Governing the Nile

A Thesis Exploring International Water Negotiations in Northeast Africa

Jonglei Project


Shortly after the 1959 Nile Waters Treaty, Egyptian political advisors met with hydrological engineers in Sudan to discuss a new infrastructure project along the Blue Nile. The vessel for their negotiations, the Permanent Joint Technical Commission (PJTC), held ongoing meetings on building a canal in northern Sudan. The suggested enterprise, called the Jonglei Canal, was designed to regulate water flow to Egypt, limit groundwater seepage, and prevent evaporation.132 During early negotiations in the 1960s, both states agreed to share the construction costs and any projected water increases. Multiple problems, however, have stunted progress, and the canal remains unfinished as of 2010. 

There are two reasons why cooperation failed. The first results from similar government orientation during a crucial part of the negotiation process. While the political relations between Egypt and Sudan were rather affable from 1958 to 1985, the inundation of Islamic hardliners into Khartoum politics derailed the positive orientation each government conveyed.133 The second reason is due to an increase in Sudan’s state strength in the 1970s and 1980s. Egypt, a military powerhouse during Gamal Nasser’s tenure, did vary in strength from Sudan, whose oil-rich economy tanked by the late 1970s. The differentiation would theoretically equip Egypt with the requisite influence to coerce Sudan, but the emergence of the Southern Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA) in Sudan splintered the political power in Khartoum.134 As the central government’s defense resources were depleting, the south’s surging military power stymied efforts by German-made bulldozers to begin construction.

Independent Variable Analysis

From 1958-1990, there were three distinct shifts in government orientation and state strength between Egypt and Sudan. In the first period, negotiations were progressing successfully, largely due to a strong variance in government orientation. The following two periods experienced dramatic swings in Sudan’s state strength and orientation caused by Southern Sudan leaders and the rise in Islamic law. By 1990, cooperation remained unsuccessful.

In the first period, Egypt and Sudan’s variables were ideal for cooperation. As a strong hardliner, Egypt’s preferences were as follows (1 = first choice): (1) receive many perks, concede little in return; (2) assume hostile relations; (3) return to the status quo; and (4) concede most issues, receive little benefits. During the same period, Ethiopia was a semi- weak softliner. Its preferences were: (1) receive many perks, concede little in return; (2) concede most issues, receive little benefits, (3) return to the status quo; and (4) assume hostile relations. Juxtaposing these preferences, the strong differentiation in the variables would suggest that Egypt would receive most benefits while Ethiopia would get fewer rewards. During the negotiations, Egypt and Sudan agreed to these asymmetrical benefits, though Sudan’s perks amounted to slightly more than “few.” Despite a spike in Sudan’s military strength caused by southern resistance, the negotiations were too much in an early stage to be affected.

In the second and third periods, Egypt remained a strong hardliner and its preferences did not change. Sudan, however, underwent two major revisions in its government and strength. First, the increasing hostilities faced by Southern Sudan thwarted the central government’s ability to cooperate with Egypt. In the 1970s and 1980s, Nimeiri faced multiple coup attempts, a persistent civil war that highly discouraged canal efforts, and international pressure to alleviate fighting. Southern Sudan enhanced the government’s overall strength because of how pervasive and effective its military was in stopping Jonglei. Therefore, Sudan’s preferences shifted from the first period to: (1) receive many perks, concede little in return; (2) return to the status quo; (3) assume hostile relations; and (4) concede most issues, receive little benefits. Since Egypt had similar preferences, cooperation failed and both states returned to the status quo.65

In the third period, negotiations restarted, but Sudan’s government orientation radically changed after the emergence of Islamic hardliners in 1985. President Omar Bashir isolated Southern Sudan and surprised Egypt by instituting Islamic reforms, eliminating political parties, and verbally accosting Egyptian President Mubarak for not offering more support.170 Consequently, both Egypt and Sudan had hardliner governments and strong states. They both wanted to maximize their benefits. Conceding was not an option. The result was the status quo, because despite being a hardliner, Mubarak’s weak state could not win in a war with Egypt.

