IN THE BEGINING THERE WAS THE NILE, THEN ALONG CAME DISASTER. How did the Nile go from sustenance of the Horn of Africa to a poisoned chalice that threatens to unravel the fate of nine nations? Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Congo, Rwanda, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt are all joined at the hip by the Nile. Instead of the tie being beneficial, in recent times two camps have emerged. Lead by Egypt, the conservatives want the usage of the Nile to be left as it has always been. Any attempt to renegotiate a myriad of colonial treaties that grant Egypt and Sudan the crocodile share of the waters of the Nile is a declaration of war. The status quo has to remain untouched. Such a view by the lower riparian states is viewed dimly by the rest. Led by Ethiopia, upper riparian states wish to have a piece of the cake baked in the Nile. The so called treaties were never done in good faith, nor was their any consultations with affected states. In the world of today, with none willing to compromise the situation is fraught with tensions and temperatures threaten to boil over.



“Any interference or diversion of the waters of the Nile amounts to a declaration of war on Egypt,”  Abdel-Akher Hammad was quoted saying to a charged Egyptian Parliament. For those not in the know, Hammad happened at the time to be a highly regarded Egyptian politician voicing the sentiments of millions of Egyptians. And another couple of millions Sudanese. For Egypt, the Nile is a Holy Grails that feeds millions, employs thousands and rejuvenates the economy. For a country that imports water, the threat of rationing the Nile is unthinkable.

No other single controversy since the time of the Pharaohs has exercised public imagination and heated temperatures in the Horn of Africa as the Nile water Basin Treaties. While Egypt and Sudan consider the Nile the lifeline of their states, Ethiopia epitomizes the quandary of sovereignty and self interest facing other downstream nations.Egypt and Sudan are the two biggest users of the Nile and according to some study more than 40% of their economy is directly dependent on the waters of the Nile. To them, any slight diversion of this bloodline would cripple their economy. Touching the Nile is killing the golden goose. To Sudan and other upstream nations, they have an exclusive right to use resources within their boundaries. Touting the principle of sovereignty, Ethiopia argues that only God can limit their use of resources within their territorial enclaves. Since the Nile passes within their boundaries, they ought to be free to use it. For reasons that becomes obvious later in the debate, self interest is the driving factor.


However, before we bog ourselves down in the nitty gritty, a look at what begot this scenario is due. At the height of colonial conquest and plundering of Africa a myriad of obsequious treaties were signed by the conquerors to divest amongst themselves their conquest.

In April 1891 the Anglo-Italian Protocol became the first in a stream of assurances of good conduct dodging the Nile. The Italian government in Article III, accepted not to undertake the construction of any irrigation schemes on Nile tributaries that would impair their flow. Unsatisfied by the vagueness in the treaty the British courted Menelik II into penning a treaty between Great Britain and Ethiopia. Under its provision, the property rights to the tributaries of the Nile were surrendered by Ethiopia to Britain. Nothing was ever to be constructed in the major tributaries that would impair their flow into the Nile, except with the approval of Britain(representing modern day Egypt) and Sudan. This has become the most contested of the major Nile treaties signed. The Amharic version crucially differs with the English version on who retained the rights to the waters. Ethiopians also contend that the Shengo (the then parliament) never ratified the treaty.

After ‘securing’ Ethiopia’s cooperation Britain went ahead to consolidate its position. while Ethiopia contributes about 80% of Nile water, the rest originate from Uganda basin of L.Albert and L.Victoria. Britain thereafter roped the Independent State of Congo under Leopold II of Belgium into a treaty in 1906. The State of Congo acquiesced not to allow the blocking of streams draining into L.Albert.

Before the ink had dried on the Agreement with Congo, the Tripartite Agreement was signed in December of the same year. Article 4 bound Italy,Britain and France in acting together to safeguard the interest of Britain ( read Sudan) and Egypt in the Nile Basin. The treaty effectively stripped Ethiopia the last vestiges of sovereignty over the Niles that it may have retained. Today, Ethiopia decries that it was coerced and held at gun point into signing the treaty. Without any army to stop the colossus that was Britain, Ethiopia says it had no option but to sign and as such cannot be held to a treaty that it was coerced  into.

The 1925 exchange of notes between Britain and Italy was the next move in an increasingly muddled waters of the Nile. Italy recognised historical rights of Sudan and Egypt in the waters of L.Tana, the source of Blue Nile. As it stood Britain had effectively railroaded other nations into forsaking their sovereignty over the sources of the Nile.


As the orchestra neared a crescendo, its disconcerting notes were heard in the halls of the League of Nations. The disregard of Ethiopian territorial sovereignty by Britain and Italy was called into question in Assembly Proceedings. Both nations rejected the assertion that their treaties  where eroding Ethiopia’s sovereignty.

In the May of 1929 Egypt and Sudan signed an agreement setting the rules for sharing of the waters of the Nile.The agreement offered Egypt absolute control of the water for the dry season when water is highly valued. The agreement went further to restrict the amount of water that Sudan would be ‘allowed’ to use. No consideration was paid to the needs of other riparian states that form the source of the Nile.

The Nile Waters Agreement of 1959 cemented the primacy of Egypt and Sudan over the Nile water. This treaty formally set out a quantum allocation of the water. Sudan would receive 18.5 while Egypt was to get 55.5 billion cubic metres of water yearly from the Nile. It further allowed both nation to establish dams for irrigation and water storage purposes. Egypt constructed Aswan High Dam while Sudan put up the Rosaries Dam on Blue Nile.

At the international stage, the 1996 Helsinki Rules on the Use of Waters of International serves as the golden standard in the use of international waters.The rules recognise sovereignty of nations by allowing nations to make optimal use of water resources within their territorial enclaves. Since independence the other riparian states, other than Egypt and Sudan, have come forward claiming to have property rights over the waters flowing in their boundaries. The nations point to the Helsinki Rules to support their claims, claiming treaties bind only the signatories while other states are bound by the Helsinki Rules.

The cacophony of treaties that exist all point to a situation where Egypt takes the crocodile share of the Nile waters, Sudan wets it lips on the banks of the Nile. The other riparian states are left high and dry. To correct the situation and establish a mechanism for managing the waters of the Nile, upstream riparian states have launched the Cooperative Framework Agreement. Such an agreement is expected to change the Nile Basin Initiative into a permanent commission to handle all pertinent issues. Egypt and Sudan have however decried the move, terming it a death sentence.


As time pases only one thing remains clear. Population in these states continue to grow increasing the demand for water. Water stress will likely to occur and what the future portends these nations depend on whether agreement can be reached. Amicable solution to the issue remains ideal, but should peaceful means fail the threat of conflict cannot be wished away. While the waters of the Nile have begotten life to deserts, they are just as capable of begetting misery. The life giver becoming the longest rope in the world for hanging nine states or the effluence that drowns the chatter in a flood.

Nkarichia Mugambi Dennis.

Parklands Greens-  School of Law,

Parklands Campus- The University of Nairobi.



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