Addressing the Transboundary Water Conflict Between the Blue Nile Riparian States

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Case Description
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Geolocation: 12° 0' 0", 37° 15' 0"
Total Population 210 million
Total Area 324,500324,500 km²
125,289.45 mi²
Climate Descriptors Semi-arid/steppe (Köppen B-type), Arid/desert (Köppen B-type)
Predominent Land Use Descriptors agricultural- cropland and pasture, urban- high density
Important Uses of Water Agriculture or Irrigation, Domestic/Urban Supply, Fisheries - farmed, Hydropower Generation, Livestock
Riparians: Ethiopia

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The Blue Nile River originates in Ethiopia where it is joined by the Abtara River and flows through northern Sudan and Egypt before emptying into the Mediterranean Sea. Its catchment area is 324,500 square km, with an average annual flow of 52.62 cubic km. [1] Many countries owe both the continuity and livelihood of their citizens to the Nile and it may be helpful to view it as a “physical and hydrological unit that creates socio-economic realities.”[2] Egypt and Sudan consume the majority of the Nile River flow even though Ethiopia contributes about 86% of the water. This fact, in addition to challenges with “the Nile colonial treaties” and the Nile’s varying cultural and religious significance on national levels, are the source of the ongoing Nile Basin conflict. [3]

There is no basin-wide agreement on the utilization and management of the water resources of the Blue Nile and unilateral planning and implementation, most recently evidenced by Ethiopia’s Grand Millennium Dam project, impacts possibilities for cooperation and increased resource optimization.

The two most downstream countries, Sudan and Egypt, view cooperation with upstream countries, namely Ethiopia, as central to future water policy.

It is estimated that the Nile per capita availability of water is just under 1000 cubic meters/year.

Natural, Historic, Economic, Regional, and Political Framework

A number of agreements concluded during the colonial era of Africa continue to present significant challenges to cooperation and shared management of the Nile. It can be argued that independent nations are not responsible for agreements concluded on their behalf when they were colonies because the Nile Basin acquired a territorial character after independence and because of the doctrine of tabula rasa, or clean state, which outlines that successor states exercise sovereignty of their own by virtue of the transfer of power from the predecessor.[4] However, many of these colonial agreements are cited as the legitimate support for a country’s position and interest in the Nile and their significance to the conflict’s evolution cannot be ignored.

The first of these agreements is the 1902 Treaty between Ethiopia and the United Kingdom, Relative to the Frontiers between the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, Ethiopia, and Eritrea and it is one of the oldest treaties impacting the current conflict between the Blue Nile states. This treaty states that Emperor Menelik II, then Emperor of Ethiopia, agreed “not to construct, or allow to be constructed, any work across the Blue Nile […] which would arrest the flow of their waters into the Nile, except in agreement with His Britannic Majesty’s Government and the Government of Sudan.” (Salman M.A. Salman) Ethiopia rejects this treaty, citing discordance between the English and Amharic versions while Egypt and Sudan insist the treaty is binding on Ethiopia and prohibits Ethiopia constructing any dams on the Nile, like its upcoming Millennium Dam Project.

Another treaty the parties dispute is the 1929 Nile Waters Agreement concluded by Britain on behalf of Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika (now Tanzania), its colonies at the time, as well as Sudan and Egypt. The treaty specifies that any irrigation or electrical generating projects installed along the Nile and its branches must have the prior consent of the Egyptian government. [5] This treaty was designed to eliminate any variation to the quantity or availability of water flowing into Egypt. The East African former colonies, after their independence, rejected the treaty stating they were not party to it and therefore not responsible for upholding it, fueling dispute with Egypt.

Another treaty, a source of bitter dispute between Egypt and Sudan on one hand, and the other Nile riparians on the other, is the 1959 Nile Waters Agreement. The agreement established the “total annual flow of the Nile as 84 billion cubic meters, and allocated 55.5 cubic km to Egypt and 18.5 cubic km to Sudan. The remaining 10 cubic km represent the evaporation and seepage […].” This treaty also sanctioned the construction of the Aswan High Dam in Egypt and the Roseiris Dam on the Blue Nile in Sudan. What this agreement did was allocate the entire Blue Nile between the two countries, giving them the power to decide whether the other riparian states would get a share, and how much they would get. The other riparian states, including Ethiopia, reject this bilateral treaty and argue that they are not parties to it, nor have they ever acquiesced to it.

