By Corey Sobel – The Nile River Basin contains the world’s longest river system, includes ten countries, and is home to over 160 million people (a number set to double in the next forty years.) It is as culturally, economically, and politically diverse as any region on the planet. Unfortunately, the sheer size and diversity of the basin also mean that it is an immensely difficult entity to manage. After the negotiations of the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), an initiative to establish a permanent governing body for the river, broke down last spring, an Egyptian minister ominously alluded to conflict when he said “Egypt reserves the right to take whatever course it sees suitable to safeguard its share” of the Nile waters. Environmental mismanagement, population growth, and climate change all threaten the quality and quantity of Nile waters and, consequently, threaten to exacerbate political tensions. As these pressures increase, it is imperative that policymakers reexamine their approach to managing the Nile. Is the NBI still relevant? Are there smaller, more effective approaches that can be taken to ensure cooperation?
The famous Egyptian Nile only comprises the last stretch of an enormous, complex river system. 86% of the Nile’s flows come from the Blue Nile, Atbara, and Sobat rivers (these rivers primarily originate in Ethiopia, but also cover parts of Eritrea and Sudan), while the other 14% of the Nile’s flows come from the White Nile, a sub-basin that includes Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Sudan. These rivers merge north of Khartoum to form the proper Nile River.
These ten countries rely significantly on Nile waters: 22 million people depend on fish protein from the source of the White Nile, Lake Victoria; half of the Nile’s journey through the basin takes place in countries with no effective rainfall, making them overwhelmingly reliant on these rivers for every aspect of daily life; and Nile waters drive hydroelectricity for some of the poorest countries in the world.
Despite such wide-ranging dependence on Nile waters, only Egypt and Sudan are legally entitled to dam the rivers. This disparity stems from a series of agreements brokered by the British between 1929 and 1959: Egypt was allotted the annual use of 55.5 billion m3 of Nile waters while Sudan was given 18.5 billion m3. But these treaties have strained relations in the greater basin for over 50 years, especially between Egypt and Ethiopia (Ethiopia, a severely underdeveloped country, has enormous potential for generating hydropower). In 1994, when Ethiopia announced plans to build dams on the Blue Nile, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak threatened to bomb Ethiopian dam infrastructure and in 1990 Egypt successfully blocked an African Development Bank loan to Ethiopia for dam construction on the Nile.
In response to increasing complaints of inequity, the World Bank in 1999 sponsored the creation of the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), an effort to foster economic cooperation and establish a permanent governing body for the river. But discord over the Nile treaties has continued, and arguments peaked this past summer when the parties of the NBI met to discuss a draft version of the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA), a document intended to establish laws and infrastructure to govern the Nile. Negotiators could not agree on terminology that would both satisfy the Egyptians and Sudanese and placate the other states which seek greater use of the Nile. Sudanese and Egyptian spokesmen claimed their historical rights were being threatened and only five states ultimately signed the CFA.
NBI negotiations currently treat the basin as a single integrated whole, allowing Egypt to frame the dispute in zero-sum terms. But the NBI’s need for basin-wide consensus and its failure to attain that consensus has given individual states free reign to undertake harmful unilateral projects. For example, due to a lack of coordination and monitoring in the basin, Uganda was allowed to mismanage Lake Victoria to the point where lake levels dropped dramatically and harmed fisheries vital to the livelihoods of millions of people.
So what is the best way forward? The NBI is set to expire in 2012, and basin states will reconvene later this year to re-try a settlement. But it seems unlikely that a deal that will be acceptable to all states will have much substance to it. Egypt is already scrambling to accommodate its ballooning population and resulting water scarcity. Northern Sudan is becoming a strong agricultural producer and hopes Nile water will help the country develop further. Meanwhile, the remaining basin states are some of the least-developed in the world and hope that using hydropower (and selling excess power that their grids can’t handle) as well as reservoirs for irrigation will provide much-needed revenue.
Rather than treating the basin as a single, integrated system (which invites too much political deadlock), Nile states and donors should emphasize more smaller-scale, sub-basin approaches to river management. This way, states can improve information-sharing and allow scientific and technical issues to take precedent over political distractions.
Indeed, the NBI already separates basin states into two sub-basin programs-the Eastern and Nile Equatorial Lakes programs-and this approach can help to promote better technical coordination between states. In addition, sub-regional programs should be strengthened so that basin states and donors can more effectively monitor and prevent environmental catastrophes. The egregious mismanagement of Lake Victoria is less likely to happen again if Uganda believes it is accountable to (and can be punished by) neighbors in its sub-region-Tanzania, Kenya, Burundi, and Rwanda-that would be the worst-affected by such mismanagement.
The NBI needs to effect these changes if it hopes to remain relevant. Egypt, knowing that it wouldn’t be punished, worked hard in 2010 to circumvent the NBI altogether: it made bilateral agreements with individual states, including with Uganda and southern Sudan (which, should it secede, will have control over White Nile flows). Egyptian officials have also emphasized that their investments in Ethiopia surpassed $1 billion for 2010. Ethiopia in fact recently opened a $520 million hydroelectric plant that uses Lake Tana as a reservoir (and thus is not disrupting Abay/Blue Nile flows) and Ethiopia is reportedly in talks with Egypt and Sudan about building more dams.
These non-NBI agreements are both dispiriting and heartening. Dispiriting because Egypt has not only stymied progress on intra-basin cooperation, but is also content to ignore the spirit of the NBI by pushing for a strictly bilateral approach to the basin. But these developments are heartening, too, since they reveal a cooperative dynamic between basin states. Armed conflict has not arisen over the Nile in the modern era, and belligerent as the rhetoric can get, these states understand that water is a means for greater cooperation.
As basin representatives and NBI donors come together in 2011 to try and make real progress on Nile management, they will need to take a hard look at the current structure of the NBI. Improving information sharing and other forms of scientific and technical cooperation are crucial to the sustainability of the river, as is creating viable accountability mechanisms that favor long-term sustainability over short-term benefits. The disagreements of ten heads of state cannot compromise a resource that is crucial to 160 million people, and it is imperative that no more time is lost in finding better ways to protect the Nile.
Photo Credit: Egypt, Nile Delta and Sinai. by Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Land Science Team (Visible Earth, NASA)
 Waterlink International, “Nile Basin Initiative Deadlock”, June 7, 2010, at http://www.waterlink-international.com/news/id1230-Nile_Basin_Initiative_Deadlock.html
 Lake Victoria Fisheries Organization, http://www.lvfo.org/
 M. El Fadel et al., “The Nile River Basin: A Case Study in Surface Water Conflict Resolution”, J. Nat. Res. Life Sci. Educ., Vol. 32, 2003, p. 108
 Yacob Arsano, Ethiopia and the Nile: Dilemmas of National and Regional Hydropolitics, Center for Security Studies, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich, 2007, p. 224
 Dina Zayed, “Egypt asserts right to block upstream Nile dams”, Reuters, May 18, 2010
 See Daniel Kull, “Connections Between Recent Water Level Drops in Lake Victoria, Dam Operations and Drought” International Rivers, February 2006.
 Gwen Thompkins, “Ethiopia Claims High Ground In Right-To-Nile Debate”, National Public Radio, September 26, 2010
 Xan Rice, “Battle for the Nile as Rivals Lay Claim to Africa’s Great River”, Guardian, June 25, 2010.