The Utilization of the Nile River: Looking Backward and Forward

(a draft article for enrichment and supplementation)


Sintayehu Kassaye Alemu[1]


[1] Sintayehu Kassaye Alemu (PhD) is Associate Professor at Mekelle University. He has specialized in Education particularly in higher education (management and internationalization), the Nile and in History




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 The Utilization of the Nile River: Looking Backward and Forward


The Nile River, which is the confluence of the Blue Nile and the White Nile Rivers, had been the center of the Nile Valley civilization. In addition to Christianity, the Nile River (particularly the Blue Nile) is the umbilical cord that connects the peoples of Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia since time immemorial. It has shaped the diplomatic relationships among the countries. The river is characterized by unfair utilization and management. Egypt has been applying the principles of ‘historical right’ and ‘water security,’ to be the major utilizer and defender of its exclusive and unilateral Nile water use right. Currently, Ethiopia is constructing the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) for the production of electricity. Hence, the present Ethio-Egyptian hydropolitical diplomacy is revolving around the construction and filling of this hydraulic work.  The aim of this paper is toanalyze the nature of the hydropolitics of the Nile River with particular emphasis on the Ethio-Egyptiandiplomatic relationships. The paper looks into the past and the current perspectives of the Nile River hydropolitics. It also recommends some possible suggestions for the peaceful, inclusive and fair utilization and management of the Nile River. Methodologically, primary and secondary sources are qualitatively consulted, analyzed and interpreted to divulge the Blue Nile water hydropolitics.

Key words: Nile River, Blue Nile River, Egypt, Ethiopia, Diplomacy, Hydropolitics 

1.      Introduction

The Nile River has been the source of ancient civilizations that flourished in its lower basin in Egypt and in its upper and middle reaches at Meroe (Sudan) and Axum (Ethiopia) (Swain, 1997). Geographically, both Ethiopia and Egypt are located in the North-Eastern part of Africa. The Ethio-Egyptian relation precedes the modern diplomatic engagement.The diplomatic umbilical cord between Ethiopia and Egypt goes back to the creation of the Nile River and the introduction of Christianity. The Nile River, particularly the Blue Nile River has been connecting Ethiopia, Egypt and the Sudan for millennia.  The relationship of these countries had been further strengthened by the introduction of Christianity in Ethiopia, since the 4th century. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church had been under the Egyptian Coptic Church and used to import Bishop from Egypt until 1959.

The Nile River is one of the longest rivers of the world that flows from the south to the north. It is the confluence of the Blue and White Nile rivers. The Blue Nile originates from the Ethiopian highlands and contributes 86% of the Nile water, while the White Nile streams from the Lakes Equatorial region and adds 14% to the Nile River. The Nile River belongs to eleven African countries. These are Ethiopia, Eritrea, Egypt, Sudan, South Sudan, Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo (Zaire), and Tanzania. Except for Egypt, Sudan and South Sudan, all other Nile riparian are up stream countries. The Nile River basin covers 10% of the African continent and belongs to over 300 million Africans of the Nile basin.

Egypt, “the Gift of the Nile”, is entirely dependent on the waters of the Nile River for its whole lives. It has been utilizing the Nile water (particularly, the Blue Nile) for all its socio-economic, cultural and political developments until these days. Egyptians, since time immemorial, have made the most use of the Nile River. The Sudan is the second, next to Egypt, in the utilization of the Nile water. Ancient Egyptian history denotes that Egyptians were measuring the level of the river and they considered it as an indication of the economic and civilized conditions of the country (Hassan and Al Rasheedy, 2007).  Hence, its water policy is very strong. In its constitution, article 44 (revised in 2014), Egypt states that “The State shall protect the River Nile, preserve Egypt's historical rights thereto, rationalize and maximize its use, … adopt necessary means for ensuring water security.”  Egypt, from the time of its independence from the Ottoman Turks by Mohammed Ali, has been working to guarantee the uninterrupted flow of the Blue Nile. The Nile Water is a national interest for Egypt as the Blue Nile is to Ethiopia. In essence, Egypt considers the existence of its vital water sources lying beyond the Egyptian borders as one of the major strategic threats to its national water security. Historically, to guarantee the steady flow of the Nile River, successive Egyptian governments have been applying different but interconnected policies. These policies have revolved around the following Egypt’s national interests: Protecting the southern borders of Egypt and the southern area of the Red Sea; insuring the flow of the Nile water and the vital interests of Egypt in the area (Hassan, and Al Rasheedy, 2007). One of the major policies of Egypt has been defying and prohibiting the construction of any hydraulic works in the Upper Nile riparian states, mainly in Ethiopia.

