Perceptions and Realities
Perceptions and realities of water and conflict in basins such as the Nile vary widely. The river continues to be brought into debates about “water wars” by writers on the subject. Visions of future conflict continue to capture the imagination of the international media. As recently as 1999, a BBC report on Africa’s waters could still state that:
The main conflicts in Africa during the next twenty-five years could be over that most precious of commodities – water, as countries fight for access to scarce resources … the possible flashpoints are the Nile, Niger, Volta, andZambezi basins. 
Problems with portraying Africa’s waters – and the Nile especially – in this light have always existed, but continuing to do so increasingly contradicts evidence that the contrary process is at work, namely moves towards greater cooperation rather than conflict.
One of the major problems with the “water wars” thesis is that it includes only a cursory understanding of “scarcity” issues, and of the actual facts and figures that underlie much of the analysis. Commonly, a threshold figure of 1,000 cu m per person per year is provided as the level below which states are said to be “water scarce.” In the case of Nile Basin states, this ranks Burundi, Rwanda, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Kenya all as water “scarce” by 2025, and depending on population growth, they may possibly be joined by Tanzania.
The continuous growth of the population of the Nile Basin is one of the factors dominating these calculations. Population growth has already encouraged abstraction of groundwater, especially for domestic water supply, in both rural and urban areas without any corresponding increase in surface water resources. More than 5 percent of the water used in Egypt is groundwater. The groundwater in the Sudan is pumped from the aquifers underlying wadi beds such as the Gash, Howare, and Nyala. For rural communities, in particular, these are essential sources for domestic purposes. Safe abstraction of groundwater can provide a quick solution for small-scale projects, but in the long term will not provide basin-wide solutions to shortages in key sectors such as agriculture.
Categorizations of scarcity are usually based on an assumption about water use in each country that rarely receives careful attention. Most critical in this respect is that the threshold figure should include water for all uses, that is, including food production. In fact, many states – and Egypt is an important example – no longer rely on actual water resources in combination with land and other natural resources to achieve food security, but instead import large quantities of food, and in so doing come to rely on trade in “virtual water” to sustain national food security.
Another key problem is that notions of scarcity are based on a static view of the internal capacity of states to change in response to dwindling resource availability – what has been termed their “adaptive capacity.” For this reason future projections of scarcity – such as those given for the Nile Basin states above – presuppose that states will not adapt effectively in the meantime, and that there are not major differences in capacity to cope with change between different states, either economically, socially, or both (the work of Ohlsson, Turton, and others takes the argument further).
For other authors, the notion of scarcity itself is sometimes part of a construction used by particular interest groups in order to legitimize certain development processes, including, for instance, the construction of major water management schemes and dams . Taken together, these conceptual challenges demand a more careful reading of current and future scarcity of water resources, and militate against drawing overly simplistic conclusions about growing scarcity causing future conflict.
Notwithstanding these conceptual challenges, the water wars thesis is used by decision makers and by political leaders in order to focus attention on global resource issues – and their particular basin concerns. In the main, these serve immediate political ends. Boutros-Boutros Ghali is on record as stating in the mid-1980s that “The next war in the Middle East will be fought over water, not politics.” And in the mid-1990s Ismail Serageldin of theWorld Bank warned that “If the wars of this century were fought over oil, the wars of the next century will be fought over water – unless we change our approach to managing this precious and vital resource.” Such concerns and warnings rarely attempt to interrogate the realities of conflict over rivers such as the Nile, but instead feed on widely perceived notions of insecurity and vulnerability within domestic populations. These feelings are often driven by public perceptions of the challenges facing shared river basins and their societies, and the political actors are feeding on and responding to those perceptions. Some of these wider perceptions will also have resulted from external factors such as the impact of drought in the Horn of Africa and on Nile flows during the 1980s.
Nevertheless, confounding much of this skepticism, in the 1990s the countries of the Nile Basin in fact moved towards greater cooperation and joint development rather than conflict. In spite of tensions often being raised by political rhetoric within the basin, a broader vision of future cooperation constructed by the basin states has established unprecedented political cooperation in overcoming past rivalries and uneven development of co-riparian states. This article examines the context and development of this process, and draws out key lessons emerging for the future development of the basin and, more broadly, for global attempts at shifting other basins from conflict to cooperation, and then to joint development.
Initiatives and Challenges
Addressing the challenge of moving towards greater cooperation and joint development has been central to theNile Basin Initiative (NBI), a riparian-led process of joint decision making and cooperative development that emerged during the 1990s. In the last five years nine of the ten Nile Basin states (with Eritrea observing) have been exploring the development of the NBI in partnership with key external agencies, including the World Bankand bilateral donors. The NBI has both built on and added to a basic underlying set of enabling relations between states and the willingness of key basin states to move from “unilateralism” to “multilateralism” in resource development.
The development of this process was premised on two major assumptions: that the basin states could agree on a common vision “to pursue,” and that they would agree to form two distinct sub-basin entities. The common vision (discussed later in the article) brought about a broad target for the process of subdividing the basin and developing two distinct yet interrelated basin development programs: the Eastern Nile Subsidiary Action Program and the Nile Equatorial Lakes Subsidiary Action Program. This process has subsumed national-level decision making beneath a broader basin-wide framework, but with national level objectives built into the range of future development options and projects. The process involved is discussed in more detail later in this article. The political feasibility of the 1990s enabled much of this process to take place, and provided the basis for its mainstreaming within national-level political processes.
The end of the cold war and the problems of “satellite state” politics in the region were major contributory factors in greater feasibility; another was the actual realization amongst basin states that in order to manage the river in the future, greater joint development of the resource would have to take place under a broader cooperative framework. The drought experience in a key part of the basin during the 1980s helped to form this perception.
From Cooperation to Socioeconomic Development
Developing cooperation on the Nile is a major achievement of international diplomacy within the region. It has created an environment of joint cooperation, and political will to move development processes forwards. However, the generation of support and effective development processes at all levels of society is the next major challenge. In moving a step beyond development of cooperative institutions and processes to the creation of effective developments that derive benefits at all levels within the basin, the NBI has set itself a new challenge in river basin management, and one that embeds basin-level processes in far wider African development issues.
