Defining the Geopolitics of a Thirsty WorldSM
Nile Basin Relations: Egypt, Sudan And Ethiopia

From the Elliott School of International Affairs, a slightly dated – but comprehensive – overview of the Nile Basin relationships:

Nile Geography and Hydrology

The Nile River is the longest in the world while the Nile Basin covers 1.3 million square miles, making it slightly larger than India. There are ten riparian countries — Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, and Eritrea. Three of the ten — Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia — are far more important than the remaining seven from the standpoint of Nile water hydrology and potential political conflict or cooperation over Nile water issues. The three account for 85 percent of the territory that constitutes the hydrologic boundaries of the basin. Sudan contains 63 percent of the basin while Ethiopia has only 12 percent and Egypt 10 percent.

The importance of the Nile, especially for Egypt and Sudan, can not be overstated. Ninety-five percent of Egyptians live in the Nile Valley and depend on the river for virtually all of their fresh water. Egypt is not being alarmist when it says that Nile water is a life or death issue for the country. Egypt is probably more dependent than any other country in the world on freshwater that comes from outside its borders. But the Nile is also crucial for Sudan; 77 percent of Sudan’s fresh water comes from outside its borders, most of it via the Nile system. Ethiopia, on the other hand, because of its mountains that trap the moisture arriving by winds from the west and south is the major source of Nile water. Of the water reaching the Aswan Dam in a normal year, 86 percent originates in Ethiopia — 59 percent via the Blue Nile; 14 percent via the Baro/Akobo/Sobat; and 13 percent via the Tekeze/Atbara.

The average annual flow of the Nile at Aswan from 1870 to 1988 was 88 billion cubic meters. The late 1970s through 1987 were unusually low flow years, resulting in deep concern, especially in Egypt where Lake Nasser nearly disappeared. This low flow period coincided with famine in Sudan and Ethiopia, where an estimated million persons died. The average annual flow from 1988 to 2001 recovered to 86 billion cubic meters. The Nile moves much less water than Africa’s other major river systems such as the Congo, Niger, Zambezi, and Volta. At the same time, demand for water in the Nile Basin is significantly higher than Africa’s other river basins. A comparison with an American river makes the point about modest water volume in the Nile; it produces only 14 percent of the Mississippi’s annual discharge.

Treaties and Water Allocation

Over the years, Egypt, the United Kingdom, and Sudan have determined Nile water allocations. Egypt and the United Kingdom signed an agreement in 1929 that gave Egypt 48 billion cubic meters of water annually and Sudan 4 billion cubic meters. Following Sudanese independence, Egypt and Sudan renegotiated the agreement in 1959. Based on an annual flow at Aswan of 84 billion cubic meters, the 1959 agreement allocated 55.5 billion cubic meters (three-quarters) of the water to Egypt and 18.5 billion cubic meters (one-quarter) to Sudan. The agreement assumed that 10 billion cubic meters, the difference between the 84 billion cubic meter inflow and the 74 billion cubic meter allocation to Egypt and Sudan, would evaporate in Lake Nasser. Based on an historical average annual flow of 88 billion cubic meters into Lake Nasser, the allocations to Egypt and Sudan left a small surplus in an average year. Egypt and Sudan agreed to share equally any surplus.

These treaties resulted in a virtual Egyptian and Sudanese monopoly of Nile water. Egypt and Sudan did not invite Ethiopia to join the negotiations nor did they consult with it. Ethiopia officially informed Egypt and the other riparian states in 1956 and 1957 that it reserved its right to use Nile water for the benefit of its people. Ethiopia also expressed concern that Sudan and Egypt were making decisions about water that largely originated in Ethiopia. The 1959 agreement lacked a provision for amendment, duration, and a mechanism for solving differences. According to some accounts, even Sudan was displeased with the allocation it received in the 1959 agreement.

Legal rights to water in many river basins, including the Nile, are politically controversial, legally obscure, and emotionally volatile. In the case of the Nile, there is an inherent incompatibility between the “equitable share” arguments of an upstream riparian like Ethiopia and the “historic needs,” “established rights,” and “no significant harm” arguments of a downstream riparian like Egypt. Sudan finds itself in the middle of this debate because it is a downstream riparian of Ethiopia and an upstream riparian of Egypt. The 1959 treaty left a legacy for potential conflict between Egypt and Sudan, on one side, and Ethiopia and the seven other riparians, on the other. Experts who have analyzed the 1997 United Nations Watercourses Convention say it can not resolve the legal issues concerning allocation of Nile water.

National Visions of Nile Water

Water is not, of course, the only issue that binds or divides Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia. Historically, it has been a less important factor in the triangular relationship than religion, ethnicity, language, and the sheer quest for power in all three countries. But water has always been an issue and, arguably, has become the most important as rapidly expanding populations in the basin draw increasingly on a finite supply.