Due to population growth, mounting demand for more water, resource depletion, the absence of comprehensive legal and institutional frameworks, climatic challenges and sovereign right to use own natural resource, other riparian states, particularly Ethiopia, are demanding and working towards an inclusive and legally bounding equitable Nile water share. These developments have intensified the Nile River hydropolitics. Particularly, the Ethio-Egyptian hydropolitical struggle is becoming more intense following the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).

Diagram.1. Latest and projected populations for Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan (in millions)

Source: United Nation Organization (UNO), 2013).



2.      The Ethio-Egyptian Hydropolitical Diplomacy

The regions of the Red Sea coast and the Horn of Africa experienced colonial activities.  In the 16th century, the Ottoman Turks were active in the Red Sea coast. Particularly after the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, European colonial powers had penetrated the continent of Africa and established their respective sphere of influences. Britain had succeeded to make Egypt its protectorate from 1882 to 1922. It also established the Anglo-Egyptian condominium over the Sudan from 1899 to 1956. Italy entered the Horn of Africa via Eritrea, while France occupied Djibouti and Belgium became active in the Equatorial Lake region.  After the Ottoman Turks left the Red Sea coast, the region witnessed the presence of Egyptians.


Since the 18th century, following the withdrawal of the Ottoman Turks from the Red Sea coast and the independence of Egypt under Mohammad Ali, Egypt had been working towards guaranteeing the uninterrupted flow of the Blue Nile River. It was the ruling policy of “water security” that drove Egypt into the Red Sea coast and the Horn of Africa. The policy of “water security” also includes the strong observance of the colonial unilateral water agreements as sacrosanct and unchanged. For Egypt, “the Nile is Egypt and Egypt is the Gift of the Nile.” This idea developed out of the conception of ‘primary need’, ‘priority use,’ ‘historical right’, and ‘acquired water rights’ (Ministry of Water Resources, 2001).


Egypt has been ensuring the upstream riparian states remain weak, unstable, diplomatically isolated and underdeveloped and thus incapable of constructing any large hydraulic projects that could significantly affect the flow of the Nile waters (Ministry of Water Resources, 2001). To this end, Egypt had framed three-pronged policies and signed unilateral water agreements. The policies include such strategies as war/conquest, destabilization, and diplomatic isolation. Egypt, through the advocacy of the colonial powers, had also designed and signed water agreements in 1929 and 1959 to guarantee the uninterrupted flow of the Nile River (Adhana, 1993; Rubenson, 1991; Swain, 1997).

Conquest or War

To guarantee the steady flow of the Nile River, Egypt confronted with the major contributor of the Nile water, Ethiopia. One of the earliest and splendid policies of Egypt was to keep Ethiopia isolated from the outside world to make it weak for easy occupation and incompetent to construct any hydraulic facility over the Blue Nile or Abbay River. The Ethio-Egyptian confrontations, though masked by religion, were over the flow of the Nile. Until 1959, the Ethiopian Christian Orthodox Church was administered under the patriarchate of the Coptic Church of Egypt in Alexandria (Bahru, 1991). The Mamluk sultan Al-Nasir Mohammed Qalaurn began to persecute Christians in Alexandria and burnt their churches. The contemporary king of Ethiopia, AmdaTsion (r.1314-1344) reacted with an ultimatum either to reverse the persecution or face a similar persecution of the Muslims in Ethiopia and “starve the people of Egypt by diverting the course of the Nile” (Tadesse, 1972: 256n).


In modern times, particularly after Mohammed Ali (1789-1849) replaced the moribund Ottoman rule in Egypt and dealt with the tottering Mamluk power, Egyptians concentrated on the Blue Nile River. Egypt had strongly and seriously accentuated expansionist and conquest programs. The Albanian Mohammed Ali, who created modern Egypt, with the help of European explorers such as Samuel Baker, “extended his sway to the equatorial regions of the Sudan” (Chesworth, 1990:43) and appreciated the importance of the Blue Nile waters.


His successor, Ibrahim pasha, also moved in the southwest and succeeded to occupy some areas in modern Wollega province, in Ethiopia. The most notorious and expansionist personality was the grandson of Mohammed Ali, Khedive Ismael (r.1863-1879). Ismael was much more interested to control the Nile Valley and the Red Sea coast. Generally, Khedive Ismael “wanted to make the Nile an Egyptian River, annex to his country all the geographical area of it basin…” (Gebre-Tsadik, 2003:43).  Egypt occupied many border and coastal areas of Ethiopia on the west and the Red Sea coast between 1821 and 1875.  It occupied areas like Metemma (1838), Kassala, Bilen, Habab, (1840s), Massawa (1846), Kunama (1869) and Harar (1875) (Rubenson, 1972:250).   By the 1870s, Egypt encircled Ethiopia. This was aiming at closing all the possible gates for Ethiopia for its diplomatic and commercial activities with the outside world. Egypt had made undeclared arms embargo for its final military attack of Ethiopia. These coastal areas were promised by Khedive Ismael to the Ottomans to “extend Ottoman rule to the uncivilized tribes in Africa beyond the existing limits of the empire, in other words to the Habesha” (Rubenson, 1972:311). To make his dream a reality, Ismael employed diplomatic, subversive and military initiatives. He employed foreign diplomats and mercenary soldiers, mainly officers, for his plan of conquest. One of the most active foreign functionaries in the services of Egypt was the Swiss-born J.A Werner Munzinger.


