June 11, 2013 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 978

Rising Tensions Over The Nile River Basin

June 11, 2013 | By Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli*
Egypt | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 978


The Nile River is the longest river in the world. From its major source, Lake Victoria in east central Africa, the White Nile flows generally northward through Uganda and into Sudan.[1] In Khartoum it joins the Blue Nile, which rises in the Ethiopian highlands. The Nile traverses almost 6,700 kilometers (4,169 miles) from its farthest sources in Burundi and Rwanda to its delta in Egypt on the Mediterranean Sea.[2]

The Nile is shared by ten countries – Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda – with a combined population of about 300 million, about 160 million of whom live within the boundaries of the Nile Basin. The ten countries that share the Nile waters include some of the world's poorest, with an annual per capital income of less than $250.[3]

In recent years, tensions have been rising over the waters of the Nile as many riparian countries have begun to question the legitimacy of a water allocation agreement (see below) initiated and sanctioned by the British colonial authorities that allocated most of the Nile waters to Egypt and Sudan, to the detriment of the upstream countries. In the face of demands for reallocating the Nile waters, Egypt has persistently argued that the agreement is valid under international law and any amendment or changes require Egypt's prior consent. From the old regime of Hosni Mubarak to the new regime of Mohammad Mursi, the Egyptian position has remained constant. Almost a decade ago, the Egyptian government daily Al-Gumhouriyya wrote that the demands by some Nile Basin countries to reallocate water shares were a matter of concern to Egypt which required quick intervention in order to kill any initiative that would reduce the water supply to Egypt.[4] At a May 29, 2013 meeting with Egyptian political and religious leaders, President Muhammad Mursi declared that Egypt would not allow its share of the Nile to be diminished by "one drop" following Ethiopia's announcement on May 28 that it was diverting the Blue Nile from its natural course to facilitate the construction of its Renaissance Dam.[5]

Confluence of the White and Blue Nile in Khartoum (image:

The Nile Waters Agreement of 1929

The Nile Waters Agreement (NWA) between Egypt and Great Britain (which represented Uganda, Kenya, Tanganyika [now Tanzania], and the Sudan) on the allocation of the Nile waters was concluded on November 7, 1929 in Cairo by an exchange of letters between the Egyptian Prime Minister and the British High Commissioner in Egypt. Apart from Ethiopia, which had a government in place, the NWA was made before the other Nile Basin countries had gained their independence. The agreement allocated 48 billion cubic meters per year to Egypt as its acquired right and 4 billion cubic meters per year to Sudan. It took no account of the interests of the eight other upstream riparian nations along the river and its basin. The allocations to Egypt and Sudan were later increased to 55.5 billion cu. meters and 18 billion cu. meters, respectively, under a 1959 bilateral agreement between these two countries that allowed for the construction of the Aswan Dam.

The NWA stated that no works would be undertaken on the Nile, its tributaries, and the Lake Basin that would reduce the volume of the water reaching Egypt. It also gave Egypt the right to "inspect and investigate" the whole length of the Nile, up to the remotest sources of its tributaries in the Basin.

This right "to inspect and investigate," which was tantamount to a veto power over any water or power project, has in recent years become moot, as all the former colonies on the Nile Basin have become independent nations and are not likely to readily agree to such encroachment on their sovereignty by Egypt. Indeed, some of them have begun to nibble on the NWA by initiating water projects that threaten to reduce the volume of water available to Egypt. Egypt, for its part, considers any change in the agreement as a strategic threat and has repeatedly threatened to use all means at its disposal to prevent violations of the agreement. The other Nile Basin African countries consider the agreement as a relic of a colonial era which no longer reflects their needs and aspirations, and should therefore be annulled. Countering this argument, Sherif Al-Mousa, head of the Middle East Program at the American University in Cairo, argued that the Nile water agreement should be treated the same way as the boundaries of most Nile Basin countries, which were established by colonial powers yet are recognized under international law.[6]

The Pressures for Change

Population pressures, frequent draughts, and increasing soil salinity have intensified the demands by the Nile Basin countries to renegotiate the 1929 agreement. Not deterred by Egyptian reluctance to do so, or even by Egyptian threats, and constrained by financial hardships, some Nile Basin countries are determined to implement projects that would tap into the sources of the Nile. The 1959 agreement between Egypt and Sudan, which increased the water allocations to themselves while completely ignoring the interests of the other riparian countries such as Tanzania, Kenya and Ethiopia, has, in retrospect, weakened the Egyptian argument for the inviolability of the NWA.