Because Egypt has been so dependent on the Nile throughout its history, it tends to view Nile water as its property. It sees the allocation that it negotiated with Sudan as a necessary concession of Egyptian water in spite of the fact that every drop reaching Egypt flows through Sudan. Egypt has a strong sense of unity constructed around the existence of the Nile. This is much less true for Sudan and even less so for Ethiopia. Both countries, especially Ethiopia, have large populations that live in areas beyond Nile tributaries. Although the Blue Nile resonates in Ethiopian history, it does not play the same crucial role that the Nile does in Egypt. In the case of Sudan, Africans living in southern Sudan see the water differently than Arab northerners. The Nile makes a major contribution to irrigated agriculture in the north. Irrigation in the south has been minimal. But even in the north, the Nile is often viewed as the river that gives life to Egypt.

One of the world’s leading experts on Nile water, John Waterbury, summed up this complex relationship in his seminal 1979 Hydropolitics of the Nile Valley. Cairo and Khartoum saw the weak link in Nile water security as southern Sudan and, secondarily, Ethiopia. They feared that if hostile forces exploited unrest in Sudan, it could jeopardize the water supply and threaten the regimes in Cairo and Khartoum. Although such a development probably would not disrupt the flow of the Nile, Egypt and Sudan reacted instinctively to protect their interests. Waterbury called this the “Fashoda Complex” whereby the governments in Cairo and Khartoum treated an unlikely threat as a credible one. Now that a long civil war has come to an end in southern Sudan and there is the possibility of an independent southern Sudan, Khartoum seems somewhat more relaxed about any threat to Nile water security. Egypt continues, however, to prefer a high degree of control over the Nile. It remains concerned about creation of an independent southern Sudan and a united Ethiopia committed to greater use of Nile water.

Prospects for a Water War

There is one school of thought that argues there has never been a major conflict over access to fresh water. Consequently, there is no reason to get exercised about a possible war over water in the Nile Basin. Others, this author included, are not as sure, particularly as populations increase and the demand for water exceeds supply.

Lester Brown, founder of Worldwatch Institute, argues that water scarcity is the “single biggest threat to global food security,” adding there is little water left when the Nile reaches the Mediterranean. The Aswan Dam now holds back most of the silt that once formed the rich agricultural land in the Nile Delta, which is eroding into the sea in some places at a rate of 100 meters annually. International conflict expert Thomas Homer-Dixon has suggested that conflict is most probable when a downstream riparian is highly dependent on river water and is militarily and economically strong in comparison to upstream riparians. This is precisely the case with Egypt. It depends on the Nile and is far stronger militarily, politically, and economically than Sudan or Ethiopia.

Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat stated in 1980: “If Ethiopia takes any action to block our right to the Nile waters, there will be no alternative for us but to use force. Tampering with the rights of a nation to water is tampering with its life and a decision to go to war on this score is indisputable in the international community.” The former Egyptian defense minister reiterated in 1991 Egypt’s readiness to use force, if necessary, to protect its control of the Nile. Ethiopia’s minister of water resources announced in 1997 at a conference in Addis Ababa on the Nile River Basin Action Plan that “as a source and major contribution of the Nile waters, Ethiopia has the right to have an equitable share of the Nile waters and reserves its rights to make use of its waters.” Ethiopia’s foreign minister stated in 1998 that “there is no earthly force that can stop Ethiopia from benefiting from the Nile.” The Egyptian irrigation minister announced in 2004 in advance of a meeting with other riparians that the talks must not “touch Egypt’s historical rights” to Nile water. Rather, riparian states should focus on ways to recover water that is being wasted.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi warned in 2005 that “if Egypt were to plan to stop Ethiopia from utilizing the Nile water it would have to occupy Ethiopia and no country on earth has done that in the past.” (Italy, of course, did just that from 1936-41. Egypt is in no position today, however, to occupy Ethiopia although it could inflict considerable damage by air.) The current Egyptian foreign minister, in response to demands by upstream riparians to review the Nile treaties, commented in 2005 that Egypt will not give up its share of Nile water. Former Egyptian Foreign Minister and UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali told the BBC in 2005 that military confrontation between the countries of the Nile Basin was almost inevitable unless they could agree to share water equitably. He concluded that “the next war among countries will not be for oil or territorial borders, but only for the problem of water.”

It should be eminently possible to avoid war over water in the Nile Basin. But to suggest that it will not happen just because there has not been a war over access to fresh water in the past is not persuasive. This is an issue that will require careful attention by the concerned parties and the international community to ensure that conflict does not break out.

