Nile Politics: South Sudan Plans Dam on Nile Tributary

Even before South Sudan’s independence, countries like Egypt became nervous about how the creation of the tenth Nile Basin state would affect the region’s delicate water politics. Would South Sudan side, as Sudan had (and still does), with Egypt and promote the status quo (which gives a large share of the Nile to Egypt)? Or would the new country join the upstream countries, led by Ethiopia, that are demanding a larger share of the Nile for themselves?

After independence, South Sudan struck a conciliatory tone toward both Egypt and Ethiopia, but two developments will definitely attract Egypt’s attention. First, South Sudan wants to formally join the Nile Basin Initiative, the organization that is attempting to resolve the disputes over the region’s water. This request will surprise no one and indeed it makes eminent sense, but it is a reminder to Egypt that South Sudan will soon have to develop a more detailed Nile policy, one that will inevitably tilt in one direction or another.

Second, South Sudan has announced plans to build a hydropower dam near the city of Wau. Wau sits on the Jur River, a tributary of the Bahr el Ghazal River which is itself a tributary of the White Nile. South Sudan’s dam is not intended, it seems to me, as an act of aggression, but the move will remind neighbors that this new country has pressing energy, infrastructure, and resource needs.

Egypt’s new government, judging by its outreach to Ethiopia, wants a solution to the Nile dispute. As the case of South Sudan shows, there are many moving parts in the equation, but it does seem that the status quo will have to change, and in fact may be changing already.

Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, and the Nile

Not to be overly dramatic, but sometimes I feel that water disputes are a harbinger of an apocalyptic, resource-conflict-filled future that awaits most of humanity. Hopefully we can avoid that future – but water disputes, like the one that has broken out concerning the Nile, are worth watching.

Blue Nile, Ethiopia

First, a little background. The Nile Basin Initiative, an organization at the center of the controversy I discuss below, was “formally launched in February 1999” to “provid[e] an institutional mechanism, a shared vision, and a set of agreed policy guidelines to provide a basinwide framework for cooperative action.” Its members are Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda. Eritrea is not a member, though it is home to a small part of the Nile Basin. Wikipedia has a helpful article on “Hydropolitics in the Nile Basin,” which explains that the legacy of colonial-era water rights treaties as well as inequities in use have caused tensions between different countries in the region.

Since 1999, the Nile countries have been working on a treaty, and after long delays they met last week in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt to conclude it. But “Egypt has categorically refused to sign the agreement.” Cairo demands that it be able to “maintain its share of 55.5 billion cubic meters of water from the river — more than half of the Nile’s flow” and also to have “veto power over any new irrigation projects undertaken by the other nine riparian states.” So the talks broke down.

Now, with Ethiopia leading, the other nations are pushing back against Egypt and Sudan:

Ethiopian government spokesman Shimelis Kemal says Egypt is raising technical objections to avoid signing a new framework accord on reallocating shares of Nile River water.  He says seven of the nine member states of the Nile Basin Initiative are going to sign the deal next month, with or without Egypt and Sudan.


Ethiopian spokesman Shimelis says the accord leaves open a controversial provision on water security in hopes Egypt and Sudan could be persuaded to return to the bargaining table.


An Egyptian government spokesman was quoted this week as warning that any framework agreement signed without Egypt and Sudan would mean the death of the Nile Basin initiative.

The National quotes an Egyptian policymaker skeptical of the other countries’ power to decisively affect the situation:

Hani Raslan, the director of the Sudan and Nile basin studies programme at the semi-official Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, said he does not expect any serious decisions on a co-operative agreement within the next 20 years.

“These countries are small and fragile, they have many crises, and they act with Egypt like maybe they think they are superpowers,” Mr Raslan said. “That is not real. Egypt must have the right to do anything to protect its people.”

Kenya’s Daily Nation makes the situation sound even more serious. The paper reports that “Egypt, [a] heavily armed powerful nation, previously threatened military action against water contributing nations if they slow the flow of water to Egypt.”

The conflict has drawn substantial coverage in the African press – from South Africa and Uganda, to name two – offering further evidence of the strong feelings around the issue in the region. Some East African voices are demanding action. The Daily Nation editorializes that “countries of the Nile Basin Initiative must call Egypt’s bluff.” When seven countries sign the agreement in Kampala, Uganda on May 14, they will be doing just that.

I think war is unlikely to break out now. But clearly the riverine nations are eager for a sustainable solution to the conflict. Let’s hope the countries of the Nile can reach an accommodation before that eagerness turns to desperation, on either side.