The war over the waters of the Nile

Map of countries in the Nile Basin
Copyright: Creative Commons/M. Disdero

Four hundred million people live on land alongside the Nile. This river, 6,825 kilometers in length, flows through 10 African countries and 10% of the continent. 

Agreements causing discord

In May 2010, Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania and Kenya signed a framework agreement by which the resources of the Nile basin were shared in a new way.  This new agreement marked the end of the one signed under colonial rule in 1929 and reviewed in 1959, one that had attributed 87% of the water to Egypt and Sudan (of which 64% for Egypt) and also gave Egypt the power to veto the construction of barrages or other projects in upriver countries that were likely to affect the flow of the river. Egypt and Sudan are refusing to sign this new agreement as they deem it a threat to their economy.  They are afraid there will be too many irrigation projects and hydro-electric dams upriver.

For about ten years, the nine countries bordering the river (the 2 others being Burundi and the DRC) were negotiating for a fairer share of the available water.  According to the wording, each state may use the rivers flowing into the Nile according to its needs as long as this does not encroach on the needs of the other partners.

This framework agreement provides for a Nile Basin Commission which will have the authority to receive and approve all projects involving the river.  It will be based at Addis Ababa and have representatives from the nine countries involved. Countries must sign up to this agreement by May 2011. Eritrea which has had observer status at the negotiations is taking the side of Egypt and Sudan. 


The Nile, source of life …

The countries naturally want to develop.  Their population will have increased by 50–100% by 2050.  Ethiopia has decided to become the chief exporter of electricity in East Africa.  Kenya is looking to develop agricultural irrigation and Uganda will specialise in barrage construction. Tanzania wants to install a 170 km. pipeline that starts at Lake Victoria to provide water for the desert areas.  In the meantime Sudan wants to sell vast stretches of farmland to foreigners and Egypt intends to be able to provide for the water needs (agriculture, industry and drinking water) of 130 million inhabitants by 2050.

            … and of conflicts

Egypt is resorting to a diplomatic war.  Its leaders have met those of Burundi, the DRC and even Rwanda.  They have started a campaign that targets fund-providers who might finance projects that would reduce their quota of Nile water.  However, China, defending its own interests, is already financing numerous developments including several dams in Ethiopia that, at the time of Sadat, would have sparked of armed hostility.

Egypt has yet more worries.  The development of the canal of Jonglei – that it is counting on to improve the flow of water from the White Nile – is situated in the southern part of Sudan that could become independent after the referendum in January 2011.  Given the support of seven countries out of ten, the agreement could be ratified and upheld by the African Union. The opponents and the signatories to the new agreement all refer to international law to justify their positions.

There is much at stake for the economic life of the region’s states and therefore for their political relationships … and for the people.  What is really important is to have a good collective management of the waters of the Nile so that the increasing population of the region may have enough to eat.


 C. Fouarge

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