Neil Ford reports on the ongoing struggle for control of the Nile waters

THE NILE and its tributaries have long played a key role in the development of eastern Africa, firstly by enabling the creation of Egypt itself and now by providing a major source of energy for much of the region. Egypt has long attempted to maintain control of the Nile waters for its own use but a rapid increase in population pressure in the Nile Basin over the past 30 years has prompted other states with territory within the watershed to push for a reallocation of resources. Now, at last, it seems as if the Egyptian government is prepared to negotiate a redistribution of the Nile waters, in a move that could encourage the construction of new hydroelectric power plants along the length of the Nile Valley The present division of the Nile waters is based upon a series of colonial agreements which were largely determined outside Africa. Under a 1902 agreement with Great Britain, Ethiopia agreed to refrain from interfering with the river, in order to protect the flow of water into Egypt. A second agreement in 1929, under which the East African countries of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda all agreed not to take water from the Nile, was facilitated by the fact that Great Britain was the colonial ruler of all three territories.

The construction of the Aswan dam caused a breakdown in relations between Egypt and Sudan, prompting the Egyptian government to recognise some Sudanese rights to the river. A third agreement was therefore signed in 1959 between the two governments, allocating 55.5Bm3 of water per year to Egypt and 18.Bm3 to Sudan, whilst effectively excluding the other Nile states from this vital resource.

All of these treaties remain in force today and access to the Nile and its tributaries for power generation, agriculture and other requirements is legally restricted to Egypt and Sudan. In practice, however, several other countries already have hydroelectric power plants on the river system and no legal action has been forthcoming. However, the threat of legal action by the two northern Nile countries may have been a factor in dissuading further projects on the river during the 1990s.

Egypt’s reluctance to loosen its grip on the river’s resources is quite understandable. The Nile is important to Egypt not just with regard to hydroelectric power production, but because the river feeds an entire nation. The agriculture of the Nile Valley relies on the river to such an extent that the 4% of the country’s land surface, comprising the Nile Valley and Delta, is able to support 98% of the Egyptian population. Without the Nile there would be no Egypt.

While the river is important to the Cairo government on both an emotional and economic level, the Nile offers the most obvious source of new power generating capacity in several countries to the south. Sudan and Uganda are both developing new hydroelectric power plants on the river, while the China National Water Resources and Hydropower Engineering Corporation is managing the construction of the US$224M Tekeze hydroelectric scheme in Ethiopia. It is difficult to predict whether Egypt would have any success in blocking such schemes and this uncertainty may have forced the country to the negotiating table. The level of its dependency on the river and its location downstream from the other Nile states means that it is the most vulnerable and has the most to lose.

Ten countries hold territory within the Nile watershed: Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi and Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo). Around 160M people live in the Nile Valley, a figure which the World Bank predicts will double by 2025. Not only will these people place greater pressure on water resources for household use and agriculture, but increased population is certain to translate into increased demand for power. Moreover, the more general trend of improving power coverage in Africa is certain to require increased generating capacity in the region. According to Antoine Sendama, a co-ordinator at the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), 98% of Egyptians have access to electricity generated on the Nile, in comparison with Kenya, where less than 10% of the population have access to any type of electricity.

Pressure upon Egypt from other Nile governments has come in a political form, as well as through their plans for new hydroelectric plants. The Kenyan, Tanzanian and Ugandan governments have all voted to renegotiate the 1929 agreement, while some Ugandan MPs have suggested charging Egypt for the supply of clean water. Ethiopia’s exclusion from the current official partition of Nile waters is even more remarkable. The Blue Nile and River Atbara, which provide around 85% of the Nile’s volume, are both sourced in the Ethiopian Highlands. Now that the decades of civil war and conflict with Eritrea have come to an end, the government in Addis Ababa has promised to turn its attention to developing domestic infrastructure, including the construction of several new hydroelectric plants.

The Nile Basin Initiative

Egypt’s readiness to negotiate and other countries’ determination to draw up a new agreement have culminated in several new organisations being set up to promote Nile co-operation and has injected new confidence into the NBI, which acts as an umbrella organisation for other efforts in the region. Through a variety of projects, the NBI is seeking to ‘to achieve sustainable socio-economic development through the equitable utilisation of, and benefit from, the common Nile Basin water resources’.

Based in Entebbe in Uganda, NBI membership includes all ten Nile Valley states. Under the organisation’s Eastern Nile Subsidiary Action Programme (ENSAP), 13 dams are to be constructed in Ethiopia with the aim of creating 590,000ha of new agricultural land. The head of the hydrology department of the Ethiopian ministry of water resources, Kidane Asefa, estimates that the project will cost around US$400M, most of which will be provided by donors. Hydroelectric power projects are also expected to be included in the dam plans but these will obviously require additional financing.

