Water Scarcity and Regional Security in the Nile Basin

Bachelor Thesis, 2012

38 Pages, Grade: 14,5 p.



1 Introduction

2 A Brief History of Nile Politics

3 Current Basin Regime
3.1 Hydrological & geographical circumstances
3.1.1 Contributions
3.1.2 Water Use
3.2 Development Projects
3.2.1 Ethiopia
3.2.2 The Sudan
3.2.3 Egypt
3.2.4 Hydropolitical Implications

4 Hydropolitics between Conflict and Cooperation
4.1 The Concepts of Security and Conflict
4.2 The Power Matrix Model
4.3 From “Water Wars” to “Water Peace”
4.4 Hegemonial cooperation?

5 Cooperation within the NBI

6 Conclusion

7 Bibliography

1 Introduction

Since South Sudan’s secession in 2011 the Nile River is shared by eleven coun- tries (Egypt, Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Tanzania, Uganda, Bu- rundi, Rwanda, D.R. Congo, and Kenya) and is home to more than 160 mil- lion people.1 Five of these countries are among the poorest in the world, with low levels of socio-economic development or - in other words - with tremen- dously high potentials and motivation to socio-economically develop.2 Today, exploitation of the Nile has reached its limits with ever greater populations and industries depending on its waters. History has created political power struc- tures which represent the exact opposite of the hydrological realites. Although the river receives no contributions from Egyptian territories, the country is the most excessive consumer of Nile waters and depends on it for about 95% of its freshwater resources. At the same time, precipitation in the Ethiopian highlands delivers some 85% of the Nile’s flow measured at Aswan.3 But the prevailing river regime in combination with a history of political instability has so far prevented Ethiopia and other upstream countries from constructing major schemes to facilitate economic development or even flood protection for its population.

Will increasing resource competition lead the states of the Nile Basin to an escalation of inter-riparian conflict?

Egypt with its very limited availabilty of arable land and already over-exploited and contested water resources must consider to at least partially abandon its pursuit of food self-sufficiency and examine alternative ways of securing its population’s needs.

Given growing pressures on the Nile’s resources, the Basin states’ current or- der will have to fundamentally shift from the current lower-basin domina- tion to a more integrative regional system that appreciates both the upper- riparians’ contributions and development needs as well as the lower-riparians’ dependence upon their cooperation. Considering the most recent trends in scientific literature on transboundary water resources, this transformation is expected to be accomplished through cooperative action rather than resisted against through inter-riparian violence. This paper argues that Egypt - the Nile’s traditional hegemon - will, despite the repeated threats uttered against underdeveloped upstream states’ claims for more equal shares, lose its hith- erto dominant position and engage in cooperative efforts exceeding current frameworks like that of the World Bank’s Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) in order to keep pace with its ever multiplying population’s subsistence and develop- ment needs. The upper Nile states of Central and East Africa will intensify their demands for a more equal share of the river’s waters, as latest initiatives show.4

First, this paper will illustrate the prevailing situation of inexorably growing demands for the Nile’s limited resources, which has been described as a colli- sion course, an impasse, or a policy crisis by the authors of “Water in the Arab World”.5

In order to analyze potential threats that increasing water scarcity and competition pose to the region’s security, the general concepts of security and conflict will be first examined and later embedded into the broader context of a basin wide security architecture. Eventually the latest fora and initiatives for regional cooperation will be discussed.

2 A Brief History of Nile Politics

In order to understand today’s modes of interaction between the Nile Basin riparian states and the complex causes of their relations, examination of the British imperial legacy is central. It was the British who first developed plans for comprehensive utilization of the Nile waters, as they gained control over the river from its sources to its mouth. By conquering Egypt in 1882, the British soon found themselves rulers of an ancient hydraulic society, with water reg- ulation as the key to its prosperity and growth.1 In the preceding decades, during the reign of Muhammad Ali, the country had already undergone fun- damental changes in technical aspects of irrigation and river control. Thereby, annual agrarian production had been increased significantly by one to two addtitional crops on the same land. In only a few decades, this created the foundation for Egypt to become a major cotton producer, with cotton account- ing for 80 per cent of Egypt’s exports in 1860.2 But insolvency of the Egyptian government combined with severe destruction during the Ahmad Orabi up- rising left big parts of the country’s irrigation canals unfunctional.3 In a situa- tion when providing water was “the key to imperial profits, national prosper- ity and political legitimacy with both rich and poor” proconsul Lord Cromer as the leader of the British administration made water development a cen- tral task.4 At that point there were already serious demands for the further development of Egypt’s agricultural production, as Lord Cromer’s adminis- tration aimed at enforcing debt service to European creditors and the British Lancashire textile industry intended to emancipate from American cotton im- ports. Fertile soil, suitable climate and abundant manpower rendered water supply the only missing factor for fully exploiting Egypt’s economic potential.