Filed under: The Jonglei Plan

1959 Treaty


In 1952, the nationalist Wafd party in Egypt lost their favor in the parliament and was swept out of office by the Free Officers.107 The new Arab nationalist leader, Colonel Gamal al-Nasser, expressed dissatisfaction with the current Nile sharing system between Egypt and Sudan. When Nasser assumed the presidency, Egypt’s water use was based on a previous agreement known as the 1929 Nile Waters Treaty.108 Britain was the sole author of the accord, deciding for itself how much water Anglo-Egypt needed (a lot) and how much their other satellite government in Sudan needed (a little). By the 1950s, however, the increase in demand for cash crops incentivized a revision of the thirty-year old treaty.109 Negotiations began in 1956 and succeeded by 1959, but only after a sudden change in Sudan’s government orientation. In this chapter, I investigate the 1959 Treaty to find a causal relationship between cooperation and the independent variables, state strength and government orientation.

From 1954 to 1958, talks were held in both Cairo and Khartoum. Sudan’s envoy tendered five requirements for a peaceful resolution:

  1. (a)  that the distribution of Nile’s waters was to be decided prior to any construction at Aswan;
  2. (b)  that Sudan has the unilateral right to develop any type of dam, embankment, canal, or hydro-operations post on the Nile or its tributaries;
  3. (c)  that the population living near the river at Wadi Half should receive “alternative livelihoods in some other place in the country” before Nasser raises the river level;
  4. (d)  that any costs necessary for displacing those people should be incurred by Egypt;
  5. (e)  and that Sudan should be allowed to continue plans on the Managil Extension of the Gezira Scheme.120

After deliberating, Egypt acquiesced to (b) and (d), but rejected any changes in distribution that reflected a percentage based system and not a fixed quota. Sudan’s thinking was that if the share ratio was based on population, then they would have the opportunity to receive 1/3 or the total Nile waters which was around 28 bcm—far more than their current usage at 4 bcm.121 Egypt countered the proposal with one of their own; the amount should be divided based on total population and water needs. Presumably, water requirements are constituted of agricultural and industrial needs. Nasser later rescinded the offer, and the proposal died.

After the negotiations failed, Egypt mobilized its army at the Sudan border, apparently to “protect territorial claims.”122 Responding in a tit-for-tat strategy, Sudan placed its forces alongside the border and increased the water capacity at Sennar in preparation for expansion. Then, Sudan asserted outright noncompliance with the 1929 Agreement. At this precarious time, Sudanese leader Abdullah faced a difficult election. The party leaders secretly wanted to oust him, so Abdullah persuaded the army’s senior officials to plot a coup d’état against the party. Although the intended outcome was to centralize power, the plan backfired after the military remained in control without Abdullah.123 The new regime headed by General Ibrahim Abboud “softened the Sudan stance” and agreed to diplomatic negotiations.124

Independent Variable Analysis 

When the independent variables are integrated, Egypt can be characterized as a strong hardliner from 1953-1958. Sudan’s makeup shifts from a weak hardliner to a weak softliner by 1958. In this section, I will elaborate on how both variables translate to preferences that affect the likelihood of cooperation.

During the first five years of negotiations in the 1959 Treaty, Egypt and Sudan had similar positions. As a strong hardliner, Egypt’s preferences were as follows (1 = first choice): (1) receive many perks, concede little in return; (2) assume hostile relations; (3) return to the status quo; and (4) concede most issues, receive little benefits. During the same period, Ethiopia was a weak hardliner. Its preferences were: (1) receive many perks, concede little in return; (2) return to the status quo; (3) assume hostile relations, and (4) concede most issues, receive little benefits. Although there was variance in state strength, the similar orientations indicate that neither state was willing to concede issues. While Sudan’s weaker economy implied that status quo was preferred to war, the government was still resolute in gaining more rewards than Egypt.