Comparing Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia

(Source: World Development Indicators 2006 – The World Bank)

Egypt Sudan Ethiopia
Population millions 2004 72.6 35.5 70.0
Population millions projected 2020 94.8 47.5 107.7
Population annual growth rate % average 1990-2004 1.9 2.2 2.2
Population annual growth rate % average projected 2004-2020 1.7 1.8 2.7
Life expectancy at birth 2004 70 57 42
Net migration in thousands 1995-2000 -500 -207 -77
Gross national income 2004 $billions 90.6 18.7 7.6
Gross national income per capita 2004 $ 1,250 530 110
Gross domestic product 2004 $millions 78,800 21,100 8,000
Gross domestic product 2000-04 % average annual growth 3.4 6.0 3.6
GDP % derived from agriculture 2004 15 39 47
Military expenditures as % GDP 2004 2.8 2.2 4.3
Primary school enrollment 2004 % relevant age group 100 60 77
Secondary school enrollment 2004 % relevant age group 87 33 28
Agricultural land as % land area 2001-03 3.4 56.4 31.3
Irrigated land as % cropland 2001-2003 100 11.0 2.6
Electricity production billion kilowatt hours 2003 91.9 3.4 2.3
Percent of total electricity production provided by hydropower 2003 14.1 34.7 99.3
Electric power consumption per capita kWh 2003 1,127 81 28

Some sources already show Ethiopia as having surpassed Egypt as the second most populous country in Africa after Nigeria. In any event, population projections for 2020 indicate Ethiopia will be substantially higher than Egypt. Egypt performs much better than Ethiopia on virtually all social and economic indicators. Sudan generally does better than Ethiopia. Egypt is far ahead of Sudan and Ethiopia on percent of cropland that is irrigated and the amount of power that it produces, although gas is the basis for most of its electricity. All three countries devote a fairly modest percent of their GDP to military expenditures, but these figures presumably do not include grant military aid. Both Sudan and Ethiopia have battle-tested armies that compare well with the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. They are not the equal, however, of Egyptian forces.

Egypt-Sudan Relations

One of the leading experts on Egypt and Sudan, Gabriel Warburg, argues there is no natural border between the two countries. Egyptian and Sudanese Nubians have more in common with each other than Egyptians in Cairo have with Egyptians of Upper Egypt or the residents of Khartoum have with the Beja tribes in the Red Sea hills, the Fur in Darfur, the Nubas in the Nuba Mountains, or the southern tribes in Bahr al-Ghazal and Equatoria. This has not prevented, however, Egyptian nationalists of all stripes from insisting that a united Nile Valley that includes Sudan is essential and justified.

There was contact between Egypt and Sudan as early as the 8th millennium BC. Modern relations began when an Egyptian army under Ottoman control invaded Sudan in 1820. Egyptian rule ended in 1885 but returned in the form of the Anglo-Egyptian condominium from 1899-1955. Even after Sudan’s independence in 1956, Egypt worked hard to exert influence over developments in its southern neighbor. This one-sided relationship between Egypt and Sudan left psychological scars on northern Sudanese. In the minds of most Sudanese, Egypt continues to think of Sudan as part of its backyard. Nothing grates more on northern Sudanese than the claim by Egyptians that they “understand” Sudan better than anyone else.

The fact that the Nile flows through Sudan emphasizes the importance of and complicates the bilateral relationship. Although Egypt and Sudan agreed in 1959 on an allocation of Nile water, Sudan remains uneasy about the outcome of the agreement. Some in Sudan believe that the 75 percent to 25 percent division of water was inherently unfair while others are concerned that exclusion of the eight other riparians from the agreement has made more difficult Sudan’s relations with those riparians.

The 790-mile long Egyptian-Sudanese border contains a disputed area known as the Halaib Triangle that borders the Red Sea. Both countries claim ownership. Cairo argues that the border runs along the 22nd parallel according to the 1899 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty. Khartoum insists that amendments to the treaty in 1902 and 1907 created an administrative border further north along a triangular zone near the Red Sea. After Sudanese politicians arrived to campaign in the triangle in 1958, President Nasser issued an ultimatum demanding the withdrawal of Sudanese administrators and police from Halaib. One explanation for the 1958 incident suggests that it was intended to demonstrate Egypt’s desire to dominate Sudan. When bilateral talks to end the dispute failed, Sudan petitioned the United Nations for a special session of the Security Council. Egypt then abandoned its campaign to absorb the Halaib.

Since Sudanese independence, relations between the two countries have had their ups and downs. Sudanese President Bashir complained in April 1995 that relations with Egypt had become strained because Cairo had reoccupied the Halaib Triangle and allegedly was supporting Sudanese opposition forces. Relations reached a nadir in June 1995 when Egypt and Ethiopia charged authorities in Sudan with complicity in a plot by an Egyptian terrorist organization to assassinate President Mubarak as he arrived in Addis Ababa for an Organization of African Unity meeting. A deadly confrontation then followed in the Halaib Triangle. President Bashir accused Egypt of conspiring to overthrow Sudan’s government. President Mubarak denied the charge but insisted Egypt was capable of overthrowing the Bashir regime “in ten days.” Mubarak added: “We are not being asked to intervene militarily because that would lead to deaths among the Sudanese, something we don’t want because we think of Sudanese like Egyptians.” That statement says a great deal about the way Egyptian leaders think of Sudanese.