On 23April 1871, Munzinger was appointed governor of Massawa, and after a month, he went to Cairo with his proposal of annexing Bogos, in Keren. He was the one who planned and led the conquest of Bogos in 1872. Munzinger remarked that, “the Egyptian policy may modify itself or cease its activity, but it never changes. A Catholic Abyssinia with a disciplined administration and army, a friend of the European powers, is a danger for Egypt. Therefore, she must either take Abyssinia and Islamize it or retain it in anarchy and misery” (Rubenson, 1972:296). However, Ismael himself did not seem to be in illusion about the importance of conquering or destabilizing Ethiopia, the advice of Munzinger, above everything else, added confidence and speeded up the grandiose plan of conquest.


Egyptians, above all Munzinger, started actual occupations following the allegedly raid by Ethiopians at Adiy Abo in 1872. Even though, the areas were within the Ethiopian territory, Khedive Ismael sent an unacceptable ultimatum to emperor Yohannes (1872-1889) of Ethiopia to stop the raid. Emperor Yohannes rejected the ultimatum on grounds that it is an internal affair of his country. Then, Munzinger left Massawa at the head of his army on 27 June 1872 and entered the capital of Bogos, Keren, on 4 July 1872. He met no resistance (Rubenson, 1972).


Emperor Yohannes reacted the occupation of Bogos “by sending a letter of protest to Ismael and launching his first comprehensive diplomatic initiatives in Europe” (Bahru, 1991:50) based on religious solidarities. The emperor, to make the expansionist actions of Khedive Ismael clear, sent letters to the rulers of Britain, Austria, Germany, France and Russia (Bahru, 1991). Almost all letters brought no substantial results. This was because Egypt offered more economic opportunities to Europeans than Ethiopia particularly since the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. Diplomatically as well, Ismael outsmarted emperor Yohannes. Ismael informed the European powers that he was moving into Ethiopia not for territorial conquest but for civilization, particularly to abolish the slave trade. This attracted the Europeans more than Yohannes’ Christian solidarity (Bahru, 1991).


Having secured this undeclared guarantee of conquest from the West, Ismael launched a three-pronged military attack against Ethiopia in 1875. Egyptian force, on 15September 1875, led by the Swiss mercenary, Munzinger, directed into central Ethiopia (Shoa) through Tajura. This force was routed in Ausa and Munzinger himself was killed by the Afar. Through Zeila, another Egyptian army, under commander Mohammed Rauf Pasha, entered Ethiopia and occupied Harar on 11October 1875. Still another Egyptian conquest was directed in the north from Massawa. This force was led by a Danish commander, Colonel Arendrup. At this moment, emperor Yohannes was determined to solve the problem by force of arms. The forces of Egypt and Ethiopia met at a place called Gundat (Gundagunde), north of Mereb River, on 16 November 1875. The Egyptian army was wiped out.


Under American mercenary military officers, colonel Dye and General Loring, Egyptians ones again fought the battle of Gura from 7-9 March 1876. They were again obliterated. Some scholars identified more than sixteen major conflicts between Ethiopia and Egypt. These confrontations took place between the 1832 Gadarif battle to the battle of Gura in 1876 (Ministry of Water Resource, 2001). Moreover, following its defeat in the hands of the Sudanese Mahdists in 1881, Egypt was forced to withdraw from the Red Sea coast on the basis of the Hewett or Adwa Treaty of 1884. Hence, Egyptian policy of conquering the Blue Nile basin was successfully halted.


Water Agreements

Nevertheless, Egypt’s interest to conquer Northeast Africa and to establish Egyptian empire with the central focus of the Blue Nile was more or less realized by the British colonial occupation of Egypt, the Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, and Tanganyika.  In this case, the White Nile was effectively controlled. Later on, the Italians and the Belgians joined the colonial team by occupying Eritrea (northern Ethiopia) and the Congo respectively. The Blue Nile, however, was under the direct influence of neither Egypt nor the colonial powers. It was Ethiopian. By the turn of the 19th century, the colonial powers had subdivided the Nile basin into their sphere of influences.