In 1958, General Abboud’s softliner regime transformed Sudan’s diplomatic approach and created variance in both state strength and government orientation. Consequently, Sudan’s preferences changed to reflect a less assertive negotiating style. Instead of placing “concede most issues, receive fewer benefits” last, the softliners placed it in second place. Cooperation succeeded.



Filed under: The 1959 Treaty


This web project is an effort to digitize data and results from my BA thesis at Northwestern University outside the confines of a traditional peer-reviewed journal. At the same time, I want to explore experimental interactions between readers/students and scholarly work. In this sense, I am trying to redefine how theses are read and understood. From September 2012 to September 2013, I will be continually updating this site, adding more interactive features and substantive material to better analyze how international water negotiations are conducted.

Author Contact:
Timothy C Wright                                                                                                         BA,Northwestern MSc, London School of Economics

Filed under: About

1902 Treaty


In 1880, Britain became highly interested in Lake Tana, a sixty-mile long natural reservoir that flows from the Blue Nile into Sudan.80 Tana, replenished continuously by Ethiopia’s tropical rivulets, was an ideal site to control the amount and duration of water that reaches Egypt. Shortly after dispatching a team of engineers on a fact-finding expedition to Tana, England mapped an ambitious plan to rig a dam system that would improve the quantity of water toward their colony in Egypt.81 After early negotiations with Ethiopian Emperor Menelek II, the Tana project was approved under the 1902 Treaty, which stipulated restrictions against Ethiopia from tampering with the Blue Nile. Despite this early success, predecessors to the Ethiopian throne derailed British efforts and bewildered the powerful state in the process.

In total, there were three rounds of negotiations. The first round began in April 1899. Menelek argued that he had historical claims to the western region near Gera. Harrington swiftly denied him. The second round also failed because both countries sought to control the Beni Shangul area. Menelek believed Beni Shangul held immense gold reserves and was located near the Blue Nile. Despite these hiccups, Harrington and Menelek considered it their best interest to restart working on a treaty, making concessions along the way.96 After more weeks of negotiations, Harrington received a revised draft. In it, Menelek “altered the frontier south of Melile to his advantage [and] he had inserted a clause about Tsana and the Blue Nile which absolutely knocks the bottom out of the exchange of notes on this subject…”97 Displeased that Menelek was a “slippery customer,” Harrington commented to Ilg, “if he does not settle the frontier within [a short time]…it will be a matter for serious consideration whether we ought not to consider the question of delivering an ultimatum as to what we consider Egyptian territory, and then settle the question once for all.”98 Menelek must have “realized he had reached the limits of Harrington’s patience,” because a week later he conceded his jurisdiction over the Blue Nile.99 In May of 1902, treaty papers were drawn up and signed. While Menelek received expanded territory that included Beni Shangul, England “protected her interests in the Nile Valley and received guarantees concerning the Blue Nile and Lake Tana.”100

Independent Variable Analysis 

From 1870-1902, there were two distinct shifts in government orientation and zero changes in state strength between England and Ethiopia. Therefore, measuring the joint effect of the independent variables can be broken down into two periods, 1875-1889, and 1889- 1902, during which the changes in government orientation occurred. In the first period, cooperation failed, largely due to similar government orientation. Cooperation did succeed in the second period.

In the first period, England was classified as a strong hardliner. It’s preferences were as follows (1 = first choice): (1) receive many perks, concede little in return; (2) assume hostile relations; (3) return to the status quo; and (4) concede most issues, receive little benefits. During the same period, Ethiopia was a semi-strong hardliner. It’s preferences were: (1) receive many perks, concede little in return; (2) assume hostile relations; (3) return to the status quo; and (4) concede most issues, receive little benefits. When these preferences are compared, there is no differentiation in government orientation and only a slight variance in state strength. Consequently, the first preference that is possible for both states is war. Although weak hardliners would prefer not to go to war against strong hardliners, Ethiopia at this time was a “semi-strong” state, which means its economy was extremely fragile, but its military was superb. Therefore, Ethiopia would prefer war to concessions.

