Nile Basin Cooperation: A Review of the Literature

By Dahilon Yassin Mohamoda | Go to book overview


The River Nile, the longest river in the world, is a source of life to millions of people. The Nile basin is broad, embracing nearly 2 million square miles of equatorial and north-east Africa (one-tenth of the African continent). A detailed description of the Nile River is provided by Collins' recent book entitled, The Nile (2002). As Collins observes, what make the Nile distinct “is not its volume but its rich and colourful history, its profound role in shaping human civilization in Africa, and the absolute dependency on the river and its vagaries of those who live in its basin” (2002:11). The quantity of freshwater carried by the Nile, in terms of volume, is a mere cup (2 per cent) of the Amazon, perhaps a glass (15 per cent) of the Mississippi, or at best a pitcher (20 per cent) of the Mekong (ibid.).

The Nile waters are derived from rainfall coming from two major areas: the Ethiopian Plateau and the mountainous hinterland of the Great Lakes. The Blue Nile, which is known as Abbay in Ethiopia, has its source at Lake Tana in northwestern Ethiopia. The Blue Nile consists of numerous tributaries and its flow varies following the rainfall pattern in the Ethiopian highlands. From its major source, Lake Victoria, one of the largest freshwater lakes of the world, the White Nile flows northwards through Uganda and into the Sudan. At Khartoum the Blue Nile and the While Nile merge into a single River Nile. 320 km north of Khartoum it is joined by the Atbara River that rises in the Ethiopian Highlands. The Nile receives no additional water during the rest of its 3,000 km journey through the desert to end up in the Mediterranean Sea.

Ten countries: Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (former Zaire), Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, the Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda make up the Nile River Basin. Only the Danube and the Niger Rivers have an equal or greater number of countries sharing their banks. Water contribution to the River varies from Ethiopia, which contributes the most, to Egypt that has nothing to contribute yet is totally dependent on the Nile waters. Many of the Nile basin countries are located at the source, while others are at the receiving end, and the upstream and downstream countries consequently have different needs and interests.

It is estimated that about 150 million people live within the basin and twice that number within the countries that share the Nile waters. Despite the rich resources of the Nile, many of the basin countries are characterised by poverty (about half of the riparians are among the ten poorest countries in the world), widespread conflict, environmental degradation, and frequent natural disasters such as drought and famine. The Nile basin is one of the five regions, which have been identified as critical regions in the analysis of inter-connections between water, food, poverty, and urbanization (Vakkilainen and Varis, 1999; Varis, 1998a).

During the past decade, two parallel and interrelated developments can be identified in the Nile basin. Emphasis on potential conflict over the Nile waters on the one hand, and the evolving process of basin-wide cooperation on the other. Reports on water resources by UNEP, 1999; FAO, 2002; and the World Bank, 2000; all predict a serious water shortage on a global level. It is argued that the infinite supply of the World's freshwater resources will not be able to match the rapidly growing demands for water.

Many observers and analysts have thus warned that the water conflicts in the near future are likely to replace the oil conflicts of the 20th century (Gleick, 1993, 1998; Brown 1999). It is predicted that the population living within the Nile basin will double by 2025. Factors like the rapidly growing population combined with the ecological consequences, and the increasing agricultural and industrial development which demands more and more water, are expected to make the potential for conflict over the Nile waters greater than ever.

Tensions and conflicts are not new in this region as the history of the Nile basin is dominated by conflicts. Relationships between major Nile basin countries have been described in terms of mutual distrust, competition and confrontation, and this is reflected in the volumes of books and articles written on this river. There is, however, as Brunnee and Toope observe another aspect of the story to be told; a story of nascent regime change and growing cooperation among the basin countries (2002:131). Many attempts have been made by the Nile basin countries to cooperate or obtain agreement on the utilisation of the Nile waters during the last three decades. None of these efforts, however, succeeded in bringing together all the countries that share the Nile basin. The process of the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), which began in early 1990s, is the exception. For the first time, all the ten countries agreed to cooperate on development of the Nile basin to promote common benefits of all the countries that share its waters. Many


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