The socioeconomic development framework requires that the benefits can be generated and shared within the basin (and within the basin states – the two not being synonymous), and that the benefits can be targeted to local-level socioeconomic developments that address very real problems of poverty reduction. Under the Shared Vision Program (SVP) of the Nile Basin Initiative the Socioeconomic Development and Benefit Sharing Project document states that:
The development objective of this project is to support the SVP by enabling the riparians to form a range of basin-wide development scenarios, and specify the benefits accruing from the implementation of such scenarios (together with some notion of how benefits will be shared). Fundamentally, the project aims to provide an opportunity for riparian dialogue that can include a wide range of society and that will develop common visions of cooperative development in sectoral or thematic areas. (NBI SDBS, 2001)
One of the key concerns mentioned in the document is the extension of involvement in the Nile Basin Initiative beyond the state – that is, to include a wide range of society. In the process to date, and the wider construction of new political environments, the main actors in the NBI have worked at the state level. Two key issues arising out of this process are first, how to incorporate the visions and beliefs of society at all levels within this wider basin vision in order to ensure that ownership has both depth and breadth; and second, how to ensure that non-state, civil society actors also have a voice in the kinds of program that are being established.
In Figure 2, “A” represents the spectrum of national views incorporated within the core NBI vision. (See originalpublication). On either side are “peripheral” visions, or the wider thinking and views present in society on development options, the sharing of benefits and issues of governance, including participation, representation, and accountability. Key concerns in Figure 2 are the “wider” periphery where basin developments have regional or even continental-scale repercussions, and the narrower, lower-level visioning of the process. In effect, whose process are we talking about: a national broad-based vision, or the vision of local communities whose needs and concerns are more narrowly defined by the need to survive and develop within frequently adverse socioeconomic, political, and natural environments? Both the breadth of the vision and the depth require careful linkage. In this the NBI can build very strong developmentled processes that, in the final analysis, are rooted in the wider African political economy.
The Nile Basin
The geography of the Nile Basin is both distinct and varied. From the most remote source at the head of the River Luvironzo near Lake Tanganyika, to its mouth on the Mediterranean Sea, at 6,500 km the Nile is the longest river in the world. Some 2.9 million km2 in extent, overall the basin drains about 10 percent of the continent. But the geographical and political linkages go beyond the basin itself – the ten Nile Basin states embed Nile Basin processes within the wider social and economic development of Africa across all major parts of the continent.The ten Nile countries link processes in southern Africa to northern Africa and the Mediterranean, development inCentral Africa to the West African Atlantic coast, and the regional systems of the Middle East to the Indian Ocean.
From the highest point at 5,120 m above sea level in the Ruwenzori mountain range, to the Quattarah Depression, at 159 m below sea level, the river channel consists of flat reaches in certain sub-basins presently linked by steep channels. Within this basin the topography is diverse. The highlands of the Ethiopian Plateau and the “Mountains of the Moon” in Central Africa give way to the lowland pastoral plains of Sudan and the deserts of Egypt. Tropical vegetation, snow-capped peaks, and some of the driest areas in the world, as well as some of the largest bodies of inland waters, can be found along the basin’s length and breadth.
The huge Congo–Nile watershed is home to internationally important rainforest areas. The Lake Victoria basin and southwestern Ethiopia include key areas of genetic plant diversity, and important dry lands and arid zone habitats emerge as rainfall decreases to the north (NBI TEA, 2001). One of the most dramatic natural features is the globally important wetland area of the Sudd in southern Sudan, which at 30,000 km2 is one of the largest wetland areas in the world.
One of the key geopolitical features of the basin is the large number of national borders that traverse it. This is largely the result of European colonial or condominium occupation in the nineteenth century. With the exception of Ethiopia, whose border definition was itself a response to European colonial expansion in and around the state, border issues remained contentious in a number of places even up to the late twentieth century. The criss-crossing of borders ensures little congruence between state boundaries and the basin’s physical or human geography: as a result, the proportions of basin area within each state and the extent of state contributions to the basin area vary widely, as depicted in the Figure bellow.
Most major basins spanning such areas include highly diverse environments, so the Nile is not exceptional in this respect. Nevertheless, the complexity of the number of states, combined with the uneven distribution of the basin between states and the complex hydrology of the system, poses significant technical and institutional challenges both for the management of shared waters and, in the future, for ascertaining where and how benefits can and should be shared within and outside the basin.
The Nile’s hydrology has preoccupied basin residents for thousands of years, and with good reason. A large portion of the basin flows is highly seasonal, and the overall flow range is susceptible to major inter-annual and decadal fluctuations. Since the end of the nineteenth century – and in particular following British control of a key part of the Nile Basin – major hydrological investigations were undertaken to try to devise methods of controlling the river system in order to facilitate its exploitation. The flows of the Nile have been measured for thousands of years, and the origins and reasons for variations preoccupied many of the Nilotic societies. The Nilometers at Roda Island in Cairo and elsewhere along the river are testament to the huge task of trying to grapple with the fickle flows of the Nile.
Major supply structures and approximate extent of basin
Of particular concern for downstream riparian societies in the most arid parts of the basin were the seasonal and inter-annual peaks and troughs. These would effectively control the prosperity of the riparian societies, almost wholly dependent on river flows for agricultural production. For up to eight millennia, the very unreliability of the flow has preoccupied communities.