However, the organisation may be being over-optimistic with regard to the scope of the projects it has planned. World Bank President James Wolfensohn has said: ‘The World Bank will be prepared to underwrite a substantial share of those investment needs and along with the international community will seek to provide whatever level of financing can be effectively absorbed.’ At least US$3B worth of investment has been scheduled on a range of projects but donor funding has yet to reach a fraction of that level. Moreover, while several interim agreements have been signed by the NBI member states, the main agreement which has been promised for almost a year has not been forthcoming.

The construction of new hydroelectric power plants in Africa has also been encouraged by increasing co-operation in the African power sector. A series of power pools around the continent will enable power trading and new transmission lines are completed almost every year. While the great drawback of hydroelectric power production in Africa is the seasonal and erratic nature of rainfall in most countries, the creation of regional or even continent-wide power grids will encourage the sale of electricity from seasonally power-rich areas to seasonally power-poor regions, particularly given that different parts of the continent receive rain at different times of the year.

While water politics plays a role in determining the success of new hydroelectric schemes, other factors have generally played a more important role in deciding the success or otherwise of Nile schemes. The Bujagali project in Uganda, for example, has been opposed both on environmental grounds and because of fears that it is not economically viable. Concerns have also been raised over the details of the power purchase agreement (PPA) and over how the construction companies involved were able to secure the contract without a full bidding process.

The Ugandan government seems keen to see the plant built. The Ugandan minister for energy and mineral development, Sayda Bumba, says: ‘As far as the Bujagali issue is concerned, the project has been certified as environmentally acceptable. The people at the Nile Basin have not raised any objections. Neighbouring countries have not objected.’ Under the terms of the take or pay deal, the government is obliged to purchase all power produced at a set tariff, even if there is not sufficient demand.

However, while the project’s opponents may be right to argue that there will be insufficient demand within Uganda, neighbouring Kenya and Tanzania are both crying out for additional power supplies and transmission links in the region are already being improved in preparation for more power exports from Uganda. Bujagali aside, other hydroelectric projects in Uganda are progressing and alstom has already begun work on installing the final 40MW turbine at the Kiira plant.

While Bujagali has attracted most of the headlines, the biggest hydroelectric project planned on the Nile is actually the US$1.73B Hamdab dam project at Merowe, north of Khartoum. While the dam will control flooding in northern Sudan, the 1200MW power plant will vastly increase the country’s current generating capacity of 580MW. However, the government has not indicated the new plant’s level of generating capacity when the Nile waters are at their lowest. Capacity at the existing Rosairis hydroelectric plant is halved by the end of the Ethiopian dry season.

It is expected that around US$700M will be spent on the construction of the Hamdab plant between now and the scheduled opening date in 2009. The council of ministers of water affairs of the Nile Basin (NILE-COM) has approved the plans, while the Abu Dhabi Fund for Development, the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development, the Kuwaiti Fund for Economic Development and the Saudi Fund for Economic Development have jointly agreed to fund US$780M of the project’s costs.


While Egypt retains control of 80% of the Nile waters under existing agreements, the International Court of Justice in The Hague or any other possible court of arbitration in a dispute would be unlikely to look kindly on the present arrangement. Under the system of uti possidetis, African states agreed to adopt and maintain international treaties signed by the former colonial powers, but a partition of resources which allocates absolutely nothing to eight of the ten Nile powers would surely be open to challenge.

The Egyptian government has therefore surely acted sensibly in agreeing to a negotiated settlement. The Hamdab and Tekeze hydroelectric schemes will probably go ahead with or without Egypt’s support, so with pressure on water resources likely to increase over the next decade, it is as well that the ten states begin co-operating on water use now rather than waiting until shortages become permanent and neighbouring states have adopted entrenched positions.

Moreover, improved cross-border co-operation in the African transmission sector makes the creation of a single power pool that includes all the Nile states increasingly likely. Power pools in North and East Africa are already under development, while a settlement of the conflict in Sudan would enable the construction of a link between Egypt and East Africa. As a result, all the states of the region could benefit from hydroelectric plants, wherever they are located on the Nile.

If and when a final agreement on the redistribution of the Nile waters is finally reached, it is difficult to predict the impact upon new dam and hydroelectric power plant construction. Countries gaining a bigger share may decide to channel their new freedom into irrigation schemes, while others are likely to combine power generation with agricultural necessity. The stumbling block in each case is obviously financing, but whatever form the final agreement takes, it is likely that an increasing number of dams will be built. If agreement is not reached, the region faces a bleak future, with a growing risk of resource conflict.