2011 marks the beginning of a new era for both Egypt and Sudan, opening new possibilities to overcome the decade-old Nile water conflict. After the revolution in Egypt, many hope for a reorientation of the country’s foreign policy towards Africa and a potential new approach to negotiations on allocation of the Nile waters. The independence of South Sudan will increase the number of Nile riparian countries to 11,[1] opening up the opportunity for the new Republic of South Sudan to become a mediator between the upstream and the downstream states. If these new conditions lead to a successful agreement on the Comprehensive Framework Agreement on Nile waters including all riparians, this would constitute a win-win situation for all and an improved basis to tackle the challenges facing the basin in the coming decades.


The long-standing status quo on water allocation in the Nile Basin rests on two agreements from 1929 and 1959[2] dividing 87% of the Nile waters between Egypt and Sudan. Egypt, which relies on the Nile for up to 99% of its water supply, views these “historic rights” as essential for its survival. In the past, despite its location as the most downstream riparian country, Egypt has managed to establish itself as the unchallenged “hydro-hegemon” of the basin[3] — the most powerful country in terms of military, economic, and political strength, as well as a partner in strong alliances, especially with the United States. In this capacity, it has blocked all attempts at water infrastructure development in the upstream countries, including by vetoing the financing of such projects from international institutions like The World Bank.

However, this status quo has been increasingly under pressure in the past decade, due to several factors. First, the challenges for upstream countries with respect to their water sectors are mounting, intensifying the pressure to develop water infrastructure and increase water use and withdrawal. These challenges include population growth, the first effects of climate change, and development gains, which increase the need for water for consumption, agriculture, and electricity generation. Second, the improving economic situation of the upstream countries — Ethiopia is currently is the fastest growing country in Africa — enables them to implement projects even without foreign support. Examples are the recently inaugurated Tana Beles Dam and the recently announced “Great Millennium” or “Renaissance” Dam in Ethiopia. Third, as part of its increasing engagement in Africa, China provides financial support in particular for dams and irrigation systems, without consulting downstream states. An example of its involvement is the construction of Sudan’s Merowe Dam.

The increasing ability of upstream countries to undertake the development of their water resources, thereby possibly reducing the flow arriving in Egypt, strengthens the upstream bargaining position. Meanwhile, demands for a more equitable allocation of water amongst all basin countries have grown louder and more insistent. In 1999, this was met by a twofold cooperative approach — the Nile Basin Initiative, focusing mostly on building trust and technical cooperation, and the D3-project, high-level negotiations with the goal of a new, basin-wide agreement on water allocation. In 2007, these negotiations resulted in a draft Cooperative Framework Agreement, which was not signed due to continuing disagreements over Egypt’s historic claims that it was (and still is) unwilling to give up. In a display of their new confidence, five upstream states[4] proceeded to open the signature process in 2010 without the approval of Egypt and Sudan. With the signature of Burundi in February 2011 as the sixth country, the ratification of the agreement may proceed and the likelihood of it coming into force, thereby finally moving from historic to equitable water allocation in the basin, has greatly increased. Egypt and Sudan are now under pressure to either participate by accepting a revision of allocations, or be left out without a stake in the future developments of the basin.

Climate change: increasing importance of cooperation

Cooperation on the use and development of the Nile water resources promises a win-win solution to the whole basin when comparative advantages of the riparian countries are utilized.[5] These include, for example, hydroelectric power in Ethiopia, Sudan’s agricultural potential, Egypt’s technical and financial abilities, and increased intra-basin trade in electricity, food, and goods. Benefits from basin-wide water management also include a reduction in evaporation losses by storing water at higher elevations and in deep gorges in Ethiopia rather than in the desert heat of Lake Nasser, a reduction of downstream dam siltation, and reduced downstream damage from floods through upstream flow regulation.

There are additional benefits of cooperation, given the impact of climate change. One of the main effects of climate change will be increased flow variability and higher frequency and intensity of floods and droughts. Resulting damage can be reduced most efficiently by cooperative basin-wide flow management. Effects of climate change on the overall flow are very uncertain at this point, and predictions include both large flow increases as well as equally large decreases. An increased flow could decrease the conflict potential by allowing the upstream countries to increase water use without decreasing downstream flow. However, it will still constitute a challenge for infrastructure, agriculture, and settlements along the river — a challenge best met by efficient flow management. A decreasing flow would further increase conflict potential and could potentially threaten the livelihoods of many along the river. Cooperation would be the only way to use the precious water most efficiently and beneficially for all riparians.

New efforts towards cooperation or reinforcement of the division?

The first actions of the new Egyptian government and the government of South Sudan are not yet conclusively pointing towards either cooperation or confrontation as the future of Nile water politics. On one hand, Egypt is already building close ties with the government of South Sudan. During a visit of the Egyptian Prime Minister to South Sudan, Egypt offered mediation in case of differences with Sudan as well as assistance in the areas of agriculture and water use, while the President of South Sudan assured that his country would respect the original allocation treaties. Furthermore, a revival of the Jonglei canal[6] project was discussed, pointing towards an Egyptian attempt to reduce its strong dependence on the Blue Nile flow.[7] Egypt has also voiced its opposition after the announcement of the “Great Millennium Dam” to be built in Ethiopia.

On the other hand, Egypt has offered new negotiations to Ethiopia based on the principle of equitable water shares. An Egyptian delegation of politicians, academics, and civil society activists visited Uganda to talk about the Entebbe treaty. In parallel, Uganda has announced that it would “not ratify [the Entebbe Agreement] in a hurry. We want Egypt on board.”[8]

Therefore, it seems that both scenarios are possible at this point: either a reinforcement of the alliance between Egypt and Sudan with the explicit support of the new country of South Sudan and a continued insistence on the historic water allocation, or a new orientation towards Egypt’s African neighbors and a cooperation-oriented water policy. Even with a reduction of its water shares, Egypt could clearly benefit from a cooperative, basin-wide management of the Nile waters and a more stable political environment with economically-prospering neighbors in the basin. Therefore, cooperation and an equitable allocation would not be a zero-sum game, but would rather create a win-win scenario for all Nile riparians.

[1]This article represents the author’s own viewpoints and not that of any institution she is or has been affiliated with.

. Currently, the countries in the Nile catchment region are Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda.


[2]. The 1929 treaty, which dates from colonial times, was concluded between the colonial power Great Britain and Ethiopia. It recognizes Egypt’s prior rights and gives Egypt veto power over all projects with the potential to reduce the amount of water it receives. The 1959 agreement includes a division of water between Egypt and Sudan.


[3]. Mark Zeitoun, “Hydro-hegemony: A Framework for Analysis of Trans-boundary Water Conflicts,” Water Policy, Vol. 8, No. 5 (2006), pp. 435–460.


[4]. Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda. This is known as the Entebbe Agreement.


[5]. This has been discussed frequently in the literature. See, for example, Dale Whittington, “Visions of Nile Basin Development,” Water Policy, Vol. 6, No. 1 (2004), pp. 1–24.


[6]. The Jonglei canal is a project to drain and bypass the Sudd swamp in South Sudan in order to reduce water lost in evaporation. It was put on hold in 1984 by the Sudanese civil war. It would increase the flow of the Nile by almost 5 m3 per year, but the environmental and societal consequences are tremendous.


[7]. Due to high evaporation of the White Nile flow in the South Sudan Sudd swamps, the Blue Nile arising in the Ethiopian highlands contributes 85% of the Nile flow reaching Egypt.


[8]. Al-Ahram Weekly Online, “New Key, Old Padlock,” Issue No. 1043 (April 14–20, 2011), http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2011/1043/eg9.htm.