That the flow could vary from year to year as well as seasonally has been recorded for many thousands of years and the awareness of Egypt’s cycles of lean years followed by years of plenty was part of the way of life of people residing in the lower Nile valley before the filling of Lake Nasser/Nubia in the 1960s. (Sutcliffe and Lazenby, 1994, introduction)
The key hydrological characteristics of the river are its two major origins: in the highlands of Ethiopia and Eritrea, and in the Nile equatorial lakes region. The former provides the major flow of the Nile north of Khartoum – the Blue Nile – and the latter the far lower and slower flows of the White Nile. While the catchment of the Blue Nile is small relative to that of the White Nile, high rainfall from June to September means that it is by far the greatest contributor to main Nile flows – some 60 percent of the total. The White Nile, by contrast, is derived from rainfall in the equatorial lakes region around Lake Victoria – at 69,500 km2 the world’s second largest lake – but provides a mere 30 percent of flows as measured at Aswan.
The second major feature of the hydrological system is the huge seasonality of the Blue Nile’s flows, concentrated from July to October in a spectacular flood.
From the point of view of basin development the main interest in the hydrology of the Blue Nile within Ethiopia is for flood forecasting for reservoir operation and to give warning of possible inundation in Khartoum and in the agricultural areas downstream.(Sutcliffe and Lazenby, 1994)
This massive spate is roughly equivalent to seventy times its low season discharge, and brings with it huge quantities of silt. These have literally provided the building blocks of downstream Nilotic societies for millennia.
The difference in the two major river regimes is marked: while the White Nile’s average monthly maximum (October) and minimum (February) discharges vary only slightly from 1.4 billion cubic meters (bcm) to 1.2 bcm, theBlue Nile and associated rivers (Atbara – which joins the main Nile at Atbara north of Khartoum – and the Sobat which joins the White Nile just as the river emerges from the Sudd) vary greatly from a high of 15.6 bcm in August to just 0.3 bcm in April.
This seasonal variation has posed a key challenge to river basin planners and agriculturalists alike: how to capture and store the river’s waters for more gradual release. At a more fundamental level, but one that has been beyond the capacities of societies within the basin for the greater part of their history, has been the challenge of how to overcome the (sometimes) disastrous inter-annual variations in flow as well.
Over the years, fluctuations in the flow of the Blue Nile have contributed changes in mean annual discharge of plus or minus 20 percent, with very severe consequences for water management in Egypt and Sudan (Conway and Hulme, 1996). The mitigation of major inter-annual variation was the task of the “Century Storage” scheme developed as a concept during the first half of the twentieth century. The idea was to capture a whole annual flood in order to fully control and regulate the river’s flow. This would enable states to maximize resource use efficiency. In part the idea was realized in Aswan High Dam, constructed in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but with some major human and environmental costs.
A third major feature of the river system is caused by virtue of the river’s situation in hot, arid areas whereevaporation losses are high. By far the most significant losses are in the Sudd in southern Sudan. Between entry and exit the river loses up to 50 percent of its original flow. This loss to the system for Egypt and Sudan has meant significant shortfalls in summer months, when flows from the Blue Nile reach their lowest point. Therefore, enabling greater White Nile flows during this period has important economic consequences, even though it is only a relatively small proportion of annual flows. Reducing this loss was at the heart of attempts to speed up the flow through the Sudd via the Jonglei Canal Scheme.
The figure bellow illustrates the variance between “export” and “import” of water. The major production of water by Ethiopia – but low capture of the resources – is contrasted with Egypt’s low internal renewable resources. This marks the nature of dependence on water from upstream catchment to downstream states in the Nile Basin. It goes a long way towards illustrating the reason the Egyptian claim on historic or acquired rights to the waters became its main stated position on the Nile waters for so long.
Similarly, for Ethiopia, the massive amount of water generated by the huge annual rainfall, but the fact that nearly all of the 111 bcm flowed to neighboring states, prompted (until the last decade) the “sovereign right” position to use the waters within its territory for its own national development. For Ethiopia the loss of huge volumes of soil in the annual flood also underlined the fact that it could be resource rich and poor at the same time unless the resources could be harnessed more effectively. The nature of dependence on resources received externally against internal renewable resources is illustrated in Figure 6. (See original publication)
Not surprisingly the huge dependence on external flows in Egypt and Sudan has driven major supply-side developments, seeking to both capture and regulate the river’s flows. This has progressed throughout the twentieth century, and now constitutes the main system of regulating the river’s flows. They are, as well, largely constructed to suit a particular set of demands and legal and institutional structures established between Egypt and Sudan, in particular. The future challenge of ensuring that cooperation leads to development in the future may require changes in the way supply structures are used, as well as the inclusion of new structures in upstream countries.
The north–south orientation of the River Nile on the African continent ensures extreme variability in climate between the extremes of the basin. The Nile Basin receives annually an average rainfall of about 650 mm, or a total of about 1,900 bcm per year. Long-term mean annual flow at Aswan is about 85 bcm per year, making the annual runoff coefficient of the basin around 4.5 percent. This figure is small and, for example, is just 10 percent of that of the Rhine. The reason for this is found largely in those parts of the basin belonging to the arid and hyper-arid zones that are large in surface area, and contribute only negligibly to basin runoff. With losses from major swamp areas as well, up to 30 percent of the rainfall the Nile Basin receives in an average year is lost before being used for any purpose.
The Nile Basin’s climate range varies between extreme aridity in the north (Egypt and Sudan in particular) to tropical rainforest in Central and East Africa and parts of Ethiopia. On the Ethiopian massif, the key contributor of Nile flows, the kiremt rains produce the main June to November spate. This spectacular phenomenon is the combination of three mechanisms: the move of the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) (summer monsoon) over the highlands, before retreating again, the tropical “upper easterlies,” and local convergence in the Red Sea coastal region. The resulting rainfall is often intense, and causes rapid runoff leading to major soil loss.
Changes to the pattern and movement of the ITCZ cause major shifts in rainfall across Ethiopia and neighboring countries, particularly in association with the varied topography in the region. In some years the northeastern highlands of Ethiopia are particularly badly affected by low and unpredictable rainfall patterns, contributing to severe crop failure, and at times major famine.