Treaties, protocols, exchange of notes and agreements were concluded between the colonial powers, inter alia, that took cognizance of Egyptian concerns about the waters of the Nile. The British era, in connection with the Nile River, was also characterized by the initiation of formal negotiations for agreements and sanctions on the Nile waters. Some of these ‘legal’ attempts are the following:

1.      On 15 April 1891, Britain and Italy signed a protocol to demarcate their colonial domain in East Africa and appended an article (Article III) concerning the River Nile. The article states that “The Italian Government engages not to construct on the Atbara, in view of irrigation, any work which might sensibly modify its flow into the Nile” (Wondmeneh, 1979:37). This protocol was signed between Italy and Britain and did not include and concern Ethiopia.

2.      In 1902, John Harrington of Britain was sent to Emperor Menelik of Ethiopia to negotiate the Ethio-Sudanese border. Into this treaty was attached, an article (Article III) providing the Anglo- Egyptian hydraulic interest on the Blue Nile River and Lake Tana. The article declares that

His majesty, Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia, engages himself towards the Government of His Britannic Majesty not to construct or allow to be constructed, any works across the Blue Nile, Lake Tana or the Sobat, which would arrest the flow of their waters into the Nile except in agreement with His Britannic Majesty’s Government and the Government of the Sudan (Wondmeneh, 1976:49).

This article asked the government of Ethiopia not to construct any hydraulic work over the Blue Nile, Tana, Baro and Akobo rivers “which would arrest the flow of their waters into the Nile …” Ethiopia had never did this. Even today, the construction of the GERD would not arrest the flow of the Blue Nile. Despite Egypt’s unilateral utilization of the Nile water, Ethiopia is respectfully demanding fair and equitable utilization of the Nile. Obviously, the GERD is only intended to generate electric power and will not cause significant harm.

3.      The sickness and blatant death of Emperor Menelik had also led the three neighboring European colonial powers (Britain, France and Italy) to conclude the Tripartite Pact in 1906 (Rushdi, 1993). The agreement between the United Kingdom, France, and Italy was signed in London on 13 December 1906. In the event of the status quo disturbed in Ethiopia, the agreement states that, France, Great Britain and Italy shall make every effort to preserve the integrity of Ethiopia and safeguard their respective interests: Great Britain and Egypt in the Nile Basin; Italian interests in Eritrea (Ethiopia) and Italian Somaliland, and the French focused on the Ethio-Djibouti railway line (Swain, 1997).This was not realized because Emperor Menelik had assigned his successor and established ministers to run the duties of government.

4.      In 1920 representatives from USA, Britain and India established the Nile Project Commission. Though its findings were not acted upon, the Commission, estimating the average annual flows of the Nile to be 84 billion cubic meters, allocated 58 BCM\year to Egypt and decided for the Sudan “to meet irrigation needs from the Blue Nile alone”(McClelland,et al., 1994). Even though, this project was not realized, it was used as a foundation for the later water agreement, as we can see below.

5.      In 1929 Sudan and Egypt signed the Nile Water Agreement. The amount of the Nile water was calculated to be 52 BCM and from this volume 4 BCM was reserved for the Sudan and the remaining 48 BCM was secured for Egypt. However, Sudan rejected this colonial agreement immediately it attained independence in 1956 (Abdella, 2000:4). This was the first formal water agreement initiated and signed by colonial power Britain (on the side of the Sudan) and Egypt. This was water agreement that did not consider other riparian countries.

6.      On 8 December 1959 the Nile Waters Treaty was signed between the two countries of Egypt and the Sudan. This was a revision of the 1929 agreement for the full utilization of the Nile waters. According to this treaty, Egypt secured 55.5 BCM/year and 18.5 BCM/year was reserved for the Sudan. This allotment calculated the average flow of the Nile to be 84 BCM/year and the 10 BCM losses could be assumed as equal expenses. Beyond the water allotments, the treaty also included an important clause that was concerned with the other riparian countries. Both countries “agreed that the combined needs of other riparian would not exceed 1,000-2,000 BCM/year, and that any claims would be met with one unified Egyptian – Sudanese position” (Abdella, 2000:4). This treaty is the one that is still in operation. Ethiopia and all other Nile River riparian states have opposed and rejected this water agreement.

Among others, the 1929 and 1959 Nile Water agreements are the most important legal documents for Egypt and the Sudan. They are also the main obstacles for regional cooperation in the Nile Basin. Egypt considers the 1959 Nile Water Treaty signed with the Sudan as a binding legal document to use the Nile River. Other Nile River riparian states stood against this exclusive treaty. Upstream riparian countries consider that no cooperation is possible without a revision of past agreements and endorsement of a new multilateral agreement (Okidi, 1994; Amare, 1997, 2000). Since the 1990s, the Nile riparian states have initiated a transboundary cooperation process, such as the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) and the Cooperation Framework Agreement (CFA), however, the hydropolitical complexities of the past still remain visible due to Egypt’s defiance to reconsider the colonial and exclusive water agreements. Particularly, the Ethio-Egyptian relations have become more apprehensive following the beginning of the construction of the GERD in 2011.