By the end of 1999, Egyptian anger had subsided and President Bashir visited Egypt where the two leaders agreed to normalize diplomatic relations. Bashir returned to Cairo in 2002 when they stressed their brotherly ties and put in motion actions to expand cooperation on a variety of practical issues, including increased trade. In the meantime, Egypt controls the Halaib Triangle although the dispute has been dormant since 1995. Egypt has been generally supportive of President Bashir’s policies in recent years. During a visit to Khartoum in April 2006, Mubarak backed Sudan’s preference to deal with the crisis in Darfur in an African and Arab framework. He described Egyptian-Sudanese ties as “permanent relations with joint fates.” From a hydrological and historical perspective, Darfur is not part of the Nile Basin; it is part of Sudanic Africa. Consequently, it is only relevant to this analysis to the extent that it impacts relations with Egypt and Ethiopia. Earlier in the year, Egypt also backed Bashir’s controversial chairmanship of the 2006 African Union summit.

A principal theme in its relationship with Sudan is the continued unity of the Sudanese state. Egypt does not want an independent southern Sudan and, hence, another country to join discussions on the future of Nile water. The 2002 Machakos Protocol, which established the right of self-determination for the people of southern Sudan, angered Egypt. Egypt and Libya had put forward a competing peace proposal based on the unity of Sudan. The Egyptian foreign minister stated during a visit to Khartoum in January 2003 that Egypt looked forward to cooperation that preserved Sudanese unity and territorial integrity.

Egypt changed its approach once the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between the southerners and Khartoum became a reality. Egypt has reached out to southerners by establishing a consulate in Juba and said that it will spare no effort to help develop the south. It has agreed to provide two power plants for lighting the cities of Wau and Juba and plans to open a branch of the University of Alexandria in Juba. Egypt also intends to establish 30 general and technical secondary schools in southern Sudan. This is smart Egyptian policy. It gives Egypt a platform to monitor developments in southern Sudan and, if necessary, to influence them in a direction of its choice.

When asked in March 2006 about the possibility southerners will opt for independence, President Mubarak replied that Egypt looks forward to a peaceful, stable, and united Sudan. He emphasized it is imperative during the transitional period “to build consensus in support of unity and away from secession.” If it becomes apparent, however, that southern Sudanese will vote for independence, it is highly unlikely Egypt will stand by idly. Sudan’s civil war in the south and its more recent problems in Darfur have decreased its ability to pursue more activist policies vis-à-vis Egypt over Nile water and other issues. The end of the war in the south potentially poses two new challenges for Egypt’s Nile policies. It may have to contend with an independent southern Sudan and there is one less crisis to distract Khartoum.

The Jonglei Canal

The Jonglei Canal, because of its impact on Nile water and the fact that it was largely an Egyptian inspiration, deserves a special comment. One of the most controversial projects ever contemplated for the Nile Basin, it was intended to move a substantial amount of White Nile water around the world’s largest freshwater swamp — the Sudd — in southern Sudan. On average, 33 billion cubic meters of water enter the Sudd annually. After evaporation, only 16 billion cubic meters leave. By reducing evaporation loss in the Sudd, the 224-mile long canal would make available almost five billion cubic meters of water, divided about equally between Sudan and Egypt. Using the world’s largest bucket wheel, canal excavation that began at the north end reached mile 166 in 1984 when the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) attacked the project headquarters. This stopped work after 70 percent of the canal had been dug.

The bucket wheel continues to rust in place. Resuming the project was not part of the discussions during the peace negotiations between Khartoum and the SPLA. There were enough controversial issues to resolve; neither side apparently wanted to add the Jonglei Canal to the mix. Most southern Sudanese believe the project was only intended to benefit northern Sudan and Egypt. It is inconceivable that excavation of the canal could resume without the explicit approval of the new southern government.

During an interview in Khartoum with the Sudan News Agency in March 2006, President Mubarak commented it might be possible to resume work on the Jonglei Canal now that the war had come to an end. A brief press report from Cairo in May 2006 noted that the Supreme Committee for Nile Water chaired by the prime minister held a meeting on Egypt’s relations with the Nile Basin countries. Attendees included the ministers of defense, foreign affairs, irrigation, international cooperation, and the chief of intelligence. During the meeting, Minister of Irrigation and Water Resources Mahmoud Abu Zeid suggested the possibility of resuming work on the Jonglei Canal in cooperation with Sudan. The press report gave no indication as to the committee’s reaction. Abu Zeid told the Foreign Press Association in Cairo in June 2006 that the signing of the CPA in Sudan makes it possible for work to resume on the Jonglei. He said Egypt is willing to contribute half the costs towards finishing the project. It is no coincidence that this long dormant issue is beginning to resurface in Egyptian discussions.

