The Hydro-Politics of the Nile River: Is Ethiopia Truly the Region's "water tower"?

In PublicationsMarch 29, 202319 Minutes

The Hydro-Politics of the Nile River: Is Ethiopia Truly the Region's "water tower"?

By Silabat Manaye

The Blue Nile, the Nile basin’s principal source of water has a direct impact on life in Sudan, Egypt, and Ethiopia, which have a combined population of more than 260 million people (World Bank, 2021). This figure does not include residents of the White Nile region of South Sudan, as well as the Central and East African Great Lakes republics. According to Worldometer’s predictions for 2025, with the exception of the Democratic Republic of the
Congo, the population of eastern African countries will account for about half of Africa’s total. Consumption of water, food, energy, and other basic commodities is predicted to rise as the population grows. Population increase, agricultural and industrial development, climate change, and river pollution are all putting strain on transboundary river basins. Water shortage is on the rise as the demand for water exceeds availability.

The Nile Water Agreements and upstream-downstream polemics make it evident that the downstream parties are steadfast in their attitudes and political-military maneuvers that the upstream nations should avoid any serious use of water resources (Yacob, 2007: 198). Scholars such as Yakob and Nowrath (1920: 32-41) make bold assertions about Egypt’s age-long and unabated attempt to control the source of the Nile. And they intended to accomplish this through war. The Egyptian leader Khedive Ismail Pasha had an extremist vision of unifying the Nile Valley countries under his leadership.

According to Yakob (2007) and Kinfe (2004), the relations among the countries of the Nile Basin have been unequal, which has been exacerbated by the actions of Britain since the late 19th century. For such reasons, an equitable share of Nile waters could not be acceptable to Egypt.

Ethiopia, which supplies 86% of the Nile’s water, has expressed interest in utilizing the Nile’s water since the 1930s (Kinfe, 2004). The Ethiopian government considered the potential of undertaking a physical assessment on the Blue Nile River with the American diplomatic mission in the late 1920s. Following the agreement, the US government dispatched a company called White Engineering to do a feasibility assessment. Yet, Ethiopia did not start to undertake projects on the Blue Nile River for many years following this assessment.

Water Resources and Access to Electricity: Comparison of Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt Comparison of Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt (1) (Aklog et al.,2020)

Description Ethiopia Sudan Egypt
1959 21,661,996 7,328,718 25,913,230
Population 2020 114,963,588 43,849,260 102,335,000
2050 171,800,000 81,192,821 166,500,000
GNI per capita (PPP, 2028) $2,010 $4,420 $12,100
HDI (Rank) 0.470(173) 0.507 (168) 0.700(116)
Alternative annual source of income $2 Billion (Port fee) $2-3 billion (oil revenue $5.8 billion (Suez canal revenue)
Access to electricity (%, 2017) 44.3 56.5 100
Access to potable water (%, 202) 41 60 99
Irrigated land (2012, Km2) 2,900 18,900 36,500

Comparison of Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt (2) (Aklog et al.,2020)

Description Ethiopia Sudan Egypt
Annual freshwater consumption (2000 est.) 5.56BCM, 72CM/capital 37.5BCM, 807CM/Capital 68.3BCM, 923/capita
Alternative water resource (other than the Nile) Some rivers, but they only account for 30% White Nile, huge groundwater reserve White Nile, huge groundwater reserve
Contribution to the Nile 86% 0 0

Egypt and Sudan have substantial groundwater in the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System (NSAS). Instead of defending their historical rights to the Nile, they should learn from Libya’s vast man-made river. The NSAS is estimated to hold 150,000 BCM; Libya currently consumes 2.4 BCM (70% of total consumption). If Egypt uses 10% of the reserve, it will have sufficient water for 220 years.

Majot Nile water development projects in Egypt, Sudan & Ethiopia

In Egypt In Sudan In Ethiopia
Aswan Dam in the Nile in Egypt (1898-1902) Sennar Dam on Blue Nile in Sudan (1937) Fincha Dam on Abbay/ Blue Nile tributary in Ethiopia (1970)
High Aswan Dam (also known as Nassir Dam) on the Nile in Egypt (1960-1970/76) Jabal Awliya Dam on White Nile in Sudan (1937) Abobo Dam on Baro-Akobo/ Sobat in Ethiopia (1980s)
El Salam diversion to Sinai Khsham El Girba Dam on Atbara in Sudan (1964) Tekeze Dam on Tekeze in Ethiopia (2009)
Toshqa to Western Valley Rossaries Dam on Blue Nile in Sudan (1966, 2013) Tana-Beles Diversion (2010)
Hamam Canal diversion Marowe Dam on Blue Nile (2009) Chara-Chara in 1990s
Komombo Canal diversion in upper Egypt GERD on Abbay/ Blue Nile (Under Construction 2011-)
33 projects anticipated (1958 – 64)

