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The water wars of the Nile Basin
Published in Bikya Masr on 15 - 02 - 2010

Egypt and the Sudan dominate contemporary Nile Basin water allocation policy. This is partly because both nations are signatory to the 1959 Nile Waters Agreement (NWA), which apportions the river’s water flow between the two countries. From a macro-economic perspective, Egypt’s economy dwarfs all other Nile Basin nations in Gross National Income (GNI): with Ethiopia at only $100 USD per capita, Egypt crests at over fourteen times that number, to $1490 USD per capita. The Sudan’s livestock population also prevails among riparian nations.
Nile Waters Agreement (NWA)
Out of a total of 84 billion cubic meters (b m3) of water flow per annum
Egypt gets 55.5 b m3
The Sudan gets 18.5 b m3
An estimated 10 b m3 is estimated lost to evaporation from the Aswan Dam reservoir on the Egypt-Sudan border
300 million m3 of water is discharged into the Mediterranean, per diem.
The Nile Basin Initiative (NBI)
The NBI is a program by organization, of the countries in the Nile Basin, which is intended to cooperatively manage and negotiate water policy in this region.
NBI member nations:
1. Burundi
2. DR Congo
3. Egypt
4. Ethiopia
5. Kenya
6. Rwanda
7. The Sudan
8. Tanzania
9. Uganda
10. Eritrea (observing)
Perceptions of Nile Basin water resource management
* The media is fond of portraying the issues at stake in Nile Basin water management as potential for outright warfare among the NBI nations, and this, is often presented in apposition with ongoing international petroleum conflicts.
* However, both recent data and historical relations between NBI nations present a comparatively cooperative and stable relationship on Nile water management issues.
* Analysis of water management issues requires hard data regarding:
1. Need. Generally, a threshold of 1,000 m3 is needed per capita, per annum.
2. Growth. Substantial population growth has encouraged groundwater abstraction. More than 5 per cent of water used in Egypt is groundwater. In the Sudan, groundwater is drawn from aquifers beneath wadi beds, like the Gash, Howare and Nyala. These are essential sources of water for small rural communities, but will not provide basin-wide solutions for larger sectors like livestock and agriculture.
3. Food production. Egypt no longer relies exclusively on water resources in combination with farming to produce food—and instead imports significant quantities of food—this, is considered ‘virtual water’ in an abstract perception of water consumption.
Al-Ahram Weekly wrote in its 4 – 11 June 2009 edition that the per capita share in Egypt has fallen to 750 m3 per annum. The water poverty line is recognized at 1,000 m3 of water per capita. By 2017, it is expected this figure for Egypt will plummet to 582 m3. Comparatively, Canada’s water consumption was at 1,494 m3 in 2000, while the United States, the highest in the world, it was at 1,682 m3.
The year 2050
The collective population of the Nile Basin nations is today estimated at some 300 million persons. However, the year 2050 is on projection for an alarming increase in these teeming populations. Egypt is very much included in these population growth estimates.
A 1947 census put Egypt’s population at 19 million. According to the 2006 census conducted by the Egyptian Government’s Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS), the population of Egypt has shot up to over 72 million, with a growth rate of 2 percent per annum in the past decade. Today, the population is estimated at 80 million. In about 60 years, Egypt’s population has more than quadrupled. According to projected rates, Egypt’s population could reach over 120 million by 2050.
There has been a similar trend in the Sudan, where the population has climbed from 9 million in 1950, to 39 million in 2007—this, a more than fourfold increase. Population growth in the Sudan is at about 2.15 percent. The Sudan’s population is projected to reach 73 million by 2050. Ethiopia, where the population is already large at 83 million, is could reach 183 million by 2050, if current trends continue.
Cooperation among the riparian nations
The 1990s saw the beginning of a positive cooperative initiative among the riparian nations in the Nile Basin. This marks the third of three significant eras in the last 150 years of Nile water management.
1. Late Nineteenth Century to the 1950s (when Africa began to break from colonial rule): Nile Basin water management was entirely dominated by European socio-economic policy.
2. World War II to the late 1980s: departure from colonialism to independent rule led to state ideologies and policies having been heavily influenced by Cold War partisan politics. This era saw many newly-independent states exerting nationalist bravado.
3. The late 1980s onward: distillation of world dominance into one superpower engendered an economic shift in the Nile Basin states to a more open, free-market economic agenda. It was in this era that the NBI emerged, as the independent states began to seek self-resolution to regional disputes and issues.
Geography of the Nile Basin
From: The River War, by Winston Churchill. 1902.
“The north-eastern quarter of the continent of Africa is drained and watered by the Nile. Among and about the headstreams and tributaries of this mighty river lie the wide and fertile provinces of the Egyptian Sudan. Situated in the very centre of the land, these remote regions are on every side divided from the seas by five hundred miles of mountain, swamp or desert. The great river is their only means of growth, their only channel of progress. It is by the Nile alone that their commerce can reach the outer markets, or European civilization can penetrate the inner darkness. The Soudan is joined to Egypt by the Nile, as a diver is connected with the surface by his air-pipe. Without it there is only suffocation. Aut Nilus, aut nihil!”
