Governing the Nile

A Thesis Exploring International Water Negotiations in Northeast Africa

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