The Nile Basin Initiative

To reduce the potential for conflict, and with the help of the World Bank, the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) was launched in February 1999 by the water ministers of nine countries that share the river: Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. It was meant to be a transitional arrangement until a permanent framework was in place, and was guided by a shared vision "to achieve sustainable socio-economic development through the equitable utilization of, and benefit from, the common Nile Basin water resources."

The Nile Basin Initiative notwithstanding, member countries are forging ahead with their own projects and challenges. Droughts are difficult to forecast, even in the beginning of the crop season. Building dams to store water is not unlike a bank savings account, to be used at a time of need. While Egypt has secured its agriculture with the building of the Aswan Dam, it has been disapproving, if not belligerent, when other countries on the Nile Basin sought similar solutions. Not long after the NBI was launched, representatives of the upstream countries said they were no longer willing to seek permission from Egypt before using the Nile water for any development project just because this was required by a colonial-era treaty signed between Great Britain and Egypt. Leading the challenge to the 1929 agreement was Ethiopia, which claimed complete rights over the Blue Nile, as well Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. A new agreement, the Entebbe Agreement, was launched against the strong objections of Egypt and Sudan.

The Entebbe Agreement

The Entebbe Agreement, signed in the Ugandan capital on April 10, 2010 by East African upstream countries, including Ethiopia, allows them to work on river projects without Cairo's prior agreement. Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Kenya endorsed the agreement, and Burundi did so the following year. Egypt alongside with Sudan boycotted the deal, saying it was non-binding precisely because their perspective had not been taken into account.[7] The recently independent state of Southern Sudan announced it would join the agreement. By contrast, Eritrea and the Democratic Republic of Congo have remained on the sidelines.

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD)

Not being part of any colonial system, Ethiopia felt least bound by the 1929 agreement signed by Britain and Egypt. Hence, it was the country most agitating against this colonial agreement that restricted the use of the Blue Nile which rises from the Ethiopian highlands and it therefore to a large extent an Ethiopian river. With rising population and extensive poverty in the countryside, Ethiopia, operating under the provisions of the Entebbe agreement, has decided to construct the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile. The dam – which will cost $4.7 billion to build and will be Africa's largest – will have a reservoir storage capacity of 74 billion cubic meters and is expected to produce 6,000 megawatts of electricity.

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam – Illustration on website of Ethiopia's Electric Power Corporation (

To facilitate the construction of the dam, Ethiopia has diverted the Blue Nile 500 meters (555 yards) from its natural course. Speaking at the ceremony held at the Guba site of the GERD, Demeske Makonnin, president of the GERD Construction Public Coordination Council and deputy prime minister, said the diversion of the river has been successfully achieved in order to utilize this resource for Ethiopia's national interest. He stressed that, at the present stage, the diversion would have no impact on the amount of water flowing downstream into Sudan and Egypt.[8] Seeking to reassure Egypt, Ethiopian Minister of Energy Alemayehu Teguno declared that "the dam's construction benefits riparian countries, showcases fair and equitable use of the river's flow, and does not harm any country."[9]