One of the key factors affecting this rainfall variability is the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO), the occurrence of positive anomalies in sea surface temperatures over the Central and Eastern Pacific Ocean, which can have dramatic global impacts on regional weather systems. In the case of the Nile, studies have shown significant correlation between the ENSO index in May and Ethiopia’s Kiremt rainfall. Whetton and Rutherford (1994, cited by Conway et al., 1997)showed that Nile floods were significantly lower than average in all El Niño years, but that the strong relationship develops only after 1830 and continues up to the 1980s.
These variable rainfall patterns in recent years have prompted major efforts at better forecasting in the basin. In particular, the successive years of low rainfall during the mid-1980s, with floods in some years barely half a “normal” year, led to a decline in the level of Lake Nasser/Nubia to such an extent that by the time a major rainfall event occurred in August 1988 the turbines were just short of being turned off.
This experience had the dual impact of illustrating how vulnerable Egypt could be to successive low flows in the absence of the High Dam, but also the importance of a more integrated basin-wide management regime for Egypt’s water security. Successive low-flow years would require more than one massive structure to help achieve greater water security in the future; upstream augmentation of flows would also be important.
Demography and Society
Given the large number of countries, the reach of the basin across Africa, as well as the range of agro-ecological zones, the human geography of the Nile Basin is extremely diverse. The ten states that comprise the basin cover some 300 million people, of which about 150 million live within the Nile Basin itself. The basin also boasts some ofAfrica’s major cities, from Dar es Salaam, Kampala, and Nairobi to Addis Ababa, Khartoum, and Cairo. The latter alone accounts for probably in the region of 10 percent of the basin’s total population.
The rich human geography is characterized by great ethnic, religious, and cultural diversity, cutting across national as well as basin boundaries with neighboring watersheds. This increases the complexity of the Nile’s interrelationships with wider African social, political, and economic systems. For decision makers and managers this adds layer upon layer of complexity to the ways in which the Nile Basin Initiative will develop and implement projects based on the equitable sharing of benefits between states and the ethnic groups which they comprise and, in many cases, share. Even a single state can have great diversity: Ethiopia alone, for instance, has over fifty languages and is roughly split between Muslims and Christian populations, with significant animist minorities.
Equally as important as ethnicity is the range of livelihoods associated with the demographic characteristics of the basin. For many populations within the basin, subsistence production is the mainstay of their survival, whether through pastoral livestock production in the lowlands of Ethiopia or the Sudd region of southern Sudan, or highland agriculture in countries including Rwanda, Burundi, Eritrea, and Kenya. In many cases these livelihoods are linked to particular ethnic and/or religious identities, and changes wrought externally in policy decisions over resource management can therefore have important socioeconomic as well as political consequences. In the case of Ethiopia, balancing the needs of particular ethnic regions and wider national development goals has led to the creation of a federal system based on ethnic regions.
Given the human heterogeneity of the basin, the achievement of a socially stable, politically benign environment for river basin development will always be challenging. However, there are important ways in which the development of benefits from the river’s waters can form a positive feedback loop, assisting national development processes in adding advantage to deprived regions, increasing successful national integration and economic development, and eventually broadening the elimination of poverty within the basin.
The Development Context
The historical development of the Nile Basin has left a legacy of cultures and societies with a rich archaeological record. This has ensured that the basin remains one of the most distinct and visually identifiable regions of the world. The global importance of the Nile valley’s archaeology has generated some of the most important international efforts at protecting archaeological sites, including the huge operation undertaken in the mid-1960s to rescue sites being inundated by Lake Nasser, following construction of the Aswan High Dam.
Beyond the archaeological significance of the river’s history, it has also played an important part in early European contact with Africa, drawing explorers and adventurers from Europe as far back as the fifteenth century, many of whose exploits paved the way for future European expansionism and, eventually, colonial control. With the exception of Ethiopia, a country never colonized, but occupied for five years by Italy, much of this European control was not relinquished until the mid-twentieth century.
The recent historical development of the Nile Basin includes three major phases over the last 150 years. The first phase from the late nineteenth century to after the Second World War was an era of almost total social and economic domination by European powers. From after the Second World War to the late 1980s there was a period of colonial “unbundling” of control and exploitation, giving way to ideologies and political systems influenced by the state ideologies developing within the cold war bipolar world. Frequently, the legacy left behind was one of competing nationalisms between newly independent states, and within the more centrally controlled states, challenges to state legitimacy by rebel groups.
The third major shift has taken place from the end of the 1980s onwards. As the cold war gave way to a new system of global political control dominated by one superpower, realignments, regime change, and new policy directions emerged during the 1990s. In particular the economic situation of many basin states shifted to more open, free-market economic systems causing major social and economic wrenches. It is within this era of substantial social, economic, and political change that the emergence of the Nile Basin Initiative has taken place and the major ideas and concepts of the Nile Basin Initiative have been framed.
This era of superpower “satellite” politics in the basin witnessed key state development processes including, in the case of Egypt, heavy reliance on an “import substitution” model up until the end of the 1960s. In other states including Sudan,Tanzania, and Ethiopia, the command-led approach to economic development was supported at various points by strong trading links with the Soviet Union. Many states continued interventionist economic policies up until the late 1970s. Ethiopia remained an exception until the late 1960s, and went in the reverse economic direction to many other basin states during the 1970s, increasing its level of centralized, state-led development under Mengistu Haile Mariam. Indeed, as Egypt under Anwar Sadat approached a new era of“infitah” – or the “opening up” of the economy – Ethiopia under Mengistu Haile Mariam undertook major nationalization of capital assets, including land.
During the 1980s conflicts in key Nile states re-emerged, including civil conflict in Sudan, and in Ethiopia a new intensification in the civil war, with rebels emanating from northern parts of Ethiopia and Eritrea (a province of Ethiopia at that time) fighting to overthrow Mengistu’s government. The military support provided by different sides based on regional and international cold war allegiances – in particular the role of the Soviet Union in providing concessionary oil and huge amounts of military hardware to Ethiopia – helped to fuel and prolong the conflicts. Many of these arms remain in the area and help to fuel smaller conflicts at the local level.
