Water scarcity and widespread underdevelopment have bred popular unrest in the Nile Basin. As riparian states increase their reliance on Nile resources, Panagiotis Skiadas argues that only a commitment to multilateral engagement can prevent a precarious geopolitical situation from devolving deeper into conflict. 

Since ancient times, the River Nile has been more than a river. From the times of the Pharaoh, the Nile powered human existence and civilization in the northeastern African deserts. The longest river in the world, running for more than 6,700 kilometers, the Nile provides a drainage basin that covers eleven African countries and almost 10% of the continent. Its two main tributaries are the White Nile and the Blue Nile. The White Nile originates from the Lake Victoria region, is longer, and comes from the deep of the African continent. The Blue Nile begins at Lake Tana in Ethiopia, is shorter in length, but is richer in water.

The Nile and its tributaries facilitate trade, establish state borders, and flow through three African capitals. But, today, these are minor factors in the political significance of the Nile. The major factor by far is its water. A key problem for the whole region is the growing imbalance between water demand and supply. During the last decades, the region has experienced droughts and their associated famines and diseases. Ongoing climate change is only going to make matters worse.  Most of the riparian Nile states already suffer from water scarcity, lack of sanitation, electricity shortage, and poor infrastructure. Estimations predict further decrease in water availability, due to the impact of climate change, the increase of the population, and increased cultivation of land. Water is also central to the production of electricity in a region with poor electricity supply and low living standards. The Nile is integral to economic growth and life improvement across the region and international relations in North and East Africa cannot ignore this fact.

The Nile basin makes for a unique geopolitical situation. The most exploitative states ranked in order of usage are Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia, so that the countries that benefit more from the water contribute less to the river. Historically, the traditional users of the Nile’s water are Egypt and Sudan. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus famously wrote, “Egypt was the gift of the Nile.” To be fair, Egypt has no alternative. Rainfall is minimal, and all of Egypt's agriculture depends on irrigation. With irrigation, most plantings can harvest two crops per year. Justifying its usage, Egypt claims a natural historical right on the waters of the Nile River.

Ethiopia however provides the majority of the water and valuable silt carried by the Nile. Egypt’s contribution to the water of Nile is negligible and upstream riparian states consider downstream states’ dominant use of the Nile unacceptable. Ideally, a peaceful settlement would require all states involved to accept certain rules and norms of balanced and sustainable use of the Nile. The geopolitical reality is different. At present, the politics of the Nile have devolved into a zero-sum game. The states involved vary in climate and have distinct national interests. Reaching any lasting comprehensive agreement governing the use of Nile waters has proven to be extremely difficult. This inability is a destabilizing force in the whole region. Coercive foreign policies and mutual verbal accusations among concerned countries only threaten to escalate the situation.

The first significant agreement over the use of Nile waters was signed in 1929. It allocated 48 billion cubic meters of the Nile flow per year to Egypt and 4 billion cubic meters of water per year to Sudan. The agreement recognized Egypt’s right to undertake Nile river projects without the consent of upper riparian states. Thirty years later in 1959 a new agreement was signed by Egypt and Sudan, which was essentially a continuation of the previous one. It divided the average annual flow of the Nile between Sudan and Egypt, defining each side’s water share at 18.5 and 55.5 billion cubic meters respectively. More importantly, the provision granted Egypt the right to construct the Aswan High Dam, which could store the entire annual Nile River flow, and granted Sudan the right to construct the Roseires Dam on the Blue Nile in Sudan.

It wasn’t until forty years later in 1999, that the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) was established. It provided a forum of cooperation and aimed to share substantial socioeconomic benefits to all the riparian states. Before long, cooperation surrendered to geopolitical reality and a schism formed between the upstream and the downstream states.