The Egyptian Reaction

On May 29, 2013, Egyptian President Mursi summoned to the presidential palace leaders of various political and religious groups to consider Egypt's options regarding the diversion of the river as a prelude to the construction of the GERD. What was meant to be a discreet meeting for outlining a national strategy turned into a large fiasco – or, in the words of one Egyptian commentator, "a live blab-fest"[10] – when, unbeknownst to the participants, it was accidentally aired live on Egyptian national television.[11] Especially acute was the embarrassment of those participants who recommended an assortment of military options, such as sending special forces to destroy the dam, a flyover by jet fighters to intimidate the Ethiopians, or providing support to rebel groups fighting the Ethiopian government. A spokesman for the Egyptian presidency, Ayhab Fahmi, rushed to declare that Egypt had approved a plan calling for Foreign Minister Muhammad Kamel 'Amru "to deal with the situation in a manner that would protect the Egyptian interests as well as the strong relations with its sister-countries on the Nile River basin."[12] In a further attempt to contain the damage, the Egyptian government stressed its preference for "dialogue" in dealing with the crisis of "the Renaissance Dam," and that it was seeking "to expedite the launch of political and technical dialogue between Egypt and Ethiopia."[13] At the same time, Ayman 'Ali, an adviser to President Mursi, told journalists that "all options are open" in dealing with the Renaissance Dam that Ethiopia plans to construct.[14]

The May 29 meeting at the presidential palace that was accidentally aired live on Egyptian television (image:

Egyptian experts have also raised legitimate technical concerns. One in particular, Dr. Ahmad 'Ali Suleiman, referred to as an international expert in the field of water in Egypt, maintains that most of the designs and studies prepared by Ethiopia are inadequate for a project of this magnitude. Suleiman argues that the walls of the proposed Ethiopian dam cannot withstand the pressures of 74 billion cubic meters of water, which could cause the dam to collapse and flood northern Sudan and southern Egypt. Taking the opportunity to swipe at Israel, Suleiman referred to "Israeli involvement" in the countries of the Nile River basin, particularly Ethiopia, in attempt to influence Egypt's share of the Nile waters[15]

Apart from the genuine concern about the dam's implications for Egypt, the timing of the announcement on the diversion of the Blue Nile was seen in Egypt as a slap in the face of President Mursi, who had visited Addis Ababa only a few days earlier to attend an African summit. Hani Ruslan of the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo claimed that Ethiopia had "insulted the Egyptian state by announcing the diversion of the river shortly after Mursi visited the country." He added that the diversion of the river was "one element in a long-term deceitful strategy that Ethiopia has followed in its dealings with Egypt and Sudan."[16]

The Ethiopian reaction to Egypt's criticism and implied threats has been equally strident. A spokesman for Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn declared that the construction of GERD did not depend on "the will of the Egyptian politicians," and that Ethiopia had invited President Mursi "to discuss" the dam but that suspending the project was out of the question.[17]

Egypt Accuses "Hidden Fingers"

In addition to Tanzania and Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda are also demanding the abrogation of the 1929 agreement and a bigger share of the Nile waters. Egypt accuses "hidden fingers known to the Egyptian side [which] are openly inciting the traditional allies of Egypt in the Nile Basin to annul the agreement, arguing that it is incompatible with the population and political developments that have transpired in the last 75 years."[18] The anonymous senior Egyptian official who made the allegation about the "hidden fingers" stressed that any change in the agreement was inconceivable, and warned that "any infringement of the agreement would suggest that the African countries do not respect regional obligations."[19]

Egypt's Alternatives

To deal with the threat to its vital water supply Egypt has four alternatives, some of which are not mutually exclusive:

  • Reduce waste through improved irrigation systems.
  • Price water at market rates.
  • Maintain the status quo as long as possible.
  • Resort to the use of force.

