The Nile river is the longest river in the world, measuring in at approximately 6,650 km. It flows through ten countries that together comprise the Nile River Basin. These include Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Sudan, South Sudan, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya. The Nile is crucial to the economies of each of these riparian nations and is truly a matter of “life and death” for them, especially Egypt, as it provides water for domestic use as well. As things begin to change in the Nile Basin and new dams and treaties are being negotiated, this life-source is being threatened and tensions are rising, sparking conflict among increasingly stressed nations.


Egypt is by far the most powerful economy in the region, but this does not say very much; the Nile Basin contains five of the world’s poorest countries. Egypt is also the most arid nation in the region with little and insufficient rainfall. The majority of its population is established along the river, and in order to sustain not only peoples’ everyday lives but vital industry and agriculture as well, egypt relies on the flow of the nile, which provides ninety percent of Egypt’s water. Until now, Egypt has for the most part never had reason to fear that its water security was threatened. Since the Pharaohs, Egypt has asserted a position of primacy along the nile. even the most recent document dealing with water allocation of the nile, the 1959 agreement with Sudan, unwaveringly protects its interests. This treaty partitions the entire river flow between Egypt and the Sudan, and Egypt gets the lion’s share—55 billion cubic meters (bcm)—and Sudan is largely excluded, with an allocation of only 18 bcm.


What about the other countries that seem to have been forgotten? The remaining eight countries in the basin historically have raised little objection to Egypt and Sudan’s monopolization of this precious resource, likely because of a combination of an inability to assert themselves and a lack of a pressing need to do so. However, today regional affairs are in flux. Seven countries in the nile Basin have been engaged in conflict in the last fifteen years.

Africa’s natural legacy is one of massive climate variability, and the weather itself is very inconsistent, leaving every african farmer and policy-maker constantly wary of peril. Exacerbating this issue is climate change; its growing presence makes the future increasingly foggy.

On top of those transitions, the rest of the Nile Basin is beginning to develop. With rising populations and growing economies, especially in the case of ethiopia, other countries are beginning to demand changes to the status quo. Ethiopia’s demand for water has roughly doubled in the past decade, and its growth does not appear to be slowing. Ethiopia, among others, needs access to more water to facilitate growth in irrigation and power projects. with all of the water partitioned currently to Egypt and Sudan, the extra water must come from their end. In their pursuit, ethiopia and other upstream countries are calling past treaties unjust and, by extension, illegitimate. they demand redistribution.

It seems that Egypt can no longer rest easy on its downstream throne. As tensions in the basin rise, there is talk of impending conflict that the media has begun referring to as the “water wars.” Egypt, however, sees no pressing reason to change its ways. Under the current arrangement, Egypt is in control and in any kind of cooperative situation stands to lose the most. For Egypt, this is an issue of national and resource security, and until some alternative presents itself that compensates them for their loss in water allocation, they are unlikely to amend their policy from the status quo.

The pressure on Egypt to change its policy, however, is likely to increase; recently, there has been greater talk of cooperation in the region than in many years. The Nile Basin Initiative has proposed a new treaty to reallocate water rights, but Egypt refuses to agree to it because it sees only losses. although the immediate benefits for egypt are unclear, there is much to gain in the long-term from cooperation “beyond the river.” For Egypt, this new treaty could bring conflict alleviation and insurance against future conflicts like the “water wars.” Also, as the rest of the basin begins to develop, Egypt will have new markets for its goods, which could boost its economy; in Sudan and Ethiopia combined there is a potential market of over 100 million people. Some of this benefit has already been realized, as trade between Egypt and Ethiopia has already seen a 50 percent increase as a result of the nile dialogue from 2003-2007. Furthermore, transitioning to higher-value, less water- intensive crops could offset some of egypt’s water loss. Currently, 88 percent of egypt’s water is consumed by agriculture, and this is because egypt’s agriculture is entirely dependent on irrigated land. However, the role of agriculture in the economy has greatly declined and agriculture now only accounts for approximately 13.9 percent of GDP. If Egypt could economize its water use through improved agricultural practices, its economy would benefit and there would be room for upstream development. Some initial costs to cooperation could reap great long-term benefits for the entire basin.



Perhaps just as the benefits of cooperation are underestimated, the costs of cooperation are overestimated. The Blue Nile, which is the main tributary that directly provides Egypt’s water flows, passes through Ethiopia. Action in Ethiopia that affects the flow of the river will be felt downstream, but this action would have to be very significant for the flow of the river to be dangerously altered. The Millennium Dams that ethiopia has recently proposed could be enough to have a serious and adverse affect downstream, but if there are rules in place for filling and operation, and if Ethiopia could be limited to the construction of only two dams rather than three, the effect would be negligible. Also, dams provide an opportunity to improve the reliability of river flow, and upstream storage could prove invaluable in extreme drought periods. on top of that, there is the potential for power sharing between the two countries with the excess electricity the dam would generate.




If Egypt increased its flexibility in these negotiations, a more creative agreement could be reached. It would mean incurring some short-run costs, but in the long-run the benefits could outweigh them. The upstream countries will not wait forever for Egypt to cooperate, and as their needs increase so no doubt will their impatience. Ethiopia has threatened to go ahead with construction of the dam with or without egyptian consent. In its decision-making, it is important that egypt weigh the tradeoffs and the benefits of cooperation, and thinks in the long-term as well as the short-term. If a successful compromise is reached, this could set a precedent for effective water management in international rivers all over the world. the fate of this regional river, then, has global implications, of which all parties must be mindful.