In Egypt, modern water management began in 1902, when the British constructed the Old Aswan Dam. The next move, the construction of the Aswan High Dam in 1960, was tremendously impactful. Power generation at the Aswan High Dan began in 1967. The artificial Lake Nasser created by the dam is one of the largest man-made lakes in the world and is shared by Egypt (83%) and Sudan (17%). Sudan, like Egypt, is a downstream user of the Nile, with a considerable level of water management but with little contribution to the waters of Nile. Nevertheless, it remains a country with electricity shortage and water scarcity. As in Egypt, contemporary hydraulic projects have their roots in British colonial rule. In 1914, the British designed the Sennar Dam on the Blue Nile for irrigation purposes, completing construction in 1925. Under the terms of the 1959 agreement, Sudan completed construction of the Roseires Dam on the Blue Nile in 1966, with capacity for power generation added in 1971. The dam received a major update in 2013. That said, Merowe High Dam is by far the most ambitious water management program Sudan has ever undertaken and is intended as a solution to the country’s lagging electrification. Situated about 350 kilometers north of the capital Khartoum, close to the fourth cataract of the Nile, construction began in 2003. Once complete, the dam’s reservoir will have the capacity to hold about 20% of the Nile's annual flow and is predicted to power Sudan’s electrification level from 30% to near 90% in the coming years.

Ethiopia’s is the most underdeveloped potential of all the riparian states despite contributing most of the total Nile flow and sediments. For that reason, Ethiopia’s newfound hydroelectric ambitions present significant challenges for downstream states. The construction of Beles Hydroelectric Power Plant in 2005 was one of Ethiopia’s first steps towards water management in the Blue Nile. Receiving water from Lake Tana, the dam generates sufficient power to irrigate up to 350,000 acres. The Gibe III Dam-- part of a planned cascade of hydroelectric dams on the Omo River in Ethiopia-- was completed in 2016, and is one of the biggest hydroelectric projects on the African continent. When fully operational, it will almost double power generation in Ethiopia. Already, Kenya has signed a Memorandum of Understanding to purchase electricity produced by the dam, with the World Bank financing construction of a transmission line.

A tense geopolitical situation escalated when Ethiopia announced the construction of the immense Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile in 2011. When completed, it will be the biggest dam and hydroelectric project in Africa, and the seventh largest hydroelectric power plant in the world-- surpassing the Aswan High Dam. Located 15 kilometers east of the border with Sudan, its operation will empower Ethiopia with a degree of control over the water resources of the Blue Nile and downstream states, by extension.

Geopolitically, the dam strains the relationship between two countries without common borders but with distinct historical claims to Nile waters. Egypt’s claim is fiercely opposed by Ethiopia, which has been bitterly excluded from previous Nile agreements. Egypt has expressed concernss that the dam could diminish water flowing into Lake Nasser, negatively impacting power generation at the Aswan High Dam. Early stages of construction have been met with complaints, rumors, and even threats of sabotage and military action from Egypt for whom the dam has become a matter of national security. The Tripartite National Committee (TNC) from Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, which exists for the peaceful settlement of these differences, has failed to produce tangible results.

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is a game changer in northeast Africa. Mistrust and mutual condemnation are already present and the ongoing conflict has the potential to dominate Egypt-Ethiopian relations. Water scarcity, poor sanitation, overpopulation, and electricity shortages in both countries exacerbate the tension. Still, future growth at the national level all but ensures that the existence of both dams be made a geopolitical reality. The peculiarities of relations between riparian states dictate that the productivity of these dams can only be optimized through mutual cooperation.

CIWA, the Cooperation in International Waters in Africa program, is a multi-donor trust fund representing a partnership between the World Bank and the governments of Denmark, the European Union, Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom, tasked with assisting Sub-Saharan riparian governments in developing sustainable, climate-resilient growth through cooperative water resource management and development. The collaborative management of the Zambezi River Basin in Southern Africa supported by CIWA is a success story, involving eight African countries. A 2010 CIWA study of the Zambezi basin revealed that coordinated operation of existing hydropower facilities could increase energy production by 23 percent without the construction of any additional infrastructure, could reduce risks associated with floods that cause an estimated $1 billion in losses each year, and could irrigate an additional 343,000 hectares. For governments in Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, it is up to them to decide whether the Nile and its resources can continue to be viewed as a zero-sum game or rather, as an opportunity for mutual benefit.

Panagiotis Skiadas recieved his Ph.D. in International Relations and Strategic Studies from Panteion University and is the author of the book The Relation between Water Resources and Foreign Policy in the Middle East. He is available for comment at takistemplar@gmail.com or find him on Twitter @takistemplar.