To realize its principle of ‘water security’, Egypt has been working towards destabilizing Ethiopia. Egypt is an ardent supporter of opponent groups of Ethiopia. During the civil war in Eritrea, the first office of the Eritrean People Liberation Front (EPLF) was opened in Cairo.  Because of its mistrust of the Ethiopian government’s plan for the Blue Nile, Egypt supported the Eritrean cause in the Ethio-Eritrean conflict in the 1990s. Recently, Egypt also gave bases and support to the different political groups that were struggling against the central government of Ethiopia. In the recent episodes related with Eritrea and Somalia, Egypt stood against Ethiopia as part of its unchanged policy of destabilizing Ethiopia. It “impounded the Somali reconciliation process in which Ethiopia was mandated by the African Union (AU) and the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), when they brought the warring Somali factions to Cairo. This was done to … undermine the Ethiopian aspiration and meanwhile reduce its dependence on the Blue Nile water” (African Confidential, June, 1998: 5) or Egypt was using a third party (Somalia) as an element in its efforts to influence Ethiopia’s policy on the Blue Nile (Gilks, 1999: 577) (not in the reference list)

Diplomatic Isolation

Egypt has believed that it must be in a position either to dominate Ethiopia or to neutralize whatever unfriendly regime might emerge in Ethiopia. Egypt has better and close diplomatic relations with the west than Ethiopia. It is the “biggest recipient” of the US aid (2.2 USD per year). Egypt has the political and economic priority over the IMF (International Monetary Fund) and the World Bank. Between 1979 and 2000, within 21 years, it has secured an economic and military aid amounting 21 billion and 25 billion USD respectively (Sullivan, 1997:36). Egypt is the first Arab state that recognized the state of Israel. It signed the 1979 Camp David Accord to win the support of the West in her policy of “Water Security”. Egyptian foreign policy was and still is framed in accordance with the issue of the Nile.


Recently, the Egyptian President warned “to bomb” if Ethiopia and Sudan “plan to build a dam on the Nile” (BBC News Online, 11 October 1999). Through her Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ethiopia reacted to all Egyptian non-cooperative acts saying that the act of Egypt is “… irresponsible instance of jingoism that will not get us anywhere near the solution of the problem. …there is no earthly force that can stop Ethiopia from benefiting from the Nile” (Addis Tribune, 30 January 1998).


The Nile Basin hydropolitics has been characterized by asymmetries between upstream and downstream states. Asymmetries exist in terms of material, bargaining and ideational power (Zeitoun and Warner, 2006). In terms of material power asymmetry, all Nile riparian countries lag far behind Egypt in their GDP, economic diversification, external political support and access to international funding (Allan, 1999; Nicol, 2003). So far, upstream Nile countries have been much weaker than their downstream counterparts in terms of their bargaining power. Comparatively, they have weaker capacity to influence and negotiate regional and international political and legal water agendas. In ideational terms, a wide gap exists between the capacities of upstream and downstream Nile basin countries to produce and disseminate knowledge, to sanction discourse and to define the manner of cooperation (Cascão, 2008a, 2009). These asymmetries have been a crucial element in the maintenance of both the controversial 1959 water agreement and the positions of hegemony enjoyed by Egypt and Sudan in the Nile River hydropolitics. Likewise, the asymmetries have also influenced the impacts of the different cooperation attempts in the basin such as the Hydromet, Undugu, TECCONile, the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), and the Cooperation Framework Agreement (CFA). Even though these initiatives failed to produce concrete, inclusive and equitable water share and management, they have been used as discussion forums, where riparian countries manifested their respective position regarding the utilization and management of the Nile River. Some technical designs such as the Nile River Basin Action Plan (NRBAP) have been forged. Moreover, the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA), with the intention of creating a permanent river basin commission-the Nile Basin Commission- was established by 2009. Indeed, in June 2007, when the CFA negotiations were concluded, the countries had agreed on the contents of 38 of the 39 articles.  The exception was Article 14b that deals with the status of the previous Nile agreements.

