Why a lot is at stake in the dispute over Nile waters

Saturday June 27 2020
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A picture taken on May 28, 2013 shows the Blue Nile in Guba, Ethiopia, during its diversion ceremony. PHOTO | WILLIAM LLOYD GEORGE | AFP


The Arab Republic of Egypt, the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia and the Republic of Sudan are entangled in high stakes dispute over the use of the Nile waters, something that could escalate to strain of relations.

The disagreement stems from Ethiopia’s ambitious 4.8 billion dollars flagship mega dam, “The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD)”, with a volume of 10,200,000 m3, on the Blue Nile

River in Ethiopia, near Sudan-Ethiopia border, to the chagrin of Egypt which relies on The Nile River for most of its water needs. The construction that began in 2011 is 75 per cent complete, according to Ethiopian Minister of Irrigation Seleche Baqli.

The Nile River begins from the equatorial rivers that flow into Lake Victoria and it flows into the Mediterranean Sea, making a journey of 6,695 km. It runs through 11 countries referred to as the Nile Basin Countries.


These are Burundi, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Egypt, Kenya, Sudan, Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda and DRC and South Sudan. The sources of the Nile are White Nile from equatorial Africa and the Blue Nile from Ethiopia.


The confluence of the two Niles is Khartoum, in Sudan from where it flows northwards to Egypt.

However, it is estimated that eighty five percent of the waters of The Nile come from Ethiopian highlands, perhaps why Ethiopia feels that filling the GERD from the Blue Nile is an inalienable right.

The GERD is estimated to produce 6,450MW of hydro-power when completed enabling Ethiopia to have sufficient electricity for its 110 million people with surplus enough to export to neighbouring countries making Ethiopia a regional hub for power export. Currently, more than 50 million Ethiopians have no access to power.

However, Egypt, a downstream stream country, depends on the Nile for ninety percent of its water needs and she feels the construction and filling of the dam will threaten its supply of water for agriculture, domestic consumption for its population of nearly 100 million and to a little extent, hydropower supply.

Egypt is laying claim to The Nile waters by citing a 1929 agreement she signed with Great Britain, its colonizer, which also represented its other colonies at the time -Uganda, Kenya, Tanganyika (now Tanzania) and Sudan.

The agreement granted Egypt 48 billion cubic meters annually. Egypt was also granted the veto- power over water management and construction projects upstream of the Nile River or any of its tributaries in a bid to maintain healthy flow of water into the Nile. All other riparian states were barred from using the water for large scale projects.


The 1929 treaty was revised in 1959 and a bilateral agreement between independent Sudan and Egypt was signed raising Egypt’s share of the Nile waters from 48 billion to 55.5 billion cubic metres and Sudan’s share from 4 billion cubic metres to 18.5 billion cubic metres annually.

Ethiopia was not consulted nor represented in the negotiation. In addition, clauses prohibiting The Nile Basin countries from exploiting the Nile Waters for large scale projects without Egypt’s express approval remained unchanged.

The treaties had guaranteed Egypt that no works would be developed along The Nile River or on any part of its territory, which would threaten Egypt’s interests.

Ethiopia, a country that has never been colonised, thinks that being held captive to an agreement overseen by a colonial power is an insult.

Ethiopia argues and rightfully so, that they cannot rely on agreements overseen by colonialists that instituted unjust and inequitable use of the Nile waters to advance colonial interests of yesteryears. Ethiopia is adamant they will build the dam and fill it with or without agreement by 2022.

Ethiopia needs the Nile Water for development and provision of power for its huge population that has exponentially grown from less than 20 million in the 1950s to 110 million in 2019.

However, it is willing to negotiate terms of use of the Nile Waters with Egypt and Sudan but has unequivocally made it clear that it would not be bound by discriminatory agreements crafted by colonial powers in the 20th century.


Ethiopia’s chief negotiator at the Tripartite Commission did not mince his words when he was asked if Ethiopia would stop the construction and the filling of the dam before an agreement is reached.

