Troubled Waters: The Impending War Over the Waters of the Nile

By Brennan Ryan
Staff Writer
7 November 2017

The Nile River provides livelihood and subsistence to some 160 million people in eleven different countries. The river basin provides not only fertile land for agricultural development, but in many cases comprises a majority of the water resources available to the countries that lie along its banks. This is especially true for Egypt, where a majority of both the population and arable agricultural land is found along the river’s banks or within the Nile River Delta. Egypt receives nearly 60% of its water from the Nile and as an agriculture driven economy, the country’s economy is completely dependent on the Nile for sustenance. In the late 1990s, other Nile states of East Africa began to assert their own claims to water rights, directly challenging the level of water usage Egypt has grown accustomed to since the 1950s. Now, as Ethiopia completes the construction of the massive Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam that will be able to directly alter the level of water flows to Egypt, tensions over water security seem to be rapidly escalating among the nations of Northeastern Africa.

The dispute over rights to the Nile River has its roots in British colonialism. In 1929, the British signed an agreement on water usage with the Egyptian and Sudanese governments on behalf of the British colonies in East Africa, allocating specific water usage amounts to Sudan and Egypt. Paramount among the conditions of this agreement was the veto right given to Egypt over construction projects elsewhere on the Nile. In 1959, the British renegotiated this deal between Egypt and Sudan, but still offered no concessions to the other riparian states of East Africa, despite the fact that approximately 80% of Nile water originates in Ethiopia.

In 1999, several states signed the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) in an attempt to ease mounting concerns over increasing pressure on the Nile. However, the NBI has proven inadequate in mitigating conflicts between different signatories. As the economies of East Africa have grown, their need for and capacity to develop their own power grids and other infrastructural installments by using the Nile River have rapidly increased. In 2010, the NBI proposed a Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) under which many of these states could pursue increased consumption of water from the Nile. The move was signed by Ethiopia, Burundi, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda; Egypt and Sudan, on the other hand, immediately signaled their opposition to increased water consumption. They responded with a different draft cooperative framework, but it was rejected by states further upstream. The issue of the CFA eventually led to a freezing of relations between Egypt and the rest of the riparian states.

In 2011, Ethiopia began the construction of the Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam, an industrial super-project that will cost roughly $5 billion dollars by the time of its completion in late 2017. The Renaissance Dam will be the largest hydroelectric dam on the African continent, capable of generating nearly 6,000 Megawatts of energy by displacing water from the Nile. For Egypt, Ethiopia’s bid for control over the flow of Nile waters represents a major security concern - Egypt has threatened war with Ethiopia and Tanzania in the past over development projects that may potentially threaten water resources. According to a set of leaked documents, the Egyptians and the Sudanese also planned in secret to disrupt construction of the Renaissance Dam by using fighter jets to bomb the development site. Ethiopia and Sudan have since engaged in a round of bilateral dialogues and now have expressed their intention to cooperate to prevent a potential Egyptian air strike on the dam. As Egyptian aggression has inflated in response to perceived threats to their water security, Ethiopian paranoia has also ballooned. Earlier this year, the government of Eritrea was accused of conspiring with Egypt to destroy the Renaissance Dam, which the Eritrean president has vehemently denied.

grandrenaissancedamlocation

The location of the Grand Renaissance Dam

More recently, the Egyptian government has attempted to mitigate the conflict through dialogue. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi addressed rising fears concerning the Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam during his address at the United Nations General Assembly in September. Al-Sisi emphasized that Egypt would “address the Renaissance Dam issue from a cooperative perspective, in a manner that establishes a clear legal framework to manage this issue in accordance with international law and established principles, as well as the well-established rules governing relations between states sharing basins of trans-boundary rivers all over the world.” However, there currently exists no treatise or agreement regulating the use of Nile river resources between all countries situated on its banks. Moreover, on September 25th, the Egyptian government announced the failure of the newest round of Egyptian-Ethiopian dialogue concerning the construction of the Dam due to the failure to achieve any progress regarding the division of Nile water resources and the dam’s storage capacity.

On October 17th, the Sudanese, Egyptian, and Ethiopian water ministers engaged in yet another round of talks, where Egypt has voiced its concerns over the delay of studies designed to evaluate the Dam’s affect on Nile waters. While the three countries managed to reach an agreement on a set of guiding principles for future water use, Egypt still holds fears over its future prospects for water independence. Disagreements also exist as to how quickly Ethiopia should be allowed to pull water to fill the dam after construction is finished. Moving forward, population pressures and the desire of East African states to expand economically may escalate tensions between the riparian states of the Nile. Al-Sisi’s espousal of dialogue rings hollow now that the fallout of the most recent round of dialogues has become evident. As local politics grow more hostile, the mitigation of conflict of water resources may become a flashpoint issue for the river states of East Africa.

Given the crucial importance of water as a resource, Ethiopia should recognize Egyptian concerns over water safety, and the two countries should engage in a separate round of negotiations to discern an appropriate timeline for the dam’s filling. The Geological Society of America has predicted that a fill time of 5-7 years, approximately the same time period proposed by the Ethiopian government, could cut Nile water provisions to Egypt by 25%, diminishing both water resources and electricity generated by the Aswan dam. Extending the fill period will not only lessen the reduction in water flows, but will also ease Egyptian concerns by providing more time to explore other sustainable sources of water. The resulting negotiation process may also provide a framework through which the other developing economies of East Africa can engage in diplomatic discussions of water-sharing.

As climate change and the push for development of water systems continue to increase the importance of Nile water resources, a new agreement is crucial to maintaining both the environmental security of and the amicable relations between the states of North-east Africa. Considering the rapid population growth exhibited by many of the states within this system, this agreement will only become a more paramount issue over the next few years.

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Brennan Ryan is a second year MA Candidate in the Middle East Studies Department. His research focuses primarily on North African politics and political economic structures in the Middle East. He currently works as the Egypt program assistant at the Project on Middle East Democracy.

Picture licensed under CC-BY-2.5

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