A. 1999, Analysis of Nile Water Polluton Control Strategies: A Case Study Using The Decision Support System for Water Quality Management, JCID-CHID] 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, for instance, argues 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, [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) ] and that conflict in the last century was more often due to oil than water. (The 1990-1991 Gulf War is an example of this).

Others argue that, beside water, they are more outstanding foreign policy concerns 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. [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) ]


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