Additionally, in 1993 Egypt concluded an agreement establishing a framework for political cooperation with Ethiopia. The change of political power in Ethiopia in 1991, with the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Forces at the realm, rendered conflict ripe for cooperation and the leaders of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia shared a vision that the Nile should be used in the interest of all its beneficiaries.

In 1997, the World Bank and the United Nations Development Program, along with other donors, started to facilitate establishment of a more formal framework for cooperation between the Nile riparian states called the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI). One of the main objectives of the NBI has been to develop a cooperative framework agreement and the process to create a Nile Basin Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) was formally established in 1999. This process ran smoothly for upwards of 10 years until “the process ran into some major difficulties as a result of the resurfacing and hardening of the respective positions of the riparians over the colonial treaties, as well as the Egyptian and Sudanese claims to what they see as their acquired uses and rights of the Nile waters.” [5] These divergent issues between downstream and upstream states continue to block the signing of an all-inclusive CFA, necessarily impacting the effective regulation of the Nile.[4] Egypt has the most to gain from the establishment of a basin-wide framework for water resources development because it can ill-afford a future in which upstream riparians take unilateral action with respect to water development projects. [6]

In a post-colonial era there is now room for the basin states to act bilaterally and multilaterally on resources of interstate concern and, with increased cooperation, the dialogue can move from the mutually exclusive positions of individual states or blocs of upstream or downstream nations towards water sharing and “basin-wide cooperation that strives to achieve a balance between the water demands of each co-basin state.”[1]States should abandon their previous hard bargaining tactics and instead “Adopt a non-zero-sum approach that emphasizes problem-solving and value creation through technology innovation, reframing, and trades of all kinds.”[7]

Issues and Stakeholders

Access to Water for Irrigation

NSPD: Water Quality, Governance, Values and Norms
Stakeholder Types: Sovereign state/national/federal government, Development/humanitarian interest

More than 86% of water in the Eastern Nile Basin is used for agriculture and, since irrigation is the main consumptive water use, it is the most contentious issue between the states. (Salah El-Din Amer et al) “The FAO estimates that the amount of irrigable land in the Nile Basin is greater than the amount of water available in the Basin” so it is clear why irrigation presents a challenge to the states. (Salah El-Din Amer et al)


Ethiopia - Ethiopia urgently needs water for irrigation and “successive Ethiopian governments have perceived the nation’s water resources as a key component of economic development” and view water as an economic good. [1]

Sudan - Sudan has an abundance of land available for irrigation but is in a precarious position and has limited access to water because it is upstream of Egypt and downstream of Ethiopia. The northern part of the country is desert or semi-desert, including the Sahara Desert, and the most southern quarter of the country is full of swamps.[8]

Egypt – Egypt is increasingly concerned about access to water for agricultural purposes, most recently evidenced in the Jonglei canal project. This project was started, but not completed, and was intended to divert water from the Sudd wetlands of South Sudan to deliver more water to Sudan and Egypt for agricultural purposes

Hydro-electric power and other water development projects

NSPD: Water Quantity, Assets
Stakeholder Types: Sovereign state/national/federal government, Development/humanitarian interest, Industry/Corporate Interest

The countries along the Blue Nile have differing concerns about the increase in water development projects on the Nile. Only 1% of the estimated potential of hydro-electric power development in the Nile Basin has so far been realized but the greatest development potential, about 58% of the total in the Basin, is located in Ethiopia.[9] Hydro-electric power, and other water development projects, is needed to support economic alternatives to agriculture. Some models conclude that “new reservoirs in Ethiopia would have significant positive impacts on hydropower generation and irrigation in Ethiopia and Sudan” but far less positive externalities for Egypt. [10]


Ethiopia – The country experiences periodic drought and famine but, due to the fortuitous availability of several naturally existing ‘heads’ along the streams of the Blue Nile, Ethiopia has a “comparative advantage for producing and selling hydroelectric power to its neighbors, including Sudan and Egypt.” [1]

Sudan – Sudan’s access to Nile water is extremely dependent on the basin states’ shared vision for water management.