“So important was the Nile for the British industrialists and bankers that, in the late 1880s, The Times reported regularly on the discharge levels of the Nile. What mattered most to the British with regard to Egypt were not the cycles and amount of capital exported [...] but the fluctuations and quantity of Nile waters and how much cotton and profit a good Nile year could produce.”5

In order to increase the production of cash crops, British colonial strategy focused on providing a continiuous flow of Nile waters and evening out the river’s massive seasonal fluctuations.

By 1891, vast efforts put into the restauration of Mohammad Ali’s Delta bar- rage and the Delta’s canal structures made perennial irrigation6 possible in the entire Delta region, thus doubling the cotton crop.7 But even though water control in the lower basin had been greatly improved, fluctuations from one year to another and from one season to the next, still presented an enormous challenge to the colonial water planners. For example the very low discharge levels of 1888 and 1889 caused serious economic and political difficulties, as some 250.000 acres in Upper Egypt didn’t receive any irrigation water.8

This dependence upon the Nile’s severe variations was considered the main obstacle to ensuring agricultural intensification and expansion, so that during the 1890s policy makers and engineers were looking for a way to tame the Nile. Both stability in discharge amounts, and a raise in total water availabilty had to be achieved, if any progress in terms of agricultural expansion and indus- trial development were to be made. A vast array of studies and reports was produced to estimate future water needs and to give advice on how to achieve their provision. At this point, Egypt’s future water needs were estimated at ad- ditional 3.6 billion cubic metres (3,6 km3 ).9 Different sites had been proposed for the building of control works and storage facilities and even places in the Sudan were among the discussed proposals. After first being mentioned by Sir William Garstin (Inspector-General of Irrigation in Egypt and Under-Secretary of State for Public Works) in his 1894 report, the construction of the Aswan Dam reservoir was actively supported by Cromer.10 Thus, after financing was granted, British engineers started erecting the Aswan Dam and completed it in 1902. Its first stage allowed not only the permanent irrigation of existing cot- ton fields but also supplied enough water for an additional one million acres of agrarian land.11 But considering the British plan to signifcantly increase the net gain from cotton production, the Aswan storage with its capacity of less than 1 billion cubic metres, could only be the beginning. The remainder of approximately 2.6 billion cubic metres had to be derived from somewhere else.12 And indeed Sir William Garstin made it clear: “we may confidently predict [that the Aswan Dam would be] only one of a chain which will eventually extend from the First Cataract to the junction of the White and Blue Niles”.13

Meanwhile the importance of upstream territories had become evident to those who sought to regulate the Nile for Egypt’s benefits.

“If Britain were to remain unchallenged in Egypt, British engineers must not only increase the supply of water to irrigate the land to feed the expanding Egyptian population but to defend any threat to that precarious water throughout the length and breadth of the Nile Basin to secure Britain’s strategic position at Cairo and Suez.”14

In accordance with Cromer’s doctrine, at the end of the 19th century, the en- tire Nile Basin had to be brought under Britain’s control. In the course of this mission Britain and France almost got involved in serious military conflict. By the year of the so-called Fashoda-Crisis, the era of Anglo-Egyptian water politics beyond Egypt’s borders truly begun. The joint Anglo-Egyptian ad- ministration of Sudan, called condominium, was established after a successful military campaign, launched first against the independent Sudanese Mahdist state, which existed since its victory over the Turco-Egyptian government in 1885, and then against the French approach towards Fashoda. This so called Fashoda-Crisis in 1898 reveals the chief priorities and intentions of the British colonial power in East Africa. As R.O. Collins put it:

„Those who argue that Britain’s conquest of Egypt was motivated by economic concerns, rather than the security of the Nile and Suez, should [. . . ] recall that the two major liberal powers of Europe, Britain and France, were swept to the brink of war until the French challenge for control of the Nile at Fashoda was defused in 1898 by British naval and military strength [. . . ].”15

