The Nile: Treaties, Ecosystems, and International Disputes

Travel News — By Natalie Lennox on July 21, 2010 at 12:34 pm

When we think of the Nile, it is usually Egypt that comes to mind. But in the recent chapter of the water war for ownership of the Nile’s water, the upstream African nations want to change that.

Currently, Egypt and Sudan have dual ownership of the water (75 percent belong to Egypt, and remaining 25 percent to Sudan), which dates back to a quirk in British colonial history. The powers upstream – Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, and Rwanda – no longer want to be bound by this dated treaty.  In May, they signed a new treaty asserting their rights to a portion of the river’s flow. Egypt refuses to recognize it. As it stands now, Egypt has full control of the river as soon at it crosses the border from Sudan and passes through the Aswan dam. They have little say about water before it flows downstream to them.

One of the main concerns with redistributing the water prior to it reaching either Egypt or Sudan is not only the socioeconomic health of the Egyptians, but also the health of the river. In current discussion, it doesn’t seem to be much of a priority. Building dams further upstream to siphon and redirect the Nile’s water can result in devastation to areas such as the wildlife rich Sudd wetland in the southern portion of the Sudan, as well as to the vibrant vegetation along the shores in Egypt. Diverting water from one area to another could result in a loss of 25 percent of these precious ecosystems as well as large mammals such as hippos and elephants, to many different bird species.

Both sides have their reason for concern. The Greek historian Herodotus wrote that “Egypt was the gift of the Nile”. This has proved to be true. 75 million of Egypt’s 80 million inhabitants live on or near the rivers delta and valleys. The Nile supplies 95 percent of the water to Egypt. It provides food (in both fishing as well as cash crops), irrigation, drinking water, energy; the Nile is the lifeblood of Egypt, a cultural lifeline.

On the other end of the spectrum (or should I say river…), Ethiopia would like to use their share for hydropower and irrigation projects. The latter is of greater concern to Egypt. (Irrigation projects extract water, while hydropower projects would return the water to the Nile). To complete these projects, they need to dam Lake Tana, the origin of the Blue Nile, which contributes to about 85 percent of the total water flow to Egypt. Egypt has already stated their intent to go into war if they begin the project.

Image: Lake Tana, Ethiopia / Jenn Dyer Flickr

Can a compromise be reached between these nations without compromising the nature and beauty of their countries or the livelihood of their booming populations?

While none of these issues should get in the way of going on a felucca ride during your visit to Cairo, what is cause for worry is the long lasting effects of the outcome of this water war among locals that depend on the river for their very survival.

Tags: Africa, Aswan dam, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nile River, Rwanda, Sudd, tanzania, Uganda


  • rosie says:

    It would be interesting to know what Egypt’s record is when it comes to using the water and the resources of the Nile sustainably. Obviously it has been a life-giving source since ancient times, but I would like to know how much have they degraded the quality of the river ecosystem in more recent years, or if they’ve managed to keep the river’s equilibrium while using it’s resources.

  • tanman says:

    how bout you get a life and not worry about it?


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