In the second term, England’s status as a strong hardliner remained. Its preferences also were the same. Ethiopia, however, changed from a semi-strong hardliner to a semi-weak softliner. While its military strength had remained relatively strong, the leadership altered from the hawkish Yohannes regime to the pragmatic, cautious Menelek government. As a result, its preferences were: (1) receive many perks, concede little in return; (2a) concede most issues; (2b) return to the status quo; and (3) assume hostile relations. Because Ethiopia was a “semi-weak” state, it wavered from 2a to 2b as its most outspoken preference. Since they could possibly defend against another English invasion, Ethiopia decided to push against England until the threat of war was imminent. In the end, both states followed England’s first preference and Ethiopia’s 2a preference. The treaty was signed and England received most of the proposed benefits. While England forfeited small tracts of land, Ethiopia lost an extremely valuable resource, the Nile. From this second interval, the variation in the government orientation changed Ethiopia’s preferences, which allowed both states to come to an agreement.

Filed under: The 1902 Treaty, , , ,

The Players

The Nile’s cardinal users, Sudan, Egypt, and Ethiopia, are the focus of this international political dilemma. Each state wants more water to boost irrigation, supply municipalities, and fuel regional development, yet key differences among them affect their ability to negotiate successfully. These differences are varying levels of (1) economic development, (2) political stability, and (3) interest. Here is a brief overview of the Nile’s major powers.


Egypt represents the heavyweight player.5 Buoyed by a profitable cotton industry and rising urbanization, Egypt’s economy has dominated in agricultural exports, technology, and private capital.6 At its peak in the 1960s, agriculture reached 70% of total exports, but by 2001, its share fell to only 11%.7 Today, large investments in scientific research and financial services have replaced farming as the main source of exports and revenue. The positive growth, however, has sometimes slumped. In the 1960s, President Gamal Nasser’s unsuccessful intervention into North Yemen cost the state significant manpower and resources.8

Alongside Egypt’s strong economy, the political establishment has remained relatively stable since the mid-1950s, except for a few brief periods. Following the post-World War years, the Muslim Brotherhood has occasionally disrupted government actions, but Gamal Nasser’s staunch control over political opposition has limited their effect.9 Furthermore, the brief Israel offensive attack in Sinai known as the 1967 Six Day War, and an Egyptian invasion into the Golden Heights during the 1973 October War have threatened Egypt’s control over its military ranks.10 Lastly, there have been several forced government transitions, either by assassination or coup d’état, but they occurred smoothly and without any revolt.

Due to its lucrative agricultural sector, Egypt’s interest in Nile waters is intensely high. Surrounded by a desert plateau, Egypt rarely receives precipitation, at least not regularly. The lack of a reliable water supply forces the country to rely on the Blue Nile, which flows downstream from Ethiopia, and the White Nile, which circulates from lower Sudan. Extracting heavy amounts of water, therefore, is a high priority. Cairo officials can accomplish this by constructing several reservoirs and dams within their borders, building canals outside Egypt to prevent seepage, and physically pumping water directly out of the river.


Ethiopia, a famine-plagued country, is the economically weakest of the triadic group. Before reforms in the 2000s, a series of pro-military regimes had nationalized most industries and prevented foreign banks from investing.11 These authoritarian tactics paralleled a national epidemic of poverty, which has been a massive impediment to educational development, workforce growth, and literacy rates.12 Despite mild progress in the last seven years, the combination of state-controlled telecommunications and severely limited foreign trade has subverted any growth.13

While the economy remains stagnant, political instability is a crucial threat to Ethiopian governance. First, population rates have risen dramatically over the past two decades, reaching dangerously high levels in the region.14 The massive influx of newborns negatively affects food availability, urban safety, and employment rates. Second, refugee migrations during the Ogden War perturbed local politics enough to destabilize the leadership at Addis Ababa.15 Lastly, Egypt-supported guerilla movements in the 1970s and 1980s assailed state forces in the north, which upended much of the governance structures in place.16

Despite their politically fragile position, Ethiopia needs at least 5 bcm of water to satisfy population requirements and local farming.17 Although the cash crops number a large percentage of the overall exports, they are comparatively less than Egypt and Sudan. The future of Ethiopia’s water needs, therefore, is mostly in public consumption and hydropower. This is due to the climate. Ethiopia’s diverse geography encompasses highly elevated tropical highlands and more low-lying arid steppes.18 Yet, the heavy monsoon season and ragged landscape make it difficult to invest too many resources in agriculture. Elevation, however, is perfect for tapping hydroelectricity, which would benefit both Ethiopia’s economy and population.19


Sudan has one of the fastest growing economies in the world right now.20 After 1998, recommendations issued from the International Monetary Fund revamped their fiscal policy, addressing privatization and trade barriers.21 Since then, Sudan has capitalized on regional oil deposits, which today exudes over 500,000 barrels of oil per day. Even agricultural schemes have expanded, employing up to 80% of the total workforce.22 Despite some current hurdles—farming needs more stable water access and electricity is in high demand—Sudan’s growth was 9% in 2007 and is rising.23

Although Sudan’s economy is bustling, seventy years of armed coups and divisive civil wars have created a mercurial, authoritarian environment at Khartoum. After gaining independence through a guerilla-style coup, Sudan’s leadership has been in flux ever since, changing every ten years following a coup, assassination, or resignation.24 As a result, most rulers, especially General Jaafar Nimeiri, prohibit many individual freedoms, outlaw opposition parties, and cripple non-state media outlets.25 The civil war between northern and southern Sudan, however, has been a bigger impediment to political stability. Spanning more then fifty years, cultural differences between northern Christian Nilotes and southern Nubian tribes have broken out in two major civil wars.26 In 2005, President Bashir granted limited sovereignty to Southern Sudan that placed a moratorium on fighting, but its success is uncertain.27

In terms of Sudan’s interest in Nile waters, their demand has marginally increased since the beginning of Nile negotiations in the early 1950s. Alluvial soils and temperate climate in most regions can permit significantly more irrigation and support population growth.28 Furthermore, since Sudan’s economy and labor force are heavily weighted toward cash crops, any supplemental water would greatly benefit their GDP, employment rates, and trade exports.29

5 Yohannes, Okbazghi. Water Resources and Inter-Riparian Relations in the Nile Basin: the Search for Integrative Discourse. (SUNY Press, 2008): 53.                                                                                   6 EIU Online. “Country Profile: Egypt.” The Economist (22 February 2010).                                           7 Ikram, Khalid. The Egyptian Economy, 1952-2000: Performance, Policies, and Issues. Routledge, 2006.               8 Stephens, RH. Nasser: A Political Biography. (Lane, 1971): 378.                                                   9 Carrie Rosefsky Wickham, Mobilizing Islam: Religion, Activism, and Political Change in Egypt, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), p 163.                                                                                     10 Bonham, Matthew. “The October War: Changes in Cognitive Orientation toward the Middle East Conflict.” International Studies Quarterly, Vol. 23, No. 1 (1979): 3.                                                           11 US Department of State. “Ethiopia: Background Notes.” March 2010.                                                 12 “Ethiopia – 5th Fastest Growing Economy in the World in 2010.” Retrieved 8 March 2010. 13 See Ford, Neil. “Ethiopia: The Economy Moves Forward.” African Business. (March 2003).                           14 EIU, Ethiopia, 2010.                                                                                             15 Ek, Ragnhild. “Refugee Flows on Political Stability in the Sudan.” Ambio, Vol. 20, No. 5, Environmental Security. (1991): pp. 198                  
16 Yohannes, Water, 81.                                                                                             17 Cutler, Peter. “The Political Economy of Famine in Ethiopia and Sudan.” Ambio, Vol. 20, No.5. Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, 1990, pp. 176.                                                                                 18 Crary, Douglas. “Geography and Politics in the Nile Valley.” Middle East Journal, Vol 3, No 3. (Jul 1949): 271.

Filed under: States Involved