Why can’t the Nile waters be a source of unity rather than war?

Friday October 23 2020

The Tis Isat Blue Nile falls in Ethiopia’s Bahir Dar region. Colonial agreements made by Britain in 1902 and 1929, and a bilateral treaty between Egypt and Sudan in 1959 gave Cairo the bulk of the Nile waters. FILE PHOTO | NMG


I recall first hearing the narrative on ownership of the Nile waters —Africa’s longest fresh water river — in 1979, as a young girl, while listening to the radio with my grandfather. At that time Egyptian President Anwar Sadat had threatened war if the waters of the Nile were tampered with.

My grandfather said Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania, and Congo shared the Nile’s catchment basin and all wanted the water originating from or passing through their land.

My grandfather and I followed the Nile on a map from Lake Victoria to Egypt. Frowning, my grandfather, said, “I wonder why the Nile cannot be a source of unity rather than war.”

My grandfather knew a lot about war, having fought for the British in both the First and Second World War. Joining the Kenya Land and Freedom Army, (known to the British as Mau Mau) earned him a seven-year jail term at the then colonial Manyani Prison.

Discussions on the Nile waters ownership are raging again, on the amount of water expected to flow into the Ethiopian Grand Renaissance Dam, and Ethiopia’s control of the Blue Nile Gorge, which produces most of the Nile’s water.

The ownership narrative is an old rivalry between the Abrahamic religions in the 12th century that often saw Ethiopian Christians invoke rights to divert Nile waters from Egyptian Muslims.


Years after my grandfather’s lesson, I would fly overhead and marvel at lights glimmering over the mostly desert, dark night, proof of human habitation on the banks of the Nile, increasing as dams, and reservoirs loomed large, concluding as many others had, that the Nile is indeed, life itself.

The raft of Nile treaties fanning the ownership narrative include the 1902 British negotiated agreement for Ethiopian Emperor Menelik II to consult on use of the Blue Nile with Britain committing its colonies Kenya, Tanganyika, Sudan and Uganda.

In 1925, Ethiopia challenged, before the League of Nations, an agreement by Britain and Italy on Lake Tana.

In the 1929 Nile Waters Agreement, British colonies accorded four billion cubic metres of water to Sudan and to Egypt, 48 billion cubic metres of water, all dry season waters and veto power over any upriver water projects.

Ethiopia was not included as it was assumed Lake Victoria and not the uncharted Blue Nile — which provides 80 percent of Egypt’s water — was the main source.

In 1959, the Nile Waters Agreement with the Tanganyika, Uganda, Burundi, and Kenya colonies allocated Egypt 55.5 billion cubic metres of water and Sudan 18.5 billion cubic metres amounting to 99 percent of the river flow and construction of Aswan Dam in Egypt, and Roseires and Khashm al- Girba dams in Sudan.

The Brookings Institution writes of President Julius Nyerere’s 1961 declaration of colonial Nile Waters Agreements not binding Tanganyika since they “placed his country and other upstream riparian states at Egypt’s mercy, forced them to subject their national development plans to the scrutiny and supervision of Cairo,” incompatible to the status of a sovereign independent State.

Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie set aside funding for Blue Nile dams as religious differences resurfaced, with Egypt encouraging Ethiopian Muslims to secede.

Famine-hit Nile countries created the impetus for discussions in the 1980’s between Egypt and Ethiopia, but failed when Egypt began building the Toshka irrigation canal.

In 1999, Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, DRC and Eritrea as observers, launched the Nile Basin Initiative to cooperate, share benefits and promote regional peace and security.

In 2010, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania signed the Nile Basin Cooperative Framework Agreement, rejected by Sudan and Egypt, seeking equitable water sharing. Ethiopia has since built dams on tributary rivers. Various attempts to decide on Nile waters ownership have failed.

The Nile could symbolise regional unity, crafting a new narrative for the 10 countries in the catchment basin.

This new narrative would no longer be about challenges with roots in old treaties imposed by colonial powers or a never-ending discussion on who owns the waters of the Nile.

It would be on strengthening communication between neighbours to promote peace and good faith as equal partners, focusing on the looming danger of climate change, and the rapidly increasing population.

It would mean emphasising exchange programmes, educational and employment opportunities, harnessing agricultural potential of the Nile through technology, exploring alternative water sources, and collectively designing, as Africans, a coherent set of policies designed for each country’s development with due and appropriate consideration to the needs of neighbouring countries.

These steps will go a long way in diffusing tensions, enable unity in diversity and write a new pan-African narrative of the Nile as a unifier not divider!

Wairimu Nderitu is the author of Mukami Kimathi, Mau Mau Woman Freedom Fighter and Kenya: Bridging Ethnic Divides [email protected]