Water Resource Development in Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan (Yakob et al. (Yakob
et al., 2022)

Egypt’s Irrational Arguments and Colonial Era Nile River Agreements

Italy and Britain signed the Treaty of Rome on April 15, 1891. On the basis of such a protocol, Italy agreed not to carry out irrigation operations on the Tekeze River. By signing this treaty, Italy consented to sign an article referring to the river, in response to British demands. The Italians had already established themselves in Eritrea but not in Ethiopia at the time of this
deal. According to Tesfaye (2001), the ambiguous phrase “sensibly modify” limits neither river utilization nor the fair sharing of Nile waters.

The treaties should have ceased to have any relevance after the end of the British and Italian colonial rules in the region. The Treaty, however, exemplified the British motive in safeguarding their colonial subjects, the Egyptians, as early as this period.
During Emperor Menelik’s reign in Ethiopia, Britain and Ethiopia signed the 1902 pact. It was essentially an agreement stating the importance of British consultation on any water projects Ethiopia wishes to undertake, particularly on Lake Tana. The aforementioned agreement was enacted as part of a grandiose British scheme to gain complete control of the Nile waters. To accomplish this, Anglo-Egyptian armies first captured Sudan in 1898, and then struck a treaty with independent Ethiopia.

According to a September 1997 Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs report, the deal, which is believed to contain an Amharic version that differs from the original English text, has yet to be ratified by both the Ethiopian and British parliaments. The contentious wording is “not to arrest the flow of Nile water.” This was always brought up by the Egyptian negotiators at the
GERD negotiation table. On the ground, however, the true meaning of the contentious term in that treaty is that Ethiopia cannot stop the river from flowing downstream to riparian nations.

The tripartite treaty of 1906 was signed by the United Kingdom, France, and Italy. This pact acknowledges Ethiopian territory in the Nile basin in exchange for establishing the French and Italian spheres of influence within the Ethiopian boundary (Knife, 2004; 85).
The 1929 agreement was struck by the United Kingdom and its former colony Egypt. Egypt has been granted the right to take all of the water, manage the river basin, and have the British recognize its “historical” and “natural” right to the Nile’s water under this arrangement. The pact went even further, granting Egypt the authority to veto any Nile project that would threaten its interests. However, this agreement could not have any binding effect on Ethiopia for two reasons: it was a bilateral agreement that did not involve Ethiopia, and it was negotiated by a colonial power, making it null and void as stipulated in the1 Nyerere Doctrine of 1961

In a statement sent to Britain, Egypt, and Sudan on 4th July 1962, after discussing the importance of Lake Victoria and its catchment to the needs and interests of the people of Tanganyika, the Government of Tanganyika (Tanzania) declared that: “… the Government of Tanganyika has reached the conclusion that the provisions of the 1929 Agreement purporting to apply to the countries under British Administration are not binding on Tanganyika…” In line with

this, Tanzania further noted that ‘recognizing the importance of the waters of the Nile to all riparian states the government of Tanganyika is willing to enter in to discussions.’ The very idea of the note identically sent to the governments of the three countries is that Tanzania will not bind by the colonially signed treaty and the waters of the Nile is important to all riparian states. Hence, its utilization should be conducted in “a manner that is just and equitable to all riparian states and to the greatest benefit of all their peoples.”)

Sudan and Egypt consented to full utilization of the Nile’s waters in the 1959 agreement.
Based on the yearly runoff of the water, which is 84 BCM, they allotted 55 BCM for Egypt, 18.5 BCM for Sudan, and the remaining 10 BCM for evaporation losses (Nebiyu, 2013: 3-4). The 1959 Agreement marked a milestone in the Nile Valley’s hydrologic and environmental history by revitalizing Egypt and Sudan’s monopoly on Nile waters. By disregarding Ethiopia’s natural and legal rights to the bounty of the Nile’s water resources, the agreement has effectively created a zero-sum game in the Nile Basin. Ethiopia was never a party to the agreement and is therefore immune from legal repercussions.

Is Ethiopia the “Water Tower” of the Region?

It is a water-stressed country with a per capita renewable freshwater resource of about 1200 m3 per year. Annual rainfall in Ethiopia is estimated at 848 mm (936 BCM). But because of its high spatial and temporal variability, accessible freshwater is only about 13% (124 BCM). There are 12 major lakes in Ethiopia, which collectively store about 87 BCM of water. This sum is little higher than what the GERD will retain (74 BCM). The national groundwater potential is estimated to be between 12 and 30 BCM. Nonetheless, additional research is required!

Groundwater is mainly used for domestic and industrial purposes. Egypt claims that Ethiopia is rich in rivers and water supplies and thus should not have access to the Nile. This argument falls apart for the following reasons: To begin with, it is not the business of any country, including Egypt, to enlist the natural resources that Ethiopia possesses within its own territory, as doing so would violate national territorial integrity. Ethiopia may have sufficient water supply in some areas of the country.

Yet, if the notion that Ethiopia is rich in rivers and water supplies is correct, Ethiopia should not have been afflicted by repeated and severe droughts and should not be one of the drought-affected Horn of Africa states. But, in reality, Ethiopia has been striving for decades to break away from the cycle of drought, poverty, and underdevelopment.
This is why Ethiopia, and other riparian countries for that matter, are determined to exploit their natural resources, including the Nile, in order to produce adequate food for their growing populations, to light millions of their households in both urban and rural areas, to power their emerging factories and industries, and, in general, to boost their economies and improve the livelihoods of their poor people.

The Significance of Dam Construction in Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt

Many scholars wrote about the value and importance of dams in Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt. In 1945, a British hydro-geologist in the service of the Egyptian Ministry of Public Works, Harold Hurst, published “The Future Conservation of the Nile,” proposing dams at the outlets of the great lakes and Lake Tana in Ethiopia, which would provide reservoirs with minimal evaporation year after year, or “Century Storage.” (Erlich, 2009, The Cross and the River, pp. 2–3). In 1958, H.A. Morrice and W.N. Allen, British experts representing the government of Sudan, proposed dams and hydroelectric stations on the Blue Nile and the Baro in their “Report on the Nile Valley Plan.”

“Land and Water Resources of the Blue Nile Basin: Ethiopia,” published by the US Bureau of Reclamation in 1964, envisioned twenty-six projects in Ethiopia, including four dams designed to turn Lake Tana and the Abbaye gorge into the primary all-Nile reservoir, supplying electricity and irrigation to Ethiopia while significantly enlarging and regulating the amount of water flowing to Sudan and Egypt. Founded on all the above suggestions of scholars, Haggai Erlich commented, “But for such all-Nile solutions to materialize, a unified action was needed.”

Such unity and collaboration have been achieved in other parts of the world, around other transboundary rivers. But the mysterious Nile has never seen such human cooperation since time immemorial. Egypt’s adherence to historic rights and colonial period agreements is at the root of the failure to negotiate an equitably shared use of the Nile River. But, there is no such thing as historical right, only historical facts.

Unmasking Intentions Behind Egypt’s Water Security Policy

Egypt’s “water security” strategy is built on a fixation with the Nile River, with the goal of obstructing all avenues that could lead to an equitable distribution of the Nile’s waters. When any basin country lays out a strategy to utilize Nile water on its own territory, the Egyptians frequently respond with war threats and conflict-laden remarks. When requested to renegotiate the distribution of water in the basin, they set conditions by stating that colonial and postcolonial treaties are non-negotiable and that we can discuss anything else.

We believe that other riparian countries, like Egypt, have genuine ambitions to utilize the Nile’s waters. Ethiopia has already done so by launching and building the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). The contemporary geopolitical realities in the Nile Basin do not allow for the continuation of colonial-period agreements. Egypt’s hegemony over the Nile
River Basin has been stuck in time.

Silabat Manaye is international relations professional based in Addis Ababa. His research interests include water politics, geopolitics in the Horn of Africa, and War Journalism. He authored two books on Nile geopolitics.


Nile water development

1 The doctrine was named after the first president of Tanzania Julius Kambarage Nyerere-who was among Africa’s liberators and intellectuals. Following the independence of his country Tanganyika which later unified with Zanzibar and named Tanzania Muwalimu Julius Nyerere made his country’s position on the Nile very clear and unambiguous, particularly regarding the 1929 Agreement which Britain signed on behalf of its East African ‘colonies’.