The final draft agreement, concluded in June 2007, paraphrased Article 14b with the inclusion of the phrase ‘water security.’ The Article states that “the Nile Basin States therefore agree, in a spirit of cooperation, to work together to ensure that all states achieve and sustain water security and not to significantly affect the water security of any other Nile Basin State” (East African Business Week, 2007).The seven upstream riparian countries, forming one single block for the first time in the hydropolitical history of the Nile, accepted this formulation to accomplish the conclusion of the CFA. Egypt and Sudan, with reservations, proposed an alternative statement of Article 14b: “to work together to ensure that all states achieve and sustain water security and not to adversely affect the water security and current uses and rights of any other Nile Basin State” (East African Business Week, 2007). The upstream riparian countries rejected the formulation of Egypt and Sudan because it perpetuates the old agreements (New Vision, 2007, 2008). During a Nile-COM meeting in Kinshasa, in May 2009, all upstream riparian states decided that they would not wait any longer and decided to go ahead with the signature of the CFA without the downstream basin states (East African, 2009). According to the CFA itself, the ratification of a two-thirds majority is the requirement to establish the Nile Basin Commission (NBC).

At the Nile-COM meeting in Sharm El-Sheikh (Egypt), in 2009, the upstream riparian countries decided to wait no longer and announced the signing of the new agreement to take place on 14 May 2010 after which the agreement would remain open for signature for a year. By May 2010, five upstream basin states (Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda) had signed the CFA (East African, 2010). Burundi and Congo were expected to sign the CFA on 14 May 2010. But both did not do so. Congo and particularly Burundi failed to sign the CFA due to the political pressure from the Egyptian side (Daily News Egypt, 2010). Following the fall of the government of Mubarak in Egypt, Burundi decided to sign the CFA as the sixth riparian state thus opening the Agreement to ratification (Bloomberg, 2011).

The year 2011 witnessed a new development in the Nile River Basin hydropolitics. Ethiopia had laid down the corner stone to construct the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) to produce hydroelectric power. By 2020, 72% of the GERD has been completed. Following this, the Ethio-Egyptian hydropolitical and diplomatic confrontation has been intensified. Ethiopia envisioned the GERD a grand economic and nationalist project that would spur the country toward industrialization.The GERD is expected to generate more than 5000 megawatts. Currently, more than 70 million Ethiopians (out of the 110 million Ethiopians) do not get electricity. According to the United Nations’ International Energy Agency, this is the largest number in Africa (NSDS-Hub, 2019). The GERD is expected to provide local energy. Power export from the GERD will bring Ethiopia $1 billion a year. This makes the country the largest exporter of power in Africa. Ethiopia is financing the project by 80% domestic revenue coming from tax collection and 20% from the public support and national bond offerings (NSDS-Hub, 2019). Hence, the GERD is a public project with a very strong economic impact.

Egypt claims that Ethiopia announced the construction of the GERD project while Egypt was in the midst of its Arab Spring uprising and in disarray. It also viewed Ethiopia’s hydraulic work on the Blue Nile as a threat to its policy of ‘water security’. Indeed, in 2013, the former Egyptian president, Mohammed Morsi, was reported to say, “We will defend each drop of Nile water with our blood if necessary” (Ahram Online, 11 June 2013). Such kind of position is really inconsiderate.

Ethiopia, on the other hand, confirms that the project was a pre-Arab spring conception and only intended for hydropower production that doesn’t steal water from downstream countries. Water may decrease during the time of filling the reservoir. The Geological Society of America estimates that water levels in the Nile could decrease by 25% over seven years as the reservoir fills. To lessen the impact, Egypt is pushing for the reservoir to be slowly filled over two decades, while Ethiopia prefers a four-to-seven-year time frame (NSDS-Hub, 2019). For a poor country like Ethiopia, to wait for more than 20 years to fill the reservoir is uneconomical and wastage.

In 2015, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan signed the “Nile Declaration of Principles.”  The agreement set the terms for future cooperation and technical discussions around the GERD. Signing this document indicates that Egypt had approved the construction of the dam and the resumption of foreign funding. The Christian Science Monitor acknowledged the agreement as a “diplomatic breakthrough” and a radical departure from Egypt’s previous position. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, President of Egypt, called the agreement “a new chapter in the history of Egyptian-Ethiopian relations” (Cascão, Ana, and Alan, 2016).  Shafiqul Islam, director of the Water Diplomacy Program at Tufts University, advised Egypt to allow the construction of GERD, the least, to purchase cheaper hydropower from Ethiopia (NSDS-Hub, 2019). In spite of the signing of the ‘Nile Declaration Principles,’ challenges persisted between Egypt and Ethiopia over how quickly to fill the reservoir and other technical questions. Egypt has continued to question the very construction of the GERD in different ways (Busby, 2017). Egyptian diplomacy succeeded in convincing contributing countries to withhold foreign funding (Cascão, Ana, and Alan, 2016).