Egypt-Ethiopia Relations

Egypt and Ethiopia do not share a common border nor do they have a great deal in common. There is a long and important link between the minority Egyptian Coptic Church and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Overland trade through Sudan was periodically significant dating back to Ethiopia’s Axumite Kingdom. Only recently have there been serious efforts to revive trade between the two countries. Egypt failed in its attempt to invade Ethiopia in 1875. The reasons for the invasion were imperial expansion and a desire to raise revenue. Although Egypt understood that some of the Nile water came from Ethiopia, this was not what motivated the Egyptian attack. Once it became clear, however, that 86 percent of the Nile water reaching Egypt originated in Ethiopia, this became and remains the overriding issue in the relationship.

Over the last 50 years, especially in the pre-Mubarak period, Egypt’s ties with Ethiopia have been marred by differences and misunderstandings. When Ethiopia was maneuvering in the late 1950s and early 1960s to reincorporate Eritrea as an integral part of its empire, Egypt opened near Alexandria in 1958 a small military training camp for Eritreans opposed to Ethiopian rule. Egypt also permitted Eritrean rebels to use Radio Cairo in an effort to undermine the Haile Selassie government. Egypt allowed the predominantly Muslim Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) to establish an office in Cairo. With Egyptian support, the Arab League in 1962 extended complete solidarity to the ELF. These events occurred at a time when Egypt was interested in undermining Haile Selassie’s pro-American and pro-Israeli government. But Egypt also saw this policy as useful in diverting Ethiopia’s attention away from efforts to develop Nile water projects.

Egypt has a long history of involvement in Muslim Somalia, which is also a member of the Arab League but is not an Arab country. During sporadic conflict between Ethiopia and Somalia in the 1960s and 1970s, Egypt sided with Somalia. Egypt provided military training and weapons to Somalia. In 1978, for example, Egypt reportedly gave millions of dollars worth of Russian military equipment to Somalia. This occurred during the Soviet-supported Mengistu regime in Ethiopia; a couple of years later the U.S. also provided military equipment to Somalia. Cairo’s goal was to keep pressure on Ethiopia so that it would be less able to oppose Egypt on Nile water and other issues. This legacy has not been lost on current Ethiopian leaders.

Since the mid-1990s, Egypt’s policy towards Ethiopia has become more nuanced. There has been a concerted effort to improve relations. These positive Egyptian initiatives continue, however, to be setback by occasional differences on regional developments, a basic disagreement over allocation of Nile water, and Ethiopian suspicion that eventually Egypt will revert to outright hostility. In the late 1990s, for example, the two countries pursued competing programs to bring peace to Somalia. There was also concern in Ethiopia that Egypt sympathized with Eritrea after the border war broke out in 1998. On the other hand, Egypt’s ambassador to Ethiopia stated in 1998 that “Egypt is ready to cooperate with Ethiopia in exploiting its huge hydro-electric potentials, and did not object to the construction of small scale water dams.”

In recent years, Egypt has engaged in something of a charm offensive in Ethiopia. It provides modest assistance in the areas of health, the judiciary, police, crime prevention, scholarships, and training in the fields of nursing, electric power, and cattle breeding. Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles during a visit to Cairo in 2005 expressed satisfaction with cooperation in the Nile Basin Initiative and the development of bilateral relations between the two countries. Meles noted that Egypt had signed an agreement to purchase $200 million worth of meat from Ethiopia over five years. Mubarak’s spokesman stressed that Egypt wanted to see an end to the Ethiopian-Eritrean conflict. Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan formed three subcommittees in 2005 in improve cooperation in politics and diplomacy, trade and the economy, and security. A reconstruction program in southern Sudan is part of this tripartite discussion. Egyptian experts are helping Ethiopia draw up engineering designs for a number of hydropower dams on a river outside the Nile Basin. Discussions are also underway among Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan concerning a project to generate electricity in the Ethiopian highlands for their mutual benefit.

This recent cooperation has not eliminated Ethiopia’s concerns over Egypt’s Nile water policies and their impact on relations with Addis Ababa. Egypt has not only made clear that its water allocation in the 1959 treaty is inviolable, but that it needs more water. It wants this additional water to come from upstream projects such as the Jonglei Canal in Sudan and improved water management practices in Ethiopia. Egypt points out that better terracing in Ethiopia’s highlands will allow more water to reach Egypt. This will reduce the amount of silt that accompanies the water and eventually settles behind dams in Sudan and the Aswan Dam in Egypt. Egypt’s Water Resources and Irrigation Minister Mahmoud Abu Zeid commented in 2006 that the Baro-Akobo project, a network of dams and canals in southwestern Ethiopia, would add 12 billion cubic meters annually to the Nile. Although improved conservation and water resources management in upstream countries would be a positive contribution, Ethiopia looks at massive new Egyptian water projects of dubious environmental quality and must wonder if this is a one way policy.