He said; “The parties will resume talks. The filling of the basin does not depend on the state of the negotiations,” giving credence to a declaration by The Ethiopian Prime Minister, Dr. Abiy Ahmed that ‘no force can stop Ethiopia” from building and filling the dam.

Sudan, also a downstream country and a member of the Arab League like Egypt, has concerns about the GERD but, unlike Egypt, sees advantages in the building of the dam by Ethiopia. The site of the dam is about 40 kilometers from Sudan’s border, potentially giving Sudan access to cheap electricity while also mitigating against devastating floods due to overflow of the Blue Nile.

Consequently, Sudan continues to delicately balance between the dilemma of a dam or no-dam benefit and losing either of two strategic allies, Ethiopia and Egypt.

The Nile treaties of 1929 and 1959 have not considered the interests of other riparian Nile Basin states in as far as sharing the Nile River waters is concerned and as such, five upstream riparian states, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, South Sudan and Burundi signed and ratified The Nile Basin Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) between 2010 to 2015 to seek more water from the Nile.

In 2017, during an extra-ordinary Nile Basin Initiative meeting in Entebbe, Ugandan Minister for Water and Environment, who was the then chairperson of The Nile Council of Ministers said

‘The other countries also have a say on how the water is used, as they have growing populations that need to use the water as much as the Egyptians.”

Eastern African countries have called for a peaceful resolution on the dispute. Somalia and Djibouti, members of the Arab League that share a long border with Ethiopia, have declined to endorse Arab League resolution declaring support for Egypt and calling Ethiopia to stop filling of the dam and have instead called for consensus.

President of Uganda has called for Africa presidents’ summit for honest and candid discussion over the Nile Water dilemma to “ensure equitable and sustainable usage of the river’s waters” for all the Nile Basin countries – Not just Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia.

Kenya, Ethiopia’s neighbour and a Nile Basin country signed a Memorandum of Understanding to import 400MW of hydropower from Ethiopia in 2016. The 1,045-km Kenya-Ethiopia power line (433 km in Ethiopia and 612 km in Kenya) is 100 per cent complete on the Ethiopian side and 90 per cent complete on the Kenyan side.

The construction of the GERD will provide Kenya with cheaper hydroelectric power and set the stage for deeper economic relationship between the two countries. In addition, Lamu Port-South Sudan Ethiopia Transport Corridor (LAPSSET), one of the 124 vision 2030 flagship projects of Kenya, promises immense trade between Kenya and Ethiopia.


Despite the different, somehow antagonistic, positions they have taken with regards to Somalia’s current administration, Kenya and Ethiopia remain strategic allies. In 2019, on the invitation of PM Abiy of Ethiopia, President Kenyatta of Kenya led a delegation of government officials and investors to Addis Ababa for high level two day economic and trade partnership conference.

 In his speech, President Kenyatta, said, ‘We made a commitment to deepen trade and economic ties between our two countries.’

The chairperson of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, has encouraged Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt to pursue dialogue to achieve mutually beneficial agreement The United States of America and the World Bank have also encouraged talks and facilitated tripartite talks between the three countries to come to a consensus.

China, through Zhang Gaohui, Chief of Political Affairs at the Chinese Embassy in Addis Ababa, urged Egypt and Ethiopia to resolve their differences through “dialogue and peaceful negotiations,”

Clearly, this is a dispute that has attracted international attention because of its fragility, the numerous interests at stake and the strength of the countries involved in the dispute.

Ethiopia and Egypt are two of the most the most populous countries in Africa and their tussle over the Nile Waters will affect over 200 million Africans.

While it is absurd for Egypt to cite a 1929 treaty drafted by a colonial power with vested interests to justify its claim, a treaty that completely ignored the interests of not only Ethiopia, but all upstream Nile Basin countries, it is inevitable for Egypt and Ethiopia to pursue dialogue in good faith and work to a mutually beneficially agreement.

However, it is not only Egypt and Ethiopia that have a stake in the Nile Waters but also all the other riparian states who must be invited to the discussion and considered in any agreement.

The writer is an educationist and a political scientist.

Twitter: @Alibash_Mohamed.