Consequently, following the suspension of the tripartite talks in November 2017, tensions were renewed.The three Nile basin riparian countries (Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan) made attempts to bring back cooperative measures. One of these was the establishment of a scientific study group in May 2018. On 14 June 2018, at a joint press conference in Cairo, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed made a promise to El Sisi, Egypt’s President, that Ethiopia will never harm Egypt. Ethiopia will take care of the Nile and will never cause significant harm.  Sudan, which will benefit from the GERD’s surplus electricity, also reiterated its support for the GERD, with President Omar Bashir saying: “We have fully supported the dam since it was at its planning stage … We are assured that the share of Sudan and Egypt in Nile water is completely guaranteed” (Africa News, 4 May 2018; Aman, 2018). The implementation of cooperation on the GERD has been passing through a rocky road and hiccups. Again, the closing of the 2019 witnessed the interruption of cooperative deals among the three countries. Egypt had taken the issue of the Nile to the United States of America. A discussion forum was organized in the US under the auspices of the American State of Treasury and the Head of the World Bank. The three riparian countries did not reach to a conclusion within the given time. Hence, the ‘observers’, particularly, the US Treasury Secretary transformed itself into a position of arbiter and framed an agreement document. Egypt signed the agreement, while Ethiopia and the Sudan did not. Backed by the Ethiopian public, the Ethiopian delegate officially boycotted the US discussion forum.   Egyptian shift of stances are not recent. The position of Egypt regarding the Nile water has never been consistent and considerate. The 1990s have witnessed some détente on the Ethio-Egyptian hydropolitics. For instance, the former Egyptian ambassador to Ethiopia, Marwan Badr, said that “The Nile is an international river shared by ten basin countries, each and every one of them has the right to equitable utilization of its waters for socio-economic developments, provided they don’t cause harm to the other basin countries in exercising that right” (Kinfe, 2004a:344; Daniel, n.d.:15). The two countries seem to discontinue looking at each other through the prism of distorted lenses when the two countries signed the ‘Framework of Understanding’ on 1 July 1993. In this ‘Framework Understanding’, Egypt agreed to drop the long aged principle of ‘Historic Right’ and both understood to apply ‘the rules and principles of international law as a basis for future negotiations’ (Ministry of Water Resource, 1997:500). Moreover, under the shared vision of the NBI, the Eastern Nile riparian countries (Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan) developed the Eastern Nile Subsidiary Action Program (ENSAP) consisting of the following seven programs:

1.      Eastern Nile planning model

2.      Baro-Akobo multi-purpose water resource development

3.      Flood preparedness and early warning

4.      Ethio-Sudan transmission interconnection

5.      eastern Nile power investment program

6.      irrigation and drainage

7.      Water shade management.

Consequently, the three member states of the Eastern Nile established their own regional Joint Ministerial and Technical Advisory Committee and renewed their commitment to work cooperatively for the realization of the ‘shared visions’. They also moved further and drafted a common strategy document and identified major projects to be run by each member state (Kinfe, 2004a:355-356). Accordingly, the three countries made the following plans: Ethiopia plans to develop about 200,000 hectares of irrigable land, 13 hydropower, 8 irrigation and 25 watershed management projects to the sub-programs. The Sudan came up with 2 hydropower, 1 flood early warning, and 1 pilot watershed development projects. Egypt also envisaged in the development of Eastern Nile simulation model, Baro-Akobo water conservation, hydropower and flood prevention, power pulling, interconnection and Nile silt study project (Kinfe, 2004a:356). It was according to this plan that Ethiopia started the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Electric Dam in 2011.

3.      Conclusive Recommendations

It is obvious that the Nile River belongs to eleven riparian states of Africa. So, it requires cooperative utilization and management. To this end, diplomatic negotiation of the concerned riparian states is imperative. Particularly, the issue of the GERD should only be the concern of Egypt, Ethiopia and the Sudan. Egyptian, Ethiopian and Sudanese hydrologists should be given the opportunity to negotiate and discuss about how to fill the reservoir. So, expertise knowledge based discussions would be better than the political diplomacy. Unilateral and non-cooperative political and diplomatic campaigns may not bring tangible results. The involvement of non-riparian countries and organizations may further complicate the issue. They may not have the power and the right to involve in a regional issue to where they do not have any stake. The roles, efforts and rights of the Ethiopian peasants should also be respected and considered. Peasants, who have been living around the Blue Nile, have been playing an important role in the conservation and uninterrupted flow of the water for millennia. Now, these poor peasants and their fellow citizens are working towards utilizing the water of the Blue Nile River without causing significant harm to their counterparts, who had been utilizing for centuries without any consent, reparation and consideration.

Leaving aside the technical mechanisms of how to equitably use the Nile Waters to the professionals, it will be noteworthy to avoid enmity and exclusive and unilateral moves concerning the utilization and management of the Nile waters.