Egypt – Water is a key security issue for Egypt, particularly because it is the lowest riparian state of the Combined Nile and it is extremely concerned by any water development initiatives conducted by its upstream neighbors.

Erosion and Sedimentation

NSPD: Water Quantity, Water Quality, Ecosystems
Stakeholder Types: Sovereign state/national/federal government, Environmental interest

The Nile countries also face the common, non-water problem of erosion upstream and sedimentation downstream that, along with future pollution hazards, need to be addressed cooperatively.


Ethiopia – Ethiopia’s annual loss of topsoil in the Nile Basin is estimated at more than 520 million cubic meters.[1]

Sudan – Sudan is seeing increased levels of silt accumulation in its downstream reservoirs and irrigation channels, negatively affecting both agricultural production and its capacity to produce hydro-electric power. [1]

Egypt – Egypt is seeing increased levels of silt accumulation in its downstream reservoirs.[9]

Analysis, Synthesis, and Insight

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Suggested Negotiation Approaches for Mitigating the Ongoing Blue Nile Conflict

The key to mitigating the negative effects of power asymmetry in water negotiations is to expand the proverbial pie by creating additional value and diversifying the menu of negotiating agenda items. This should include efforts to move away from viewing the Nile as a fixed resource towards the efficient and effective use, reuse, and repurposing of the Nile waters.

Contributed by: Tameisha Henry (last edit: 13 May 2013)

Key Questions

Influence Leadership and Power: How does asymmetry of power influence water negotiations and how can the negative effects be mitigated?

In this Blue Nile River transboundary conflict we see that the power balance, initially based on colonial agreements that gave Egypt and Sudan veto rights over any Nile River flow diversions, is now determined by a state’s location, upstream or downstream, on the Nile. Upstream nations, particularly Ethiopia, are in a strong position as the only considerations preventing their unilateral water development projects are international censorship and the opportunity costs of not being able to conduct other business, like agricultural trade, with neighboring states.

The power structure in this regional conflict is dynamic and there have been significant recent changes to the geopolitical framework that cede additional power to Ethiopia. The weakening of Sudan, with the protracted conflict and the partitioning of the country into two states, paired with the international isolation of the Sudanese president, has shifted power in Ethiopia’s favor and rendered Khartoum immobile in maneuvering the Nile conflict. Further, as Chinese investment continues to target Ethiopia the Western world is similarly refocusing its largesse to Ethiopia. Additionally, the outbreak of civil turmoil in Egypt on 25 January 2011 leading to the fall of Mubarak, followed closely by Ethiopia’s unilateral start of the construction of its Grand Millennium Dam in April 2011 have changed the negotiating climate between the states.[11]

For Ethiopia, the negotiating agenda includes more than just the Nile water. As the power center to the conflict the country likely views any shared access to the water as a concession and, in return, Ethiopia would be looking for support for its hydro-electric projects and other menu items like trade agreements. By diversifying the menu of negotiating agenda items and viewing water as flexible resource with value-creating possibility we can avoid the hard-bargaining stalemate that gives Ethiopia power because “[…] the mere existence of a structural power asymmetry dictates that the larger societal goal of the higher-power group is to maintain the structural status quo and thereby preserve its own power, while the lower-power group’s goal is to get a bigger share in the balance of power between the groups.”[12]

Downstream nations like Sudan and Egypt are reliant on the cooperative spirit of upstream nations for access to the water. Of course, they could probably rely on international intervention in the event of an upper riparian state unilaterally blocking access to water but they can also use other economic incentives, like access to trade markets, to procure cooperation. However, the reality for these nations states is, perceptively, they have a weak hand at the negotiating table and their dissent to any negotiated agreements may cause a political stir but has limited impact on the water management of the Nile.

In addition to creating value by diversifying the negotiating agenda with water and non-water issues, the power imbalance in this conflict could be assuaged by diversifying the kinds of power at the negotiating table. Negotiating power can be defined as “an ability to influence the decisions of others assuming they know the truth.”[13] While Ethiopia does have the benefit of geographic power, lower riparian states can come to the negotiating table armed with the power of a good alternative to negotiating, the power of an elegant solution, the power of legitimacy, and the power of commitment. By viewing the Blue Nile as an interconnected watershed and problem-shed the Nile riparian states may be able to develop water sharing frameworks that improve overall cooperation and participation between the states, increase the flexibility of the water resource, and balance the states’ need for water with responsible ecological use of the water.