Because of this reliance on external support, with the rapid collapse of the Eastern bloc in the late 1980s major political changes took place in Ethiopia, and by 1991 the government had fallen to the rebel groups.
In parallel with statist ideological development at this time, there were other strands of thinking developing more widely in the region that challenged both secular concepts of socialist and capitalist development, namely the emergence of a form of political Islam. By the late 1980s this had influenced the formation of a new government in Sudan, and for most of the 1990s has shaped both external, international relations between Sudan and key states in Western Europe and the United States, and regional-level relationships.
Under this shifting mosaic of ideological and political developments, the contemporary politics of the region have frequently been extremely violent, from local to national to international level. In recent years major wars have been fought between co-riparian states and/or their proxies, including the Ethiopian–Eritrean “Border War” in the late 1990s, the ongoing conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and conflict in Southern Sudan. While the River Nile is a single physical unifying factor, its broader socioeconomic and political capacity to unify has yet to be developed.
The legal regime on the Nile is in theory governed by rules and norms of international law on the sharing of international waters that emerged during the twentieth century, partly in response to the untenable “Harmon Doctrine.” Until the middle of the nineteenth century this doctrine had inferred absolute sovereignty of the state over its territory, and by extensions, a freedom to do what it wished with waters flowing in international rivers through that territory. Subsequently both the Helsinki Rules of 1966 and the ILC rules brought in concepts of cooperation, equitable distribution of waters, due consultation over proposed projects, and adequate compensation. By the latter part of the twentieth century the International Convention on the Non- Navigational Uses International WaterCourses (UN) brought in a substantial body of international law that included principles on sharing benefits, as well as waters. To date the Convention has not been ratified by any Nile riparian state.
Specific to the Nile Basin itself, there have been a great number of legal documents and diplomatic exchanges on the sharing and use of the Nile’s waters since the latter part of the nineteenth century. (The major instruments are tabulated in Table 2 of original publication). They illustrate clearly the ways in which competing interests on the Nile have vied to assert control, if not sovereignty, over the access to the waters of the Nile, largely through bilateral agreements – and often between very unequal negotiating entities.
One of the key challenges underlying development of the current initiative is the need to move beyond bilaterism in the achievement of future agreement on legal principle, while not starting full renegotiation of existing treaties. In many ways the process has moved beyond the need for future treaties. This “backgrounding” of legal issues in managing and allocating the Nile waters reflects an important shift in the way such issues are perceived and used by the riparian states themselves. They have moved from an earlier era of bellicose assertions of prior, historic rights and national sovereignty over water courses, to a “common vision” of development of the Nile that seeks: “to achieve sustainable socioeconomic development through the equitable utilization of, and benefit from, the common Nile Basin water resources.” The significance of this joint statement lies in its emphasis on equitable usage and socioeconomic development. It demonstrates a shift to a view of sharing between states based on maximizing shared benefits, rather than focusing on the water resources themselves. There is a significant reflection of the UN Convention on the Non-Navigational Uses of Watercourses in the vision, namely the usage of the term “equitable.” For downstream states this represents acknowledgement – albeit implicit – of the need (if not the right) to upstream water resources development which at some point will impact on shares as currently allocated under the 1959 Agreement (See Table 2 ). For upstream states this also implies the redundancy of insisting on renegotiations as a starting point if, in many senses, the NBI has taken their position beyond the negotiating table and directly to the implementation of actions on the ground within a cooperative framework.
None the less, the 1959 Nile Waters Agreement remains the point of departure for Egypt and Sudan, certainly in terms of their bilateral relationship, and under it, they form in effect a “joint position,” on the NBI. It is also important to see the Agreement in the context of regional political development at the time. For both states – but in particular Egypt – it represented important new expressions of independence that were extremely politically symbolic. For Egypt, the Aswan High Dam represented a historic solution to its perceived water insecurity, namely the capture of an entire annual flood under one structure lying wholly within its territory (although the reservoir stretched far into Sudanese Nubia). The 1959 NWA for Sudan also represented a major improvement in its share of the Nile waters (See Table 2 in original publication for a comparison with the 1929 Agreement).
The NWA effectively divided all the Nile waters between the two riparian states on the basis of an assumed annual average discharge as measured at Aswan of 84 bcm. The division – 55.5 bcm to Egypt and 18.5 bcm toSudan – took into account anticipated losses to evaporation in the soon to be constructed Lake Nasser/Nubia of some 10 bcm per annum. The key legal principle within the Agreement was expressed as “present acquired rights.” Historic patterns of usage took precedence, in effect, over the future need of other upstream states.Ethiopia took exception to the Agreement and refused to recognize its legitimacy. Nevertheless, until very recently the NWA remained the basis of the position taken by the two key riparian states (See Table 2).
Ethiopia’s position was strengthened at the time by the strong connection to US foreign policy interests. With Egypt moving towards the Soviet sphere of influence, the United States took advantage of Ethiopia’s reaction to the NWA by proposing a study of the development of the upstream Nile waters in Ethiopia. By 1964 the US Bureau of Reclamation had produced the Blue Nile Waters Study, which included proposals for a series of huge dams and irrigation schemes in Ethiopia. These projects never came to fruition, yet helped to stoke Egyptian fears surrounding the actions of upstream riparians.
The hydrological and geographical variability of the Nile Basin are matched by socioeconomic differences between countries. The range of income levels and the structural differences between national economies spans Egypt – a middle-income, industrializing nation – at one end of the scale, to many upstream states that in an economic sense are a fraction of the size of Egypt and are weighed down by debt, static or declining economies, and huge externalities caused, amongst other things, by internal conflict and the impact of diseases such as HIV/AIDS and malaria.
The significance of agriculture in the different economies also varies widely as a proportion of GDP, which is of key significance in terms of water usage. Workers engaged in agriculture constitute 80 to 90 percent of the total workforce in the Equatorial Plateau and East African countries. This drops to between 70 and 75 percent in Congo and the Sudan and to 42 percent in Egypt. Similarly, the proportion of hydropower produced by the various states is related in many cases to the seasonality of flows, the capacity to capture the resource, and the relationship of water storage to irrigation potential. Internal food production as opposed to import dependency varies in both type (staple foods) and quantity (proportion purchased externally and/or provided in the form of food aid).
