Nile Basin Cooperation: A Review of the Literature

By Dahilon Yassin Mohamoda | Go to book overview


Although the Nile has historically been the key to socio-economic development for the countries along its banks, it has also been an object of political tension and conflict. (Kukk and Deese, 1996: 42)

4.1. Conflicts over the Nile waters

Conflict and cooperation along the Nile River goes back as far as the time of the pharaohs. According to historians, the rulers of Egypt long ago used to send gifts to the rulers of Ethiopia to ensure an uninterrupted flow of the Nile water (Dawoud; Kerisel, 2001; Pankhurst, 2000). This was partly based on the assumption that Ethiopians were capable of interrupting or diverting the flow of the Blue Nile. Richard Pankhurst, examining such beliefs, concludes, “There is, however, little evidence that the Ethiopians ever made plans for the diversion of the Nile, let alone that they executed them. … One may even doubt whether changing the course of the Nile, however much desired, or feared, ever lay within the technological possibilities of the time” (2000: 35).

Although Egypt and Ethiopia have no common borders, the two countries linked by the Nile River share a common history, culture, and religion, and have been mutually interdependent. Ethiopia is the main source of the Nile water on which Egypt is dependent (material existence), while Egypt historically has been the source of the abun, or patriarch (spiritual existence), that remained the key to religious legitimacy for Ethiopia's political establishment (Erlich, 2002; Pankhurst, 2000: 25).

Relations between the two countries, however, have not always resulted in harmonious exchanges of gifts as mentioned above. The modern history of the Nile is typified by tensions and conflicts. It is thus difficult to write about utilization and management of the Nile River without addressing the tensions and conflicts related to it. The literature on this subject is immense. Collins, 2002 (Chapter 12); Erlich, 2000; Erlich, 2002; Foulds, 2002; Kendie, 1999; Kerisel, 2001 (Chapter 5); Klare, 2001 (Chapter 6); Tafesse 2001; and Waterbury, 2002, are some of the most recent publications.

Conflict over the Nile waters is dominated by threats and counter-threats between Egypt and Ethiopia, which at times also involves the Sudan. Following the Suez Canal Crisis in 1956, Gamal Abdel-Nasser negotiated an agreement with the Soviet Union for the construction of the Aswan High Dam. In 1957, Ethiopia under the rule of Emperor Haile Selassie, who was a close ally of the USA signed a contract with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to carry out a survey of the irrigation and hydropower potential of its Blue Nile watershed. The Bureau of Reclamation completed its multivolume study in 1964 and identified over twenty major water projects for irrigation and hydropower developments. The total amount of water that these projects would have used was estimated at over 4 billion cubic metres (bcm) or about 5 per cent of the mean discharge of the Nile as measured at Aswan. Only the Fincha Dam project has been implemented (Waterbury, 1997: 288; 2002: 69, 116–118). The announcement of the survey, Waterbury states “was a clear shot across the bows of Egypt and the USSR; Egypt may have its Soviet-financed dam, but Ethiopia has Egypt's water” (1997: 288).

This alliance lasted until the early 1970s, as the situation changed after the death of Gamal AbdelNasser in 1970 and the deposition of Haile Selassie four years later by a military coup. Anwar Sadat, who succeeded Nasser, reconsidered his country's relations with the Soviet Union and took steps to normalise relations with the USA, while the military that took power in Ethiopia allied itself with the Soviet Union. Consequently, tensions between the two Nile countries were high in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the frequently quoted threats and statements over the Nile waters were exchanged. Egypt threatened to use the military whenever it felt Ethiopia was engaged in water projects that might reduce the amount of water in the Blue Nile. Tesfaye Tafesse for instance, lists six instances where threats of war and conflict-laden statements have been issued by Egyptian leaders and politicians between the end of the 1970s to the end of 1990s (2000: 10–12). Ethiopia, on the other hand, reminded Egypt that the Nile has one of its sources in Ethiopia (Collins, 2002: 213). Tensions and conflicts between Egypt and Ethiopia over the Nile waters is covered by Arsano, 1997; Collins, 2002: 213–17; Kendie, 1999; Klare, 2001: 153–54; Kukk and Deese, 1996: 41–46; Swain, 1997; Tafesse (2001); and Waterbury, 2002: 69–71.

The end of the cold war, which coincided with regime changes in both the Sudan (1989) and Ethiopia (1991), has had impact on Nile politics in the region and together with other factors has contributed to opening dialogue on cooperation in the Nile basin. The Nile waters, however, have continued to invoke tensions in this region, despite the end of the cold war and the initiative of basin-wide cooperation. Relations between Egypt and the Su-


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