Egypt began in 1976 the Northern Sinai irrigation project that includes construction of the Salaam Canal under the Suez Canal. Eventually the project will use an additional 4.4 billion cubic meters of water to resettle more than two million Egyptian families. At one point, Egypt suggested that it might even sell Nile water to Israel, which is outside the Nile Basin. Ethiopia protested this project and especially the idea of selling Nile water outside the basin. In 1997 President Mubarak inaugurated an even larger Nile project. When completed in 2017 the New Valley Project will divert another five billion cubic meters of water annually from Lake Nasser by canals to Egypt’s southwestern desert. The goal is to cultivate a half million acres and resettle seven million Egyptians. It is not clear that these schemes are implementing sound water conservation principles. Egypt argues that its growing population and urban unemployment require these new projects.

Ethiopia responds that its population is as large as Egypt’s and growing even faster. Unemployment is also a serious problem. In addition, Ethiopia is experiencing increasingly frequent and larger shortfalls of food production that lead to ever growing food imports. It sees the new Egyptian projects as turning the desert into centers of agricultural production at its expense. Prime Minister Meles pointed out early in 2005 that while Egypt is transforming the Sahara Desert, Ethiopia is denied the possibility of using Nile water to feed itself. He expressed anger at Egypt’s objections to requests from other riparians to use Nile water for major irrigation projects. He went on to cite Egypt’s long-term opposition to any international funding for large scale Ethiopian irrigation programs. Ethiopia has about 2.3 million hectares of irrigable land in its portion of the Nile Basin. Less than one percent has been developed.

Egypt is much more understanding about the development of hydropower in Ethiopia. Except for evaporation in the reservoir behind hydropower dams, they only prevent water from reaching Egypt on a one-time basis. Ethiopia has the potential to produce an estimated 162,000 gigawatt hours (GWh) of electricity per year on its Nile tributaries. By comparison, California generated a total of 272,000 GWh in 2002. Ethiopia has harnessed only two percent of this potential. Ethiopia is now constructing on the Tekeze River its largest ever hydropower dam. Egypt has not objected. In addition to obtaining electricity produced in Ethiopia, Egypt could benefit from water storage projects in the Ethiopian highlands where the evaporation rate is about three percent as compared to 12 percent in Lake Nasser.

Sudan-Ethiopia Relations

Ethiopia shares Sudan’s longest border, nearly 1,000 miles. There has been a long history of conflict (and occasional cooperation) along this frontier. There were periodic battles between the Funj Kingdom in Sudan and Ethiopian emperors during the 17th and 18th centuries. During Egyptian/Ottoman rule in Sudan in the 19th century, there were a number of border clashes as the Egyptians tried to extend their authority into Ethiopia. Following the rise near the end of the 19th century of Mahdist power in Sudan, the two countries harbored the other’s rebels, a practice which has continued. Mahdist forces penetrated as far as Gondar in 1888. Sudan then fell under the control of an Anglo-Egyptian Condominium in 1899. Ethiopian negotiations with the British resulted in a 1902 treaty that established for the first time a border between Sudan and Ethiopia. The agreement expanded Ethiopia’s jurisdiction in the direction of the Nile Valley, although not nearly as far as Emperor Menelik had earlier demanded.

The period from 1902 until the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1936 reflected intense efforts by Ethiopia and Sudan, with Great Britain acting on behalf of Sudan, to establish greater influence in the border region. During its brief occupation, Italy tried without success to extend Ethiopia’s western boundary into Sudan. Sudanese troops played a prominent role in the liberation of Ethiopia from Italy when they accompanied Haile Selassie and British forces on the march to Addis Ababa. Although Italy ended slavery in the border area, its military defeat in 1941 did not resolve a host of frontier problems between Ethiopia and Sudan. From Sudanese independence in 1956 until Ethiopia’s 1974 revolution, relations between the two countries fluctuated dramatically between conflict and cooperation. Deep suspicion of the other side prevailed in Khartoum and Addis Ababa. From 1974 until Sudan’s 1989 coup, relations between Sudan and Ethiopia were generally poor. Sudan supported Eritrean and later Tigrayan rebels trying to topple Mengistu while Ethiopia eventually backed the SPLA rebellion in southern Sudan.

Following its military coup in 1989, Sudan initially tried to improve relations with Ethiopia. Although this effort failed, the overthrow of Mengistu in Ethiopia in 1991 did result in a normalization of relations between the two countries. This lasted only a few years until Islamic fundamentalist elements in the Sudanese government tried to expand their theology in the region, including Ethiopia. Sudan began to support Ethiopian dissident groups and Ethiopia responded by resuming support for the SPLA. By 1995, Sudan accused Ethiopian troops of joining the SPLA in attacks on Sudanese border villages. Relations reached a nadir following the attempt in 1995 to assassinate Mubarak in Addis Ababa. Ethiopia charged Sudan with complicity and then became part, together with Uganda and Eritrea, of U.S. policy to pressure Sudan. Poor relations between Sudan and Ethiopia continued until the outbreak of conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia in May 1998. In the following months, Ethiopia concluded that it was important to normalize relations with Sudan so that it could focus on it new enemy — Eritrea. Ethiopia significantly scaled back assistance to the SPLA. The two countries restored regular economic relations and Bashir made a fence mending visit to Addis Ababa in November 1999.

Ethiopia joined Sudan and Yemen at the beginning of 2003 in a new regional group to combat terrorism in the Horn of Africa. All three countries had problems with Eritrea at the time; opposition to Eritrea was the more logical explanation for the alliance. Following the closure of Ethiopia’s border with Eritrea, Addis Ababa looked increasingly to alternative routes to the sea, including Port Sudan. The two countries stepped up cooperation along the northern part of the border and Sudan began to sell oil to Ethiopia. There has been notable improvement in communications links between Sudan and Ethiopia. They began laying a fiber optic telephone line in 2005 between Gondar and Gallabat and in 2006 initiated a study to link the energy and electric power sectors of the two countries. Prime Minister Meles also expressed full Ethiopian support for the CPA in Sudan.

Just when all was going well between Sudan and Ethiopia, a few old problems returned to the fore. An organization in Sudan complained early in 2006 that Ethiopian farmers were cultivating land inside Sudan near Gedaref. The Gedaref State legislature called on the Sudan government to stop this activity. Another old problem involving cattle raiding and ethnic conflict between Anuak and Nuer returned along the southern border. In the meantime, Eritrea launched an all out effort to improve its relations with Sudan. Eritrea sponsored peace talks between Khartoum and rebels operating in eastern Sudan near the Eritrean border. Eritrean President Isaias visited Khartoum in June 2006. While Eritrea provided assistance to the Islamic courts in Somalia, which strongly oppose Ethiopia, Sudan brokered an agreement between the court leadership and the Somali Transitional Federal Government, which Ethiopia supports.

This Sudanese-Eritrean rapprochement has raised eyebrows in Addis Ababa and forced both Ethiopia and Sudan to reassert publicly in recent weeks the strong ties that continue to exist between the two countries. In an interview in early July 2006, Meles described Ethio-Sudanese relations “as good as they have ever been and I expect them to continue as such.” A government spokesman in Khartoum denied a few days later that bilateral relations between Addis Ababa and Khartoum had deteriorated following the visit to Sudan by Isaias. One wonders if this is incipient evidence of Queen Gertrude of Denmark’s concern that “the lady doth protest too much, methinks.”

Sudan-Ethiopia interaction as concerns the Nile suggests some intriguing possibilities. On the one hand, the Jonglei Canal, should it ever be revived, could have important and poorly understood environmental impacts on Sudan and Ethiopia. Some believe that a significant reduction in the size of the Sudd would reduce the evaporation that eventually falls as rain on the mountains of Ethiopia. The point at which the north end of the canal rejoins the White Nile near the entry of the Sobat/Baro/Pibor River system from Ethiopia will probably have a major impact on the Machar marshes in Sudan and Ethiopia. But no one knows what that impact will be.

Ethiopian-Sudanese dialogue on Nile water usage has vacillated in recent decades between conflict and cooperation but recently trended towards the latter. Following the change of government in Ethiopia in 1991, the two countries signed an agreement the following year to cooperate on the use of Nile water. In 1996, after a sharp downturn in relations with Ethiopia, Sudan said the waters of the Nile should be the exclusive right of Sudan and Egypt. After the outbreak of the Eritrean-Ethiopian border war, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt agreed in 1999 to seek the sustainable development of Nile water through equitable exploitation for the common benefit of all riparian states. Both Sudan and Ethiopia joined the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) in 2001. They have cooperated at the technical level on a series of water issues ever since.

There are more reasons for Sudan and Ethiopia to cooperate on the use of Nile water than to engage in conflict. Both countries have concerns over the terms of the 1959 water allocation agreement between Egypt and Sudan. Both countries also fear that huge new irrigation projects in Egypt will require an inordinate amount of additional water. Sudan and Ethiopia can cooperate on sharing hydroelectric power, which has much greater potential in Ethiopia. It is more efficient to store water at higher elevations in Ethiopia, where evaporation is significantly lower than in Sudan, for future use in Sudan. John Waterbury concluded that “Ethio-Sudanese cooperation in the management of their shared basins is compelling.” Waterbury added that a day will come when Sudan “once again turns to the development of the millions of acres of good land lying between the Blue and White Niles, and there are solid objective reasons why they might make common cause with Ethiopia.” In a recent study of the Nile Basin, Jack Kalpakian of Al-Akhawayn University in Morocco wrote that rather than reaching an agreement with Egypt in 1959, “Sudan’s interests would have probably been served by helping itself to the water or reaching some accommodation with Ethiopia.”