Today, demographic pressures, economic problems,  climatic challenges,  mounting demand for more water, resource depletion, the absence of comprehensive legal and institutional frameworks and climate challenges indispensably necessitated the need to develop mechanisms of sustainable, peaceful and cooperation in the utilization and management of the Nile River. The condition is severe in Ethiopia, where drought always entailed by starvation that strikes now and again. Hence, to utilize the Nile waters equitably and fairly, the riparian countries should generally work mutually and cooperatively for win-win benefits. All the beneficiaries should also well understand that the major problem does not emanate from water scarcity.  But the sources of the problem seem to be mismanagement of water, unilateral utilization and politicization of the issue. It will be advisable to allow experts rather than politicians to deal with the hydrological issue of the Nile River and particularly the GERD. 

Besides, it would be helpful to give attention to the following points, as means of avoiding enmity and mistrust and encouraging cooperation and inclusiveness.

1.      Almost all the riparian states have enough war and/or conflict experiences. With no doubt all knew the fate of war and conflicts. War cannot guarantee the peaceful utilization and management of the Nile River. War, conflict and mistrust complicate conditions and further elongate poverty. Thus, all the riparian countries should think and reconsider saving people from poverty, starvation and war. The diplomatic and political dialogues, negotiations, and maneuvers should improve the lives of peoples of the riparian countries. Peaceful approach would be the wisdom to utilize and manage the waters of the Nile River.

2.      The issue of the utilization of the Nile waters should not only be the concern of politicians and diplomats of the riparian countries. Professional scholars and the common peoples of the riparian countries should involve in the establishment of cooperation. Scholars should be given the opportunity to produce peaceful and genuine means to the utilization, management and full exploitation of the Nile waters, and particularly the GERD.

3.      All riparian countries should be vigilant not to be trapped by any self-interested and catalyzing foreign agent. All the concerned countries better avoid any behind-the-curtain dealings.

4.      The gradual dwindling of the Nile waters and the exhaustion of topsoil are the two natural potential problems that need to be tackled. The Nile River shows a steady decline. For example, between the years from 1870-1899 the average water flow of the Nile at Aswan was 110 BCM, it has declined to 83 BCM in the years from 1899-1954, and it lowered down to 81.5 BCM in the years from 1954-1988 (Rashid, 1993; Swain, 1997). This clearly witnesses that the volume of the water will continue to decrease to a significant magnitude in the future. Hence, all riparian countries should cooperate and work hard to overcome this potential impediment.

5.      Even though the Nile River is the major water source in Egypt, Egypt must also respect the interests, needs, and rights of the other riparian countries. Recognizing the rights of others is the first step towards the search for peaceful mechanisms of a comprehensive utilization and management of the Nile waters. In this respect, the master key is in the hands of Egypt. All previous unilateral agreements, including the 1959 Nile Water Treaty, should be repealed and be replaced by a much more inclusive agreement.

6.      War, diplomacy and even agreement alone could not guarantee the steady flow of the Nile River. Its uninterrupted flow has been attributed to the conservational role of Ethiopian peasants and their fellow citizens living in the Blue Nile basin area. This conservational role of the peasants has been and will guarantee the steady flow of the Blue Nile River. Hence, the support and recognition of the role of the peasants is imperative in the Nile River negotiations.

7.      Until today things moved as they were. The past belongs to our predecessors. This new generation could not be responsible for what had been done in the past. Its time is today. This generation should practically manifest its capacity and ability of handling issues better than its ancestors. Hence, it will be much better to utilize and exploit the gift of God in peace and mutual understanding.

8.      Moreover, the three riparian countries should respect the ten principles they signed in 2015. In the ‘Declaration of Principles,’ the three countries had valued the increasing need of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan for their transboundary water sources. They also realized the importance of the Nile River as a source of life and a vital source for the development of the people of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan. The three countries have committed themselves, inter alia, to the principles of  peaceful settlement of disputes, exchange of information and data, building trust, dam's storage reservoir first filling, and dam operation policies,  fair and appropriate use, not causing significant damage, and cooperation concerning the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (Declaration of  Principles, 2015).

9.      It is also an important measure to respect and observe the Cooperation Framework Agreement and to establish the Nile Basin Commission. This brings all the Nile River riparian states together and enables them to discuss about the utilization and management of the Nile.

10.  Consistency and considerateness are important factors in negotiation


I would like to conclude by words borrowed from an Ethiopian Laureate Tsegaye Gebre-Medhin:

 “The Nile River should be the ‘irrigator that cultivates peace!”



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[1] Sintayehu Kassaye Alemu (PhD) is Associate Professor at Mekelle University. He has specialized in Education particularly in higher education (management and internationalization), the Nile and in History