Water, Africa’s Gold: The Nile has been contested for long; it should now unite, say experts

As Ethiopia's Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile nears completion, experts in the country say the Nile should be a source of cooperation, not conflict

By Mekonnen Teshome
Published: Tuesday 25 January 2022
Scotsman James Bruce, having reached a fountain at Gisha (Abyssinia) regarded as the source of the Nile, uses a coconut to drink the water to the health of King George III and Empress Catherine the Great. Photo: Wellcome Collection
Scotsman James Bruce, having reached a fountain at Gisha (Abyssinia) regarded as the source of the Nile, uses a coconut to drink the water to the health of King George III and Empress Catherine the Great. Photo: Wellcome Collection Scotsman James Bruce, having reached a fountain at Gisha (Abyssinia) regarded as the source of the Nile, uses a coconut to drink the water to the health of King George III and Empress Catherine the Great. Photo: Wellcome Collection

The Nile, the longest river in the world, is one of the frontlines of conflict over its water as climate change sweeps Africa and the world. The river’s precious waters have been valued since antiquity but have been in the news since the last decade over Ethiopia building a huge dam upstream, much to Egypt and Sudan’s chagrin. But experts in Ethiopia have said the river should unite and not divide.

Firehiwot Sintayehu, assistant professor at the Department of Political Science and International Relations, Addis Ababa University, told this reporter that if the Nile riparian countries were able to cooperate, they would be able to share ultimate benefits from the Nile.

She noted:

None of these countries are suitable for all economic activities that one can obtain from the river. Rather, each country has their own comparative advantage. For instance, the water of the Nile would be saved from evaporation by having dams in the upstream countries. Sudan is also said to be the best place for irrigated agriculture. If the riparian countries came into such a common understanding, they would have been able to cooperate rather than going into a never-ending conflict.

Bisrat Kifle, an associate professor at the Ethiopian Civil Service University said the Nile riparian countries had a history of both conflicts and cooperation over the years. This was illustrated by the various agreements concluded and institutions established at one time or another by the riparian countries.

“Examples include the 1929, 1959 Nile water agreements and Cooperative Framework Agreement of the Nine Basin Initiative which is an intergovernmental partnership of 10 Nile Basin countries. However, these agreements are not as effective because they fail to include all riparian countries,” Kifle said.

Ancient and modern feuds

The Nile is the longest river in the world and brings together 11 riparian countries. These are the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, Uganda, Kenya, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Rwanda, Tanzania, Sudan and Egypt.

The Nile is made up of two main tributaries. There is no consensus on what is the most distant source of the White Nile. But its journey northwards starts at Jinja on the northern shore of Lake Victoria in Uganda.

The White Nile meets the Blue Nile at Khartoum, the Sudanese capital. The Blue Nile originates from Lake Tana in Ethiopia. The unified stream from Khartoum continues north, passing through Egypt, before emptying into the Mediterranean near Alexandria.

Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile in Ethiopia. Photo: Mekonnen Teshome

The history of Nile water sharing in Ethiopia is as old as the country itself.

James Bruce, a Scotsman who became the first European to locate the source of the Blue Nile by travelling from the Egypt and Sudan route, wrote in his account:

The idea of diverting the Nile, to pressurise Egypt, is alleged to have developed during the reign of the Zagw Emperor Lalibala (1172-1212).

Bruce said Lalibala’s reign coincided with “a great persecution” in Egypt, of Christian “masons, builders and hewers of stone”. The monarch supposedly collected a “prodigious number” of them, with whom he attempted to realise one of “the favorite pretensions of the Abyssinians”, by “turning the Nile out of its course”, to stop it being “the cause of the fertility of Egypt”.

Historians and clergymen in Ethiopia often cite quotations from documents of antiquity, including the Bible to claim that God has given Nile water to Ethiopia, just as the Egyptians do:

A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters. The name of the first is the Pishon; it winds through the entire land of Havilah, where there is gold. The name of the second river is the Gihon; it winds through the entire land of Cush. The name of the third river is the Tigris; it runs along the east side of Asshur. And the fourth river is the Euphrates. (Genesis 2:11–14)

‘Cush’ refers to the region where Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia are today.

“Historically, wars have been fought over the Nile, particularly between Egypt and Ethiopia. In the 20th century, the conflicts have not turned into wars but there have been many instances of disagreements between Ethiopia and Egypt,” Sintayehu said.

She added that these conflicts had their roots in colonial as well as other agreements which Ethiopia was not a part of, particularly the 1959 Nile waters agreement.

Ethiopia began construction on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in April 2011 on the Blue Nile. The project has fuelled controversies and repetitive unsuccessful and futile negotiation especially among the three Nile riparian countries Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt.

Read: ‘Selous Game Reserve dam rooted in geopolitics over Nile’

This includes the recent one mediated by the US government in January 2020 that resulted in a preliminary agreement between the trio but later failed again as Ethiopia claimed that the US was actually pushing Egypt’s interest instead of remaining non-partisan.

The UN Security Council held its first public meeting on the GERD June  29, 2020. It also made the issue of the GERD its agenda in September last year and discussed the matter.

The Security Council issued a “presidential statement” as its first outcome on the matter, calling for a resumption of the African Union (AU)-led negotiations to reach a “binding agreement on the filling and operation of the GERD”.

This, despite that the UN Security Council has no mandate on scrutinising the ongoing African Union-mediated process.

Sintayehu, however added that Ethiopia’s claim over the Nile’s waters could not be dismissed:

The downstream countries have continued to resist Ethiopia’s utilisation of the waters of the Nile apart from Sudan’s brief support for the GERD. However, things are likely to change and Ethiopia will be able to utilise the Nile once the GERD is complete and hydroelectric power production starts, which is scheduled to happen this fiscal year.

Kifle said every negotiation on water utilisation needed to consider the use of resources as well as climate change and water scarcity.

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