a website of resources for peace is a documentary website whose purpose is to promote an exchange of knowledge and know-how at the service of the construction of an Art of peace.
This website is coordinated by
Modus Operandi


Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, September 2006

Hydro-politics in the Nile

Smoothing the waters of Conflict.

Keywords: New technologies for peace | Internet and peace | | To analyse conflicts from a politic point of view | Development of methods and resources for peace | | | | | | | | | | | Egypt | Ethiopia | Sudan

The Nile River is the world’s longest river and an estimated 123 million people depend on it for survival (1). The river is shared by 10 countries: Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, DRC, Ethiopia, Egypt, Sudan and Eritrea. While about 85 % of the river water originates from Eritrea and Ethiopia, about 94 % of the water is used by Sudan and Egypt.

For several years there have been tensions among nations through which the Nile runs. However, nowadays tensions are increasing due to the population growth, poverty, degradation of the ecosystem and water scarcity that characterized the region. In the past, the tensions derived from the dominance and constant threat of military use from the side of Egypt, the civil wars in Sudan, Ethiopia and the negligible use of water by upstream riparian states (2). Recently the discrepancies have risen in the region due to the constant dominance of Egypt over the water of the river and the treaties under which the country supports its power over it.

At the heart of the tensions are the 1929 and 1959 Nile Water Agreements. Through these agreements Egypt assured that the Nile waters could not be interrupted by any circumstances by the rest of the basin countries, the agreements also prohibited any construction on tributaries that would interrupt the flow of Nile to Egypt and Sudan.

Such agreements have recently been questioned by the rest of the Basin countries which claim their right to equitable water distribution. The need for a sufficient and constant water supply is essential for these countries in particular in order to protect the lives of the population, support food production between other needs.

These countries depend for their economical and social stability on the access to the waters of the river. Ethiopia for example, wants to use the Nile River for hydro-electrical plants and industrial development. Egypt has already said that it won’t hesitate to use military force to assure its control over the Nile River, which explains the enormous importance that the water means to this country. Ethiopians on their part claims to have rights to exploit her natural resources and even went further to renounce the colonial treaties.

The main Nile riverine states involved in the conflict are Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia. Egypt claims that it has historical and natural rights on the river and will be governed by the hydro-political doctrines of ‘primary need’, ‘prior use’ and ‘acquired water rights’. As a result of these claims, Egypt’s top foreign policy priority has always been to safeguard the uninterrupted flow of the Nile water » (3). In the case of Sudan the problem of water is closely linked to economic development. First, Sudan has the twin needs of irrigation and hydroelectric power coupled with the need to protect its citizens near the banks of the Nile from annual rainy season floods coming from the highlands of Ethiopia. Finally, for Ethiopia, the Nile represents economic interests in the agrarian sector. Approximately 40 percent of its population depends on rain-fed subsistence farming in the highlands, the zone of highest rainfall, which provides 86 percent of the Nile waters. Additionally, Ethiopia has also expressed interest in developing its water resources by building a series of micro-dams on the Blue Nile. Not surprisingly, such plans have led to tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia (4).

Positive is the fact that there has been not yet any violent conflict between these countries for water rivalry. In addition to this, the Nile basin countries continue to seek cooperative solutions that could bring a more equitable partition of the river. In 1990s for example the parties involved in the conflict participated in various dialogues with the help of the international community, targeting cooperation on the use of Nile River. The dialogue intensified and various initiatives were created, one example is the Technical Cooperation Committee for Development and Environment Protection (TECCONILE) which had the task of promoting Nile Development agenda.

A transitional cooperation mechanism namely Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), was officially launched in 1999 by the council of Ministers of water affairs of these countries funded by the World Bank. Although the NBI was originally designed as a way to share scientific information, today it brings together ministers from the basin countries “to achieve sustainable socio-economic development through equitable utilization of, and benefit from, the common Nile basin water resources,” as stated in its shared vision (5). The NBI can also be described as a break-through and a positive move which prevented the conflict to intensify and go into violence.

In this particular case water cooperation has helped to create an environment of trust and willingness of maintenance of friendly relations between the countries for the region. Hence, cooperation and communication must continue to be the policy under which the Nile River Countries have to manage the relations between each other and the water resources. As Martha Karua, Kenyan Minister of Water Resources Management and former Chairperson of the Nile Basin Council of Ministers said: “our success depends on our ability to work as a team to overcome the hurdles and exploit the opportunities that exist. This means that cooperation and only cooperation is the key to our future.”


The Nile river, besides of been the longest river in the world, it is also the most vital water artery in North of Africa. The river is shared by 10 river basin countries, which depend on this water for their survival. However, over time it gets more difficult to guarantee the access to this precious resource. The water security in this region is constantly threatened by the high rate of population growth, the misuse and contamination of its waters, a situation that is increasing the tensions for the right to use the water of the river. The fundamental issue is related to the equitable sharing of the Nile water resources. Natural resources do not respect national boundaries. Environmental conflicts call therefore for regional and international responses. This fiche explores some of these initiatives.


  • The author of the file is Lucia Gamuya Kairo. She is a lawyer and is working at the time of writing as legal advisor in Twiga Bancorp in Tanzania.

  • (1) : ICE Case Studies. « Nile River Dispute ». Available Online at:

  • (2) : TESFAYE, Aaron. « Hydropolitics and Regional Stability in the Nile Basin ». William Paterson University.

  • (3) : TAFESSE, Tesfaye. « The Hydropolitical perspective of the Nile Question ». June 29, 2000. Available Online at:

  • (4) : TESFAYE, Aaron. Op cit.

  • (5) : KAMERI-MBOTE, Patricia. « Water, Conflict and Cooperation: Lessons from the Nile River Basin ». In: Navigating Peace, N° 4, January 2007. Available Online at: