Tuesday, May 28, 2024
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Fair and equitable water use on Nile River

The Nile River is one of the world’s great rivers almost 6700 kilometers from its farthest sources at the headwaters of the Kagera River in Burundi and Rwanda to its Delta in Egypt. Ten countries share the Nile River: Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda. The Nile Basin serves as home to an estimated 300 million people within the riparian countries, while 140 million people out of them live outside the boundaries of the Nile Basin and use other water resources that include groundwater sources.

The waters of the Nile are generally utilized for irrigation, hydro-electric power generation, water supply, fishing, tourism, flood control, water transportation and the protection of public health. In particular, the economy of the entire Nile Basin almost entirely consists of agricultural activities of the co-riparian of the Nile. In the upper-basin states of Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Burundi, settled agriculture is the general economic activity. The lower-basin states of Sudan and Egypt are also primarily agricultural economies but, in contrast with the upper-basin states, their agriculture is largely irrigation-based. The economic use of the Nile for purposes of agriculture (particularly irrigation-based agriculture) is, therefore, its most important use. In Egypt, a desert agricultural country, the entire life of the nation is dependent on the river’s waters.

The water of the Nile comes from two sources, the Equatorial Plateau and the Ethiopian Highlands, both of which receive large quantities of rain. The Ethiopian Plateau contributes more than 80 percent of the Nile’s total water supply, while the remainder comes from the lake Plateau of East Africa. During the season, when the river’s water level is low, the white water Nile becomes the most important stream. For some countries, such as DRC, the Nile water is only a small part of their total water resource.

Other countries, as Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, Sudan and Egypt are completely dependent on the Nile River for their water resource. The major determinant of the Nile Basin water balance remains the agricultural sector involving more than 70 percent of the population. The dependence on agriculture by this large sector of the population in spite of its limited share in the GDP may be the most important single factor regarding the poverty prevalent in the Nile Basin.

The water of the Nile basin is a scarce resource in more than one sense. First, the Nile is a source of livelihood for the desert states of Egypt and Sudan. A review of the treaties on the utilization of the Nile and Lake Victoria shows how Egypt has strenuously sought to ensure the security of the water flowing down the Nile. Second, the water is not evenly distributed either over the year or geographically. For instance, Ethiopia contributes approximately 85 percent of the volume of the water which flows annually past Khartoum. Yet most of the Ethiopian heavy rain is confined to a few months of the year and falls only over a part of the country, leaving Ethiopia as a country of perennial droughts and famine. Similarly, the East African states contribute steadier, but much smaller contributions to the Nile. Historically, the reasons giving rise for such unfair status quo can be attributed to British colonialism which had a deep interest in the control of the Nile for its cotton plantations which were to supply its industries in Europe. ‘The colonial treaties and the condominium over Sudan were designed mainly to protect Egypt’s interests in the basin, since for many strategic and economic reasons Egypt had become the most important Nile basin riparian state for the British colonizers’. After independence, Egypt pursued more or less similar goals in securing the flow of the river to meet its own interests.

The conflict in the Nile Basin mainly emanates from the fact that Egypt is more than 95 percent dependent on water that stems from upstream countries; 85 percent of this water stems from the Ethiopian highlands. At present, Ethiopia uses about three percent of its run-off, but it plans to use more in the future and is concerned that Egypt will hinder water development projects upstream. Depending on how upstream development is done, Egypt is concerned that less water could flow downstream.

Ethiopia has never ever accepted unilateral agreements, both in 1929 and 1959 because of the prejudice to the country’s interest. Ethiopia in 1959 asserted, ‘Ethiopia has reserved the right to utilize the water resources of the Nile for the benefit of its people, whatever might be the measure of such waters sought by riparian states’. Regardless of the type of regime in Addis Ababa, the position of Ethiopia is one and only one to have a win-win solution and legitimate right to use the Nile water for the socioeconomic development of the country and the region as a whole. In addition to the historical reference to ‘natural and territorial right’, Ethiopia has to utilize its water to feed the people.

Since antiquity, Ethiopia’s stand for the most part was a win-win situation for both the lower stream countries like (Sudan and Egypt) and itself. Ethiopia as 85 percent contributor to the Nile River still promotes the notions of collective, just and equitable water use among the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) countries. Ethiopia understands the water needs and demands of downstream countries (Sudan and Egypt) which both heavily depend on waters of Nile River for irrigation, transportation, flood-control and power generation.  In its long history Ethiopia did not interfere in other countries affairs nor does it appreciate others making unsolicited interference in its internal affairs. Ethiopia firmly believe in peaceful co-existence with its neighbors including Nile Basin countries advocating for open dialogues, solving regional problems and working towards collective regional peace and development.

For fair and equitable water use of Nile River, Ethiopia needs to develop water use policy frame work to promote the followings for the whole region within Nile Basin countries:


  1. As a founding member of the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) Ethiopia needs to push harder to develop the river in a cooperative manner, share substantial socioeconomic benefits, and promote regional peace and security.

Since the early 1990s, Ethiopia has successfully countered Egyptian and Sudanese resistance to water development projects in Ethiopia to increase irrigation and hydroelectric potential. Since May 2010, Ethiopia and the other upper riparian states have launched the Nile Basin Cooperative Framework Agreement in a bid to ensure an equitable utilization between all the riparian states of the Nile.


  1. To complement Egypt’s water use projection in the coming few decades, the country needs to investigate and implement alternative water desalination and purification technologies (like reverse osmosis) as the technology becomes matured and gets cheaper. 


  1. Egypt needs to assess its governmental and non-governmental institutions, which are involved in maintaining Nile River water use and quality. There are twenty-five agencies under seven ministries, involved in maintaining water use and quality. Unfortunately, their coordination and data sharing is still rudimentary and under developed which led to poor institutional capacity. In addition, there are “Water user Associations” which are non-governmental associations of farmers who organize an irrigation process of all agricultural land and deal with water management and conflict issues. Even though these entities have been around since 1988, they lacked structure and inclusion of women (who are considered major polluters along the bank of River Nile).


  1. In addition, Egypt needs to address two of the major issues impacting the upstream course of Nile River: inefficient water use and severe environmental pollutions. These so called Water use Association (WUAs) need to educate farmers on irrigation methods (like drip irrigation that applies water to the root zone which can reduce water use by 30 to 60 percent), practice crop rotation and deploy better soil management. The lack of planning and corruption within governmental departments, the neglecting of concerns and disbursement of low-quality land to the poor, and the improper education of safe handling methods and improper irrigation and crop management, all contribute to poor Nile water use and quality in Egypt. While most of the river’s water quality is within acceptable levels, there are several hot spots mostly found in the irrigation canals and drainages. Sources of pollutants are from agricultural, industrial, and household waste. There are 36 industries that discharge their pollution sources directly into the Nile, and 41 into irrigation canals. These types of industries are: chemical, electrical, engineering, fertilizers, food, metal, mining, oil and soap, pulp and paper, refractory, textile and wood. There are over ninety agricultural drains that discharge into the Nile River that also include industrial wastewater. The water exceeds the European Community Standards of fecal contamination and there is a high salinization and saline intrusion in the delta.


  1. Even though some political scholars downplay the geopolitical importance of water by arguing that in last century oil fueled more conflicts around the globe, we cannot completely rule out the possibility of hydro politics causing some regional hot spots and conflicts wreaking havocs in the region.

Ed.’s Note: Luel Tekola, PhD, P.E, is an Ethiopian-American who is a structural engineer and construction manager by profession. Currently, he is based in the US; and the views he expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter.  

Contributed by Luel Tekola

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