The key issue arising out of this diversity of contexts, which is of relevance to turning cooperative frameworks into long-term development processes, is that the solutions to benefit sharing have to begin with the actual needs of people. At the most basic level the ten states vary hugely in population terms, from over 60 million in each of Ethiopia and Egypt, to under 10 million in Rwanda, Burundi, and Eritrea. Half of the states have populations of over 20 million, ensuring that the development needs vary hugely in qualitative and quantitative terms.
There are also great variations in livestock populations and in area and population density, from just 26,300 km2in Burundi to Sudan, which at 2,505,800 km2, is the largest state (by area) in Africa. There are implications for the integration of remoter areas of the basin within new development processes.
At a macro level, Egypt’s economy dwarfs all the other economies (see Figure bellow). GNI per head ranges widely, from only US$100 in Ethiopia to more than fourteen times that amount –US$1,490 – in Egypt. In addition, the proportion of the amount that accrues to agriculture in Ethiopia is substantially more than in Egypt.
The concept of “benefit sharing” mentioned earlier neatly encapsulates one key issue in any basin-wide cooperative process. That is the creation of more equitable development within the basin, and the flattening of charts such as the Figure above. Clearly linked to this issue is the need to turn the Nile’s development into economic growth and stability in the nine other major basin states. Yet, within this hugely diverse social and economic environment, inhabited by economies with few major linkages between one another and with massive divergence in financial strength, economic structure, and growth trajectories, building an equitable basis for benefit sharing will be difficult. One starting point may well be a clearer focus on addressing poverty, defined in human development terms.
These disparities in poverty reduction capability in the basin, and the difference in scope and extent of poverty, ensure that benefit sharing needs to have a basic poverty focus, even to the extent that cross-subsidization of poverty reduction approaches might take place between states as part of the benefit-sharing process. Some of the development trajectories and possible poverty challenges arising under the NBIs program of work are outlined inTable 5. (See original publication).
Information and Data Issues
The issue of information and data use is central in assessing and responding to the development needs of basin states as well as developing effective and transparent institutions and processes of cooperation. Part of the challenge is knowing how and where to develop the basin resources in order to maximize benefits for states through more efficient as well as equitable use of the resource. Much of the data management environment to date has focused on river flows, addressing the problems of water management mentioned earlier.
Data collection on the Nile provided the thread that wove together early attempts at collaborative development. However, on its own it falls far short of providing a sound framework for development and of overcoming differences and disputes between states. This partly reflects the concern felt by some states that earlier efforts were little more than a distraction from key water allocation issues.
The history of collecting data on the Nile is thousands of years old, and testament to this is the proliferation ofNilometers along the river, the best-preserved being the Nilometer on Roda Island, Cairo. However, apart from the sharing of data between British experts under condominal and colonial control in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, it was not until the 1960s that concerted data sharing was attempted. The Hydromet project(initially driven by the rising levels of Lake Victoria caused by exceptional rainfall in the early 1960s) was established in 1967 between Egypt, Kenya, Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda. Supported by the UNDP and theWorld Meteorological Program, its objectives included collection and analysis of data for the Lakes Victoria, Kyoga, and Albert catchments and a study of the water balance of the Nile. However, regional political difficulties in the 1970s forced the project’s premature closure following the withdrawal of Kenya and Tanzania. It ended officially in 1992.
More recently, significant data acquisition models have been developed by, amongst others, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO)under the auspices of projects including “Operation Water Resources Management and Information Systems for the Nile Basin Countries,” and “Information Systems for Water Resources Planning and Monitoring in the Lake Victoria region.” These projects have included significant capacity building elements in Upper Nile countries, related closely to monitoring improved sustainable water resources development.
In the early 1990s, Tecconile came into being, supported by CIDA, and included elements concerned with strengthening data processing and GIS/Image Analysis Systems and the implementation of basin-wide networking on data sharing. Tecconile covered nine basin states, with Ethiopia and Kenya acting as observers. Its longerterm objective was to help develop and conserve the Nile waters in an integrated and sustainable manner and to determine the “equitable entitlement” of each riparian state to use of the Nile waters. In the short term the idea was to develop national master plans and to integrate these plans into a wider Nile Basin plan. The original institutional model included the establishment of a Council of Ministers (meeting once a year) and a Technical Committee. While in its own terms the project did not develop to completion, it provided the seed for more concerted efforts at achieving substantial socioeconomic and political cooperation on the Nile. This is examined in the next section.
The Development Challenge
Building a Cooperative Framework (the 1990s)
As preceding sections have shown, cooperative development of the Nile has, in practice, been undertaken for many decades. However, the level of cooperation has not been anywhere near effective or comprehensive enough to address the growing demand for water both upstream and downstream in the basin.
Earlier sections have illustrated how external political conditions to enable cooperation were not in place until fifteen years ago. Their eventual emergence has subsequently enabled the rapid development of an institutional structure and decisionmaking process that has radically transformed the development environment in the Nile Basin since the early 1990s.
A number of international meetings took place regarding the Nile (including one hosted in London and another in Cairo during the early part of the 1990s) in response to both the opening up of political space within the basin and a growing awareness that future development options would require more strategic and multi-sectoral thinking. This changing landscape culminated in the meeting of Nile Water Ministers in December 1992 at which the Tecconile project was established for a transitional period. The Tecconile initiative resulted in a basin-wide “action plan” – the Nile River basin Action Plan (NRBAP), supported by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). In tandem a series of Nile conferences – Nile 2002 series – started in 1993 bringing together “technical experts” from all Nile Basin countries. Subsequent meetings were held in Khartoum (1994) and other states of the Nile Basin including Ethiopia in 1997. Originally launched “to provide an informal mechanism for riparian dialogue and the exchange of views between countries, as well as with the international community” (NBI, 2001), the meetings also enabled informal contact between officials of riparian states and with external “facilitating” organizations.