Reducing Waste Through Improved Irrigation Systems

According to a study by the World Bank, 96.44% of the economically active population in Egypt is engaged in agriculture. This is the highest percentage in the Middle East, with Morocco in second place (with 92.61%). By contrast, the corresponding ratios for Tunisia and Lebanon are 60.87% and 10.35%, respectively. As a result, much of the water is used in agriculture, which produces a proportionately small percentage of the GDP. In Egypt, 88% of the water is consumed in agriculture, which, as a sector, produces only 14% of the GDP, while 8% of water is used in industry, which produces 34% of the GDP. The report suggests that "from a narrow macroeconomic perspective, the rationale justifying the allocation of water to agriculture over industrial and other sectors is weak."[20]

Pricing Water at Market Rates

While the region remains one of the most water-poor in the world, the cost of water for irrigation is set at below cost-recovery levels. Egyptian agriculture is entirely dependent on irrigated land. The government provides irrigation water for free, except for cost-recovery of on-farm investment projects. Annual irrigation subsidies are estimated at $5 billion. In Egypt, irrigation subsidies are often rationalized as a means of allowing low farm prices so as to keep down urban food prices.[21] However, this water pricing policy leads to waste in agriculture and provides little incentive for conservation techniques.

Maintaining the Status Quo

Egypt's third option is to seek a status quo while tolerating some changes on the margin. To do so, it must continue to maintain a pro-American and pro-Western orientation in order to discourage the West, and organizations controlled by it, such as the World Bank, from financing costly water projects such as dams or power projects in any of the riparian countries, which they themselves cannot finance through internally-generated resources. In the case of the GERD, Ethiopia maintains that a rich Gulf Arab country has offered to finance the project.

Resorting to the Use of Force

The last and least likely alternative is resorting to the use of force to uphold Egypt's right to exercise the veto power on activities it deems harmful to its national interests. Egypt's saber rattling cannot be taken too seriously, certainly not by the African countries themselves. Not only does Egypt lack the military capacity to strike at countries 2,000 miles away, but it will be hard pressed to justify a military action to enforce the provisions of a 75-year old agreement tailored to satisfy colonialist considerations and priorities while disregarding the needs of the countries upstream.

We referred earlier to the meeting between Mursi and selected Egyptian leaders which was accidentally aired live on Egyptian television on May 29, in which some of the participants discussed military options. With the political system in Egypt teetering toward disarray, the former editor of the daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat Tariq Alhomayed, raised the specter that the ruling Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt might move forward with military aggression similar to Saddam's war against Khomeini in Iran, in order to divert attention from the internal crisis under the pretense of protecting Egypt's national interests. Alhomayed argues that, were it not for the Egyptian political disarray, Ethiopia would not have dared to challenge Egypt. [22]

* Nimrod Raphaeli is a Senior Analyst (Emeritus) at MEMRI.


[1] The study was originally issued as Inquiry & Analysis No. 367 (February 27, 2004). Recent developments arising from Ethiopia's decision to erect a major dam on the Blue Nile and the possible conflict with Egypt have warranted a revision and reissue of the study.

[2] The Nile Basin Initiative Secretariat, Entebbe, Uganda.

[3] The World Bank, the Nile Basin Initiative: Overview (no date).

[4] Al-Gumhouriyya (Egypt), February 21, 2004.

[5] Al-Arabiya TV, June 3, 2013

[6] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), February 5, 2004.

[7], March 27, 2013.

[8], May 28, 2013.

[9] BBC, May 28, 2013.

[10], June 3, 2013.

[11] For excerpts from the session as it was aired on Egyptian television, see MEMRI TV Clip No. 3857 "Egyptian Blooper: Politicians, Unaware They Are Live on Air, Threaten Ethiopia over Dam Construction," June 3, 2013.

[12] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), June 5, 2013.

[13] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), June 6, 2012.

[14], June 5, 2013.

[15] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), June 7, 2013.

[16] Al-Arabiya, May 29, 2013.

[17], June 6, 2013.

[18] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), February 8, 2004.

[19] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), February 8, 2004.

[20] "Water, Food Security and Agricultural Policy in the Middle East and North Africa Region," Issue Paper prepared for the Third World Water Forum, Kyoto, Japan, February 2003.

[21] "Water, Food Security and Agricultural Policy in the Middle East and North Africa Region," issue paper prepared for the Third World Water Forum, Kyoto, Japan, February 2003 (draft).

[22] Al-Sharq al-Awsat (London), June 4, 2013.

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