The given value was not understood.

  1. ^ 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 Arsano, Yacob and Imeru Tamrat. "Ethiopia and the Eastern Nile Basin." Aquatic Sciences 67, no. 1 (2005): 15-27.
  2. ^ Hefny, Magdy and Salah El-Din Amer. "Egypt and the Nile Basin." Aquatic Sciences 67, no. 1 (2005): 42-50.
  3. ^ Abebe, M. "The Nile--Source of Regional Cooperation Or Conflict?" Water International 20, no. 1 (1995): 32-5.
  4. ^ 4.0 4.1 Kasimbazi, Emmanuel B. "The Impact of Colonial Agreements on the Regulation of the Waters of the River Nile." Water International 35, no. 5 (2010)
  5. ^ 5.0 5.1 Salman M.A. Salman "The Nile Basin Cooperative Framework Agreement: a peacefully unfolding African spring?" Water International 38, no. 1 (2013): 17-29.
  6. ^  Waterbury, J. and Dale Whittington, “Playing chicken on the Nile? The implications of microdam development in the Ethiopian highlands and Egypt's New Valley Project.” Natural Resources Forum, 22: 155–163 (1998),
  7. ^ Islam, Shafiqul and Lawrence E. Susskind. Water Diplomacy: A Negotiated Approach to Managing Complex Water Networks, New York: RFF Press, 2013.
  8. ^ Hamad, Osman El-Tom and Atta El-Battahani. "Sudan and the Nile Basin." Aquatic Sciences 67, no. 1 (2005): 28-41,
  9. ^ 9.0 9.1 Amer, Salah El-Din, Yacob Arsano, Atta El-Battahani, Osman El-Tom Hamad, Magdy Abd El- Moenim Hefny, Imeru Tamrat, and Simon A. Mason. "Sustainable Development and International Cooperation in the Eastern Nile Basin." Aquatic Sciences 67, no. 1 (2005): 3- 14.
  10. ^ Goor, Q., C. Halleux, Y. Mohamed, and A. Tilmant. "Optimal Operation of a Multipurpose Multireservoir System in the Eastern Nile River Basin." Hydrology and Earth System Sciences 14, no. 10 (Oct 12, 2010): 1895-908.
  11. ^ Sanchez, Nadia and Joyeeta Gupta. "Recent Changes in the Nile Region may Create an Opportunity for a More Equitable Sharing of the Nile River Waters." Netherlands International Law Review 58, no. 3 (2011): 363-85.
  12. ^ Rouhana, N.N. and S.H. Korper. “Dealing with the Dilemmas Posed by Power Asymmetry in Intergroup Conflict.” Negotiation Journal 12, no. 4 (1996): 353-366.
  13. ^ Fisher, R. “Negotiating Power: Getting and Using Influence.” In Negotiation Theory and Practice,ed. J.W. Breslin and J.Z. Rubin, 127-140. Cambridge: PON Books, 1991.

Facts about "Addressing the Transboundary Water Conflict Between the Blue Nile Riparian States"RDF feed
Area324,500 km² (125,289.45 mi²) +
ClimateSemi-arid/steppe (Köppen B-type) + and Arid/desert (Köppen B-type) +
Geolocation12° 0' 0", 37° 15' 0"Latitude: 12
Longitude: 37.25
IssueAccess to Water for Irrigation +, Hydro-electric power and other water development projects + and Erosion and Sedimentation +
Key QuestionHow does asymmetry of power influence water negotiations and how can the negative effects be mitigated? +
Land Useagricultural- cropland and pasture + and urban- high density +
NSPDWater Quality +, Governance +, Values and Norms +, Water Quantity +, Assets + and Ecosystems +
Population210,000,000 million +
RiparianEthiopia +
Stakeholder TypeSovereign state/national/federal government +, Development/humanitarian interest +, Industry/Corporate Interest + and Environmental interest +
Water UseAgriculture or Irrigation +, Domestic/Urban Supply +, Fisheries - farmed +, Hydropower Generation + and Livestock +
Has subobjectThis property is a special property in this wiki.Addressing the Transboundary Water Conflict Between the Blue Nile Riparian States +