Approved by the NileCOM in Arusha in February 1995, the NRBAP included sections on:
- integrated water resources planning and management
- capacity building
- regional cooperation
- environmental protection and enhancement (mainly concentrating on the White Nile).
It became, in effect, the template for the much larger Nile Basin Initiative later in the decade.
Although initially Egypt was the main instigator of Nile technical dialogs, and Ethiopia remained an observer to such dialogs (skeptical of what it saw as slow processes with little effective dialog on key issues), by the early 1990s Ethiopia itself had begun to demand a more comprehensive basin-wide organization “agreed upon by all co-basin states.” Ethiopia submitted a “framework of cooperation” between the Nile River co-basin states for the Undugu meeting held in Addis Ababa in May 1992. The country remained dubious as to the strength and importance of some of the earlier efforts, but reaffirmed its commitment to a major new undertaking at the Second Nile 2002 meeting in Khartoum held in 1994:
“There have been various efforts to bring about cooperation among the Nile co-basin countries, most of which have been initiated under the auspices of the UN agencies. Yet, these initiatives have not been success stories because of their narrow scope and failure to address the real issues involved within the Nile Basin. Some of the major cooperative efforts that have been initiated within the Nile Basin include: the Hydromet Project, the Bangkok Ministerial Meeting, the ECA/UNDP initiative, the Undugu Group, two FAO initiatives on basin-wide water resources information system, the UNEP initiative on Environmental Action Plan, and the Tecconile as a follow up to the Hydromet project”.
In public there was continued jockeying for position between key riparian states in the mid-1990s. It was an important time of “position definition,” including, at a bilateral level, between Ethiopia and Sudan. The former was pressing its case for a more comprehensive understanding of “equitable utilization” whilst the latter (as well as Egypt) argued that Ethiopia did not share the same dependence on the Nile and had other major water sources that could be exploited. A Sudanese official’s reply to Ethiopia’s concern that equitable utilization be examined more comprehensively made the point that:
“In our opinion the water national master plan should comprise the waters [of the Nile] and other water resources because the relevant factors to be considered for the equitable entitlement include the knowledge of available water resources other than the shared basin.”
Nevertheless, the shift in thinking by Ethiopia was picked up quickly by Egypt, and in 1994 the then Egyptian Minister of Public Works and Water Resources reflected the major shift in Egyptian thinking on the Nile, stating that:
“Egypt supports without reservations the development process in Ethiopia for the benefit of the Ethiopian people, especially in the Nile Basin Region, within the context of constructive consultations and a real start for confidence building, clearness, and transparency. The outcome result will, I am sure, be a win game.”
Institutionalizing Cooperation (the NBI)
In spite of the glasnost in relations between formerly belligerent co-riparians, moving from relations characterized by political conflict to new forms of cooperation required significant institutional development. It was not sufficient that the countries were now in a position to develop institutional cooperation; they required external assistance in order to facilitate this process. In 1997, the Nile Ministers requested that the World Bank establish a fundraising group for cooperative projects on the Nile. The Nile Basin Initiative that developed out of this request represented a re-emergence of the earlier NRBAP. It now forms the most important basin-level approach to cooperative development of the Nile waters ever undertaken, and its significance extends well beyond the basin itself.
The Nile Basin Initiative describes itself as a “transitional arrangement until a permanent legal and institutional framework is in place” (NBI, 2000) and comprises a Council of Ministers of Water Affairs of the Nile Basin (Nile-COM), a Technical Advisory Committee (Nile-TAC) and a Secretariat (Nile-SEC), the latter located in Entebbe.
Focusing on a process-oriented approach, the NBI firstly sought to establish a common point of departure for allstakeholders, namely the NBI “Vision.” This aimed at framing the tasks to be institutionalized within subsidiary action programs (SAP) at a sub-basin level. These SAPs aimed to “identify and implement investment projects that confer mutual benefits at the sub-basin level and that the riparians agree to pursue cooperative [activities]” (NBI, 2000).
The “visioning process” took six months to complete, and the wording of it required major revision, discussion, and fine-tuning. Nevertheless, the importance of establishing the “vision” lay as much in the process undertaken as in the end result, and by bringing together all the co-riparians (except for Eritrea which, at the time, remained an observer) raised important discussion on key legal and development issues.
The success to date of the NBI lies in one of its institutional innovations, namely the application of the principle of subsidiarity, or management of the basin at the lowest appropriate level. This has led to institutional division into an “eastern Nile” comprising Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt (and Eritrea too, were it to formalize its participation), and the Nile “equatorial lakes” countries (comprising Kenya, Uganda,Tanzania, the DRC, Rwanda, and Burundias well as Egypt and Sudan). The inclusion of the latter two represents recognition of the importance of the White Nile to both countries. The basic rationale is that in reducing decision-making complexity the process of cooperation can be facilitated.
Under this principle, the NBI established two Subsidiary Action Plans (See Appendices in original publication), much of which emerged out of the earlier NRBAP project. The Eastern Nile program and the Nile Equatorial Lakes program aimed to express the vision in terms of actions on the ground, bringing high level political engagement and agreement to socioeconomic development within the states themselves. In tandem with these action programs, a shared vision program would help to continue to support the process of cooperation, included within which were a number of cross cutting projects:
- Nile Basin Transboundary Action
- Regional Power Trade
- Efficient Use for Agricultural Production
- Water Resources Planning and Management
- Applied Training
- Confidence-Building and Stakeholder Involvement
- Socioeconomic Development and Benefit Sharing (see appendices).
This program was envisaged to “create an enabling environment for cooperative management and development … through a limited but effective set of basin-wide activities and projects” (NBI, 2001).