In order to complete its conquest of the entire river basin, the British subse- quently negotiated agreements to prevent any diversion of the Nile with the Italians, the Germans and with Leopold II. So that “by 1910 the Nile Basin from its sources to its mouth was at last securely British.”16 17 Terje Tvedt identi- fies two major features of the British imperial notion of the river’s structural importance, which consequently shaped colonial policies in this part of East Africa and the Middle East.18 On the one hand, Britain tried to secure addi- tional and „timely“ water for Egypt to increase agricultural production (espe- cially cotton) and to win over Egyptian public opinion. On the other hand, British water works at the upper reaches should serve as a tool against po- tential future Egyptian resistance. The Sudan plays a key role in this regional strategy, as it occupies the hydrological middle position. No other riparian ter- ritory could influence the complete amount of water reaching Egypt. Through the reservoir behind the Aswan Dam water could now be provided all-year, thus evening out seasonal deficits during summer, which is the main growing period for cotton. But still, the consequences of low-discharge years could not be avoided through storage facilties within Egypt’s borders, for they couldn’t possibly influence the amounts arriving at Aswan. The next years saw the construction of more major water works inside Egypt and the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan: the Assiut Dam (also 1902), the Zifta Barrage (1903), the Isna Barrage (1909), the Sennar Dam (1925), the Nag Hammadi Barrage (1930), the Jebel Auliya Dam (1937) and the Edfina Barrage (1951). All these measures provided for further expansion of agricultural area. The Sennar Dam created the Gezira Scheme, Sudan’s major large-scale irrigation site, which became the govern- ment’s most important source of revenue.19 But none of these - doubtlessly revolutionary facilities - freed Egypt and the Sudan from the uncertainty of annual fluctuations. Therefore, Britain’s imperial expansion further upstream, into the heart of Africa, was considered as a necessary step in its quest for “Century Storage”. This ambitious plan was first layed out by Sir Murdoch McDonald in 1920 and further elaborated by H.E. Hurst - a senior British of- ficial in the Egyptian Ministry of Public Works - right after World War II.20 It envisaged the construction of reservoirs close to the Nile’s sources at the Equa- torial lakes (Lake Albert, Lake Victoria and Lake Kioga) and at Lake Tana in Ethiopia, along with a canal to circumvent the massive losses through evapo- ration in Sudan’s sudd swamps.2122 “Century Storage” basically meant that through control works all over the basin system, “a given flow equal to the average of 100 years”23 would be provided for the economic development of Egypt. But the plans for “Century Storage” could not be realised. Eventhough British authority still dominated Egyptian affairs to a certain extent until the coup d’etat of the Free Officers in 1952, the British were already losing their grip on the river since the Egyptian revolution in 1919. It “set in motion politi- cal forces that tore the imperial Nile strategy assunder”.24 The emergence of a formally independent Egypt in 1922 and nationalist movements in both Egypt and Sudan changed everything.

“The role of the Nile [...] became both tacitly and overtly more of a political weapon in Anglo-Egyptian relations.”25

Until then, development efforts along the Upper Nile were to serve Egyptian needs, i.e. the economic and political needs of the British. After decolonization proceeded, British imperial interests remained the same (increasing the cotton supply and securing Suez), but faced serious nationalist opposition. The polit- ical transformations of the first half of the 20th century layed the foundations for today’s inter-riparian competition. This struggle resulted in the signing of various treaties. Negotiations for the first comprehensive Nile Waters Agree- ment had started in 1920. Egypt appointed a commission in charge of estimat- ing the ultimate future water requirements of Egypt and the immediate needs of the Sudan.26 Based on this data - published in a 1926 report called Nile Con- trol - Lord Lloyd as the British High commissioner in Cairo acting on behalf of Sudan and other British colonies in the basin (Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania) and Ziwa Pasha as the Egyptian Foreign Minister exchanged notes.27 In May 1929 agreement was reached. Anticipating a mean annual flow of 84 km3, Egypt was alloted 48 km3 and the Sudan would receive 4 km3.28 Furthermore, ac- cording to the agreement, no facilities should be allowed to be built upstream, that would harm Egypt’s interests:

“Save with the previous agreement of the Egyptian Government, no irrigation or power works are to be constructed or taken on the River Nile or its branches, or on the lakes from which it flows so far as these are in the Sudan or in countries under British administra- tion [...].”29

Without a doubt, the agreement further institutionalised the belief that Egypt and the Sudan were naturally and historically entitled to the Nile water.30 Ethiopia - as the main contributor to the Nile’s total discharge - was not even part of the agreement and refused to acknowledge it. After their indepen- dence, Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya also contested the validity of the treaty, as they considered it to be a colonial agreement.31 Nevertheless, the agreement stayed valid for 30 years. Its re-negotiation in 1959 was however not caused by the protest or rejection of almost all the other riparians except Egypt. The 1959 Agreement for the Full Utilisation of the Nile Waters again originated from Egyptian and Sudanese initiative. By that time, both countries had emanci- pated from colonialism. The Sudanese - independent since 1956 - regarded their share as insufficient and Gamal Abd an-Nasir needed the Sudan’s con- sent, if he was to realise his prestige project, the High Dam.32 The new agree- ment manifested Egypt’s claim to “established water rights”, allocating a share of 55.5 km3 to Egypt and increasing Sudan’s volume by 14.5 km3 to a total of 18.5 km3.33 All of today’s disputes over the river’s resources circle around the facts created by this document and the realities that evolved on its basis, such as the High Dam at Aswan. With the new agreement, the way was paved for Abd an-Nasir to implement his ambitious plans for Egypt’s modernization. The Aswan High Dam’s alleged purposes were:

