Threats of war over Nile waters are futile, out of date and not helpful

Friday June 14 2013

By Augustine Ruzindana

In the last few days, there have been lots of media coverage of Egyptian statements about Nile waters, sparked off by construction works of the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

There was a reported conversation between President Mohammed Morsy and senior political leaders of all parties, that was broadcast live on Egyptian State television, while the leaders in conversation were unaware that they were live on TV.

One leader proposed destruction of the dam by “special forces”, another proposed buzzing the dam site with jets to scare the Ethiopians and another proposed supporting rebel groups fighting the Ethiopian regime.
The background to these rather uncalled for belligerent views is an “Exchange of Notes Regarding the Use of the Waters of the Nile for Irrigation” between the Egyptian Prime Minister and the United Kingdom High Commissioner in 1925 and 1929, which gave Egypt exclusive property rights over the Nile waters without any obligations to all the downstream countries. Thus, whereas Egypt has built dams along the Nile, it expects no other country to do the same.

In 1899, construction of the first “Low” Aswan Dam was began and completed in 1902. Its height was raised between 1907-1912 and 1929-1934 but it proved to have an inadequate reservoir.

Subsequently, Egypt, with the assistance of the Soviet Union from 1960 to 1970, built the High Aswan Dam, which has installed power generation capacity of over 2000 MW and its reservoir, Lake Nasser, covering an area of 5250 sq km, is 550 km long, a third of it in Sudan.

Overall, the impact of the dam has been positive on flood and drought control, increase in agricultural production, employment, electricity production and river navigation. These are precisely the benefits the downstream countries would like to have.


Egypt fears that construction of dams upstream would reduce available water downstream but one of the negative effects of the Aswan Dam is that 10km3 of water is lost through evaporation on Lake Nasser. There are many other negative effects such as coastline erosion, soil salinity increase, etc.

The prelude to the Nile Agreement was the occupation of Egypt in 1892 by the UK to protect its interests in Suez Canal and to address the shortage of cotton on the world market. The UK thus promoted the growing of cotton in Egypt and Sudan and this necessitated drawing up plans for the exploitation and control of the Nile Waters.

The plans included two dams at Gebel Aulia and Sennar in Sudan, which Egypt viewed as a threat to its interests and the relations of Egypt and the UK soured. Then the British Governor-General of Sudan was assassinated in Cairo, leading to the Egyptian Prime Minister and the UK High Commissioner exchanging notes that became the main part of the 1929 Nile Agreement.

Following its independence, Sudan repudiated the Nile Agreement on the basis of the legal doctrine of rebus sic stantibus, which provides an escape route from treaties that become inapplicable because of a fundamental change of circumstances.

However, Sudan later in 1959 accepted the Nile Agreement. Upon its independence, Tanganyika and later Tanzania invoked the Nyerere Doctrine by which the UN Secretary General was informed that Tanzania would accept the treaties signed by the UK but that they would remain in force for only two years. Tanzania thus asserted that the Nile Agreement was not binding but also agreed to negotiate a new framework based on just and equitable principles. Uganda and Kenya followed the same approach.

Thus the Nile Basin Initiative which includes Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Eritrea (observer) was formed in 1999. But “tired of first seeking permission from Egypt before using the Nile water for any project like irrigation”, in 2010 five upstream countries - Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda - signed a Cooperative Framework Agreement to seek more water from the Nile.

This is the current reality, unacceptable to Egypt and Sudan, but nevertheless leading to the hydro electricity dam projects in Ethiopia and Uganda. The best approach for Egypt is to appreciate the changed circumstances and talk to the upstream countries and to transform and realign its economy. Threats of war are futile and not helpful.

Mr Ruzindana is a former IGG and former MP.