Since 2001 the major preoccupation of the process has been the establishment of sound funding for this portfolio of projects and programs. To this end, the International Consortium on the Cooperative Development of the Nile (ICCON) was created and held its first meeting in Geneva (ICCON 1) in June 2001, at which it received pledges from donors of US$120 million over a six to eight-year time frame. ICCON’s long-term aim as a partnership of riparian states and the international community is to promote joint funding, transparency, and more broadly to raise support for the NBI. One of the key process issues is the establishment of a multidonor Nile Basin Trust Fund to provide “streamlined, cost-effective funding … which would consolidate donor support and ensure the clarity and cohesiveness of the program” (NBI, 2000). Following Parliamentary approval of the NBI’s new international organization status under Ugandan law in September 2002, it was envisaged that the NTF would shortly come under the management of the Nile Basin Secretariat.
In total, the cost of financing the NBI is estimated to be in the order of US$140 million for the Shared Vision Program project implementation, US$30 million for the Subsidiary Action Program project preparation and general NBI facilitation, and program management – crucially, including riparian dialogue as well as program oversight – some US$10 million.
The NBI in 2003 – appropriately the International Year of Freshwater – is now at the stage of moving from the development of cooperation and the institutionalization of this process to the achievement of development through joint multilateral and bilateral projects. This is a crucial test for the whole initiative and the principles on which it is built. The credibility of the external facilitation process is also at stake. Proof of success will not, in the long term, reside in cooperative frameworks or even the absence of major international conflict; rather it will lie in the capacity of processes and institutions to translate cooperation into development, and development that achieves poverty reduction from the local level upwards. One of the major challenges to ensuring the sustainability of the NBI is in creating a process of institutional support at all levels, including civil society at regional, national, and local levels. The importance of this challenge has been emphasized within the Nile Basin Discourse Project(undertaken since 2001) that attempts to facilitate dialogue about the NBI and to establish learning processes for institutions involved in Nile Basin-related activities be they environmental,socioeconomic, or cultural. In 2003 a formal Nile Basin Discourse Desk was established in Entebbe.
Lessons and Cautions
Cooperation is Not Necessarily Development
Some of the early external facilitation of Nile Basin cooperation by the World Bank focused on issues including the need to “level the playing field” through building national capacity and identifying national priorities, as well as correcting what it saw as “information asymmetry.” A second focus was to move from dialog to actions, within which there was a need to develop dialog on different tracks (for instance, information, capacity, technology) as well as to “start with the achievable and avoid getting bogged down in formulae.” This also sought to recognize that “progress on complex water systems may be slow, but dialog needs to be sustained and trust needs to be established.” Finally there was the aim to “seek opportunities for mutually beneficial programs or projects.” This latter concept of the “win–win” has come to dominate much of the thinking on the NBI, particularly in terms of win–wins in benefit sharing (Hirji and Grey, 1997°
The premise of much of the NBI cooperative framework is that win–wins are achievable, and demonstrably so,through integrated project development. This involves the creation of cooperative frameworks that enable links between cooperation and development to be made, not just in terms of joint funding, management, and the development of projects – the easy part of cooperation – but in terms of joint benefit sharing from such projects. This is a complicated achievement to monitor, and yet in the end the establishment of “equity” as the basis for an operational framework within the Nile Basin demands success in delivering tangible and shared development benefits at all levels, and not simply cooperative frameworks and joint management of institutions.
The tables in the appendices that detail the NBI’s major programs illustrate the nature and level of the national and basin-wide institutional and process complexity within the basin. (See original publication) . At a national level the process will become particularly convoluted, with at least seven or eight NBI-related (or discourse-related) institutional structures at least nominally being established in each state. This will add increased pressure – but admittedly bring in more resources – to existing national-level institutions, from water ministries and departments, to environmental, agricultural, and finance ministries and departments. As far as possible this needs to be mainstreamed within existing processes in order to avoid the problem of duplication, overloading of processes and institutions, and perhaps increased rent-seeking behavior. Such questions are really at the heart of the challenge of shifting from the cooperative to the developmental framework. Avoiding conflict is not that difficult because, arguably, conflict over water was never really a major issue. However, taking the positive step to build development processes into greater cooperation similarly challenges the basin states, because formerly there has not been a great level of regional integration in social, political, and institutional development. To that extent the NBI can help to establish a basis for wider socio-political objectives as well.
Development is Not (Necessarily) Poverty Reduction
In this shift from cooperation to development, there needs to be more than just commitment to national development. Qualitatively speaking, it has to address the question of economic and social equity and the inter- and intra-national levels. Even developments generated within the basin – perhaps trade in power or better environmental management – do not necessarily enable poverty reduction. And yet this has to become the major focus of all efforts at taking the initiative forwards. Therefore, in the coming years cooperation needs to be grounded in wider development concepts. As an example, whilst one of the key ENSAP projects on Watershed Management is addressing an issue of major concern to highland farming in Ethiopia, its success will in large part depend on its capacity to integrate learning generated elsewhere within the project, including earlier examples of watershed management undertaken in other regions of Ethiopia. It may be easier to reach cooperation on development options between states than it is to get local-level agreement within states. As a general rule this is likely to apply to a whole range of major infrastructure projects on the river identified under the NBI.
Success of the NBI will, in large part, rest on being able to meet this challenge. NBI development projects need to be mainstreamed within regional, national, and local development processes, and not simply exist in parallel, labeled as “water resource-“ or “river basin-“ focused. This urgent challenge has yet to become effectively internalized within the process.
The Nile Basin is at a key juncture in its history. There is a major need to maintain the integrity of the river system itself in the face of rapidly rising demand, while at the same time demonstrate how the river can be utilized more productively and equitably. If the NBI is to work it also needs to be able to demonstrate early success. This will also help in the spill-over effect on a range of development issues, including increasing the social and economic stability that is essential to helping to achieve political stability in conflict-prone regions.
As an end in itself the NBI does not go far enough: cooperative processes need to be geared to specific goals of development, and poverty reduction related to wider socioeconomic development. But it has traveled a long way to date. A reassessment of direction and impact may soon be required, in order to steer the process from successful cooperation to successful development.