Sudan and Ethiopia have experienced much more conflict than cooperation over the centuries. There are numerous reasons for this. Authorities on both sides of the border have a long history of authoritarian rule and occasional schemes for territorial expansion. Their leaders were not reluctant to give the order to cross the border to enhance their imperial or religious goals. The border region was also a significant source of slaves for both countries. This led to local disruption and displacement of people and conflict among competing slavers. As in most of Africa, the lengthy border that has been in place since 1902 is artificial and frequently divides ethnic groups that now straddle both sides. Many of the conflicts have been caused by local ethnic disputes.

Ethiopia has a long history of Christian leadership. But it also has a large Muslim population, including along parts of the border with Sudan. Following the Islamization of Sudan, much of the conflict concerned differences between the Muslim leaders in Sudan and the Christian leaders in Ethiopia, who saw their country as a Christian island in a Muslim sea. Outside involvement by the Ottoman Empire, Egypt, Italy, and even Great Britain contributed to some of the conflict. Since Sudanese independence, differences in political ideology, especially during the Marxist-Leninist Derg regime, raised concerns in Khartoum. One trend that began early in the relationship is the tit-for-tat policy of allowing opposition groups to operate from the territory of one country against the other. In recent decades, this has done more damage to the bilateral relationship than any other single development and there is no indication that it has disappeared as an issue.

It is surprising that there has not been more conflict between Sudan and Ethiopia over the centuries. The fact that the frontier is far from the capitals and from the center of power in both countries best explains the relative lack of conflict. Until fairly recently, neither the leaders of Sudan nor Ethiopia took much interest in what was happening along the border. Transportation links, especially to and between the southern section of the border, are still exceedingly poor. The existence of significant oil in southern Sudan and possibly even inside Ethiopia along the border may change this situation. Occasionally a common enemy has temporarily caused the two countries to cooperate. Although Nile water issues should bring the two countries together, it has not had that effect so far.

Avoiding Conflict over Nile Water Issues

The Nile Basin Initiative has become the most important mechanism so far to encourage cooperation among the riparian countries. Each NBI member has agreed to share information with other riparians on projects it intends to launch and, if possible, undertake joint studies to ensure the sustainable utilization of water. The NBI, with strong support from the World Bank, UN Development Program, and Canada, emphasizes basin-wide cooperation. Although the NBI has had some positive accomplishments, Nile expert Robert Collins believes it has actually done very little so far other than provide technical training for member country personnel. He argues that each riparian continues, for the most part, to proceed with projects without reference to other members and that Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, in particular, ignore the other riparians. Finally, Collins says there is still no overall plan for managing water in the basin.

The World Bank coordinates the International Consortium for Cooperation on the Nile (ICCON), which promotes financing for cooperative water resource development and management in the basin. The Bank also administers the Nile Basin Trust Fund, a mechanism to implement basin-wide programs. Providing there is good will among the riparians, these programs can work to the benefit of riparians by encouraging the cultivation of crops that require less water, reusing drainage water, and improving the environment in watershed areas. Countries with significant hydroelectric power potential like Ethiopia can build dams and sell power to Sudan and Egypt. Upstream dams in Ethiopia can trap sediment that is causing problems for reservoirs in Sudan and Egypt. Sudan can do the same in the case of Egypt. Because of lower evaporation, Ethiopia can store water more efficiently for use during times of scarcity in Sudan and Egypt. It can also hold back water to prevent flooding. Cooperative Nile Basin development can provide the riparians greater net benefits than they would achieve through unilateral development projects. The Nile Basin offers an opportunity for the international community to engage in conflict prevention.

For its part, the US should elevate Nile Basin cooperation to a major foreign policy priority in the region and treat Nile water questions as a potentially significant conflict that can be prevented. The US has been reluctant to do this so far for bureaucratic and substantive reasons. Egypt is located in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs in the State Department while the other nine riparians are in the Bureau of African Affairs. In recent decades, Egypt has been more important to US policy than the other nine riparians combined. Egypt does not want to hear from the US about Nile water issues unless the US expresses full support for Egyptian Nile policies. In order to avoid another potentially contentious issue, the US has largely complied.

The US is, nevertheless, well positioned to encourage cooperative solutions for the use of Nile water as a routine part of its diplomatic dialogue with Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, and the seven other riparians. The US should also work with and support financially the NBI, the Nile Basin Trust Fund, and ICCON. It should offer to finance technical assistance by appropriate US institutions to develop regional climatic models, short and long-term hydro meteorological forecasting, and modeling of environmental conditions. Finally, the US should encourage the NBI to draw on American technical expertise in areas such as remote sensing and Geographical Information Systems for the multitude of technical and environmental issues that face Nile Basin riparians.

This entry was posted on Sunday, March 3rd, 2013 at 5:10 pm and is filed under Egypt, Nile, Sudan.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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