The Nile is generally regarded as the longest river in the world. The Blue Nile flows from Lake Tana in Ethiopia, and the White Nile flows from Lake Victoria in Uganda—they meet in Khartoum at al-Morgan (the confluence) to form the Nile proper. There are other tributaries, like the Atbara river, which runs seasonally from Ethiopia to join the Nile proper, north of Khartoum.
As for geographic diversity in the Nile Basin, add the following to Churchill’s poetic narrative: highlands in the Ethiopian Plateau, lush African Savannah, snow-capped mountains, tropical vegetation, pastoral plains in the Sudan, and rainforest below the Tropic of Cancer—and the sparse lunar solitudinal beauty of the Sahara Desert above. One of the more dramatic environmental features of the Nile Basin includes the wetlands area of the Sudd in South Sudan, which is considered one of the largest in the world, at 30,000 km2.
Swimming upstream
Egypt has had a historic right to claim the Nile for herself since times immemorial, and continues to militate against diversions in the river’s water flow. But today upstream there are domestic concerns in the countries from where the Blue Nile and White Nile flow: Ethiopia and the Sudan. Agriculture accounts for 86 per cent of water withdrawal in Ethiopia, and 94 per cent in the Sudan. Irrigation has become critical to food security in riparian nations—and the Sudan is claiming they have almost entirely consumed its allocated share of Nile waters.
In Egypt 50 percent of the population is dependent on agriculture, where as 70 percent of Sudanese are dependent on agriculture for their livelihood. After the 1959 agreement with Egypt over water-sharing rights, dams were built in the Sudan to store water for flood control and irrigation purposes.
Sudan is currently building new dams for food security and other essential needs like hydro-electric power generators. Egypt vehemently opposes agricultural diversion of water resources upstream, but considers Sudan’s hydropower facilities beneficial, as the dams act as siltation basins, stopping much of the sediment load before it reaches Lake Nassar, and too, the hydropower stations do not reduce water flow. Additionally, the increase in hydropower would putatively assist Sudan in extracting her groundwater resources.
Ethiopia however, poses an immense challenge to Egypt’s water management policy interests. Agriculture represents 40 percent of Ethiopia’s GNP, 90 per cent of its export, and employs 85 percent of the population. And Ethiopia’s population is growing faster than Egypt’s. Ethiopia presents a larger and more complicated equation for Egypt’s water nabobs to solve than the Sudan. Ethiopia, unlike oil-rich Sudan, cannot simply expend capital to purchase food when food shortages occur. And there have been many well-publicized famines in Ethiopia. Although Egypt opposes water diversion in Ethiopia for irrigation purposes, they have been flexible in allowing hydropower development, as in the Sudan, as this is expected to arrest sedimentation.
The NBI’s progress is due much to its focus on the entire basin, rather than on the core riparian nations, which has engendered a sort of glasnost, or thawing of relations, between the previously bellicose basin nations. Much positive development in diplomacy and policy negotiation has emerged. But the NBI modestly considers itself a “transitional arrangement until a permanent legal and institutional framework is in place.” And the NBI has set neither specific goals nor dates by which to achieve resolution on these pressing water management issues. Further, the NBI’s almost complete dependence on outside funding from the World Bank, inter alia, for both its inception and operating costs raises questions anent long-term sustainability. Funding for this program will not be indefinite.
Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA)
Negotiations for a Nile Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) started in 1997. After almost a decade, the draft of the CFA was submitted to a meeting of the Nile Council of Ministers for Water Affairs (Nile-COM) for their consideration in June 2007. Following extensive discussions, the Nile-COM concluded that the CFA should be passed along to Heads of State to resolve sticking points. The signing and ratification of the CFA is today, more than ever before, a critically urgent action necessary for a future of riparian cooperation in the Nile Basin.
Talks were held in Kinshasa, May 2009, then, additional talks in the form of the 17th Nile Council of Ministers Meeting was held in late July 2009 in Alexandria. On 28 to 29 September, a follow-up meeting was held in Kampala. Dr. Mohamed Nasr El-Din Allam, Minister of Water and Irrigation of Egypt and Chairman of the Nile Council of Ministers, opened the first meeting between the Members of the Nile Technical Advisory Committee and the Negotiators.
At the time this article went to print, there had been no comprehensive agreement reached in these talks.
At the meeting in Alexandria, according to an edition of Al-Ahram Weekly from early August, Egypt and the Sudan threatened to withdraw from the NBI, if their interests were ignored, while signing the CFA. In an interview on 7th July 2009, with Al-Masry Al-Youm, Minister Allam reiterated Egypt’s three demands:
1. Water security
2. Advance notification of projects in the Upper Nile
3. Veto power for projects in other countries.
Potable water supplies are not expected to increase accordingly, to meet the impending demands of increased livestock, agricultural development and populations on the already exerted Nile Basin’s water resources. Recorded trends in rainfall and river flow in Sub-Saharan Africa may have been considered large in the Twentieth Century, but hydrometeorology studies on this region of the world have data going back for only about one hundred years. And with climate change dramatically disrupting weather patterns, it would be difficult to say with any certainty what future rainfall and river flow patterns will look like. Water management issues cannot remain unresolved, and a water war is certainly in nobody’s best interest.
* The Egyptian Gazette’s staff writer and sub-editor Hugh Nicol contributed to this article. Willows is a Canadian freelance writer, who studied at the American University in Cairo. He now resides in Toronto.


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