- Continous all-year provision of irrigation waters · reliable hydropower generation
- permanent flood control
- reclamation and irrigation of 1.2 million additional feddans of land
- complete transition to perennial irrigation in the Nile Valley34

The most obvious intention of the High Dam’s construction was a political one. The reservoir was meant to free Egypt from an existence on the upstreamers’ mercy. As Nasir explained it:

“Once the Aswan High Dam is built, Egypt will no longer be a historical hostage of the upstream riparians of the Nile basin”35

This nationalist project was completed in 1972, consisting of a 980m wide and about 111m high wall, averaging more than 10km across.36 Its storage capacity in Lake Nasser equals approximately two years of Nile flow, it thus could be considered an Egyptian version of “Century Storage”, as it potentially deliv- ers stable annual amounts of water to Egypt, but only in case this water arrives at Aswan, which depends on natural precipitation, the technical competencies outside of Egypt, and the other riparians’ political power or impotence, respec- tively. The current basin regime - as the next chapter will illustrate - is dictated by the conjuction of hydrological/geographical circumstances, the historical legacy of British imperial policies, and regional power politics.


1 The total population of the Nile states is currently estimated at over 360 million people of whom 160 live in the river basin itself. See Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations Secretariat, 2010; Yohannes, 2008, 43.

2 See UNDP, 2011.

3 See Arsano, 2010, 161.

4 Such as the The Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA), signed by five upstream countries in May 2010 and srongly opposed by Egypt and Sudan

5 Rogers, Peter / Lydon, Peter (1994): Water in the Arab World. Perspectives and Prog- noses.Papers from a conference sponsored by the Arab Fund for Economic and Social De- velopment, and Harvard University’s Division of Applied Sciences and Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University, October, 1-3-, 1993.

1 See Tvedt, 2004, 20.

2 See Chesworth, 1994, 69.

3 In 1876 Khedive Ismail had to create the Caisse de la Dette Publique as an instrument of financial control over Egypt for its European bondholders, who had invested in the construction of the Suez Canal. See Collins, 1967, 81.

4 See Tvedt, 2004, 21.

5 Tvedt, 2004, 21.

6 In contrast to traditional basin irrigation where the water stays on the fields for up to six weeks during flood season and leaves thin layers of silt behind, perennial irrigation de- scribes a method of watering fields in regular intervals by lifting the water from irrigation canals.

7 See Soffer, 1999, 29.

8 See Tvedt, 2004, 23.

9 See Cromer 1897 in his Report on Perennial Irrigation and Flood Protection in Egypt cited in Tvedt, 2004, 24.

10 See Tvedt, 2004, 31.

11 See Yohannes, 2008, 34.

12 See Tvedt, 2004, 25.

13 Garstin, 1894 quoted in Tvedt, 2004, 24f.

14 Collins, 1994, 111.

15 Collins, 1994, 111.

16 Collins, 1967, 118.

17 See Swain, 1997, 677.

18 See Tvedt, 2010, 3.

19 See Shapland, 1997, 62.

20 See Tvedt, 2004, 91

21 The “Jonglei Canal” was designed to carry 55 million cubic meters per day past the sudd in South Sudan, where the White Nile’s flow is reduced by about 50% through evaporation. Even after “Century Storage” was repudiated through the construction of the High Dam, Egypt advocated the canal scheme, because it hoped to secure these additional 55 million cubic metres. But with the Sudanese civil war construction was ultimately stopped in 1983. See for example Collins, 1988, 145ff; Yohanes, 2008, 36f.

22 See Collins, 1994, 118.

23 Howell, 1994, 83.

24 Tvedt, 2004, 87.

25 Tvedt, 2004, 88.

26 See Howell, 1994, 84f.

27 See Cascão, 2009, 245.

28 These quantities should suffice to irrigate Egypt’s maximum acreage at that time, 5 million feddans. See Tvedt, 2004, 145.

29 Nile Waters Agreement, 1929, Clause 4 (ii), quoted in Howell, 1994, 85.

30 See Tvedt, 1994, 144.

31 See Cascão, 2009, 245.

32 See Taha, 2010, 189.

33 The remaining 10 km3 were supposed to flow into the mediterranean unused.

34 Yohannes, 2008, 37.

35 Pomp quoted in Soffer, 1999, 35.

36 See Yohannes, 2008, 38.

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Water Scarcity and Regional Security in the Nile Basin
University of Marburg
14,5 p.
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Rami Okascha (Author), 2012, Water Scarcity and Regional Security in the Nile Basin, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/233342


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