Strife on the Nile: The Battle for Water Rights

By Moon, Sarah | Harvard International Review, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

Strife on the Nile: The Battle for Water Rights


Moon, Sarah, Harvard International Review


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. …

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