Governing the Nile River Basin: The Search for a New Legal Regime

The Nile River is one of the most important resources in Africa and supports the livelihoods of millions of people. Recently, though, efficient and equitable utilization of the waters of the Nile River has become an increasingly contentious issue, with many of the riparian countries demanding a revision of what they believe is an inappropriate legal regime. Currently, allocation and utilization of the waters of the Nile River is governed by the colonial-era Nile Waters Agreements, which were negotiated and entered into with the help of Great Britain, but without the participation of most of the river’s riparian states. These agreements allocated most of the waters of the Nile River to the downstream riparians—Egypt and Sudan—largely ignoring the development needs of the upstream riparians, like Ethiopia, whose highlands provide most of the water that flows into the Nile River. The upstream riparians contend that they were not party to the Nile Waters Agreements and thus should not be bound by them. As such, they want these agreements set aside and a new, more equitable legal regime. Egypt, however, considers the existing legal regime binding on all the Nile River riparian states and, thus, is opposed to any changes that might interfere with or reduce its “historically acquired rights.” Already the decision by Addis Ababa to proceed with the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile has caused significant deterioration in relations between Cairo and Addis Ababa.

With significant increases in population and pressure to deliver development, especially in the upstream riparian states, the demand for water has become a very important policy imperative in the region. In fact, earlier this year Egypt claimed that, in order to meet its growing water needs by 2050, it will need to add 21 billion cubic meters of water per year to its current water allocation of 55 billion cubic meters. Thus, there is a fear that if this issue is not fully resolved soon, it could morph into a military crisis.

In our new book, Governing the Nile River Basin: The Search for a New Legal Regime, we argue that the current legal regime governing the allocation and utilization of the waters of the Nile River is not tenable, and there is an urgent need for all the Nile River riparian states to enter into a mutually agreed upon legal regime. Issues pertaining to transboundary water resource management, the evolution of current agreements and the role and interests of colonial powers, theories of treaty succession, and the recent attempts by the riparian states to formulate a new legal agreement, are thoroughly examined. We conclude that the most effective way to deal with conflict arising from the allocation and utilization of the Nile River’s waters is for all the downstream and upstream riparians to engage in fresh negotiations to design and adopt a new legal regime. Through a fully consultative process, these countries can provide the Nile River Basin with a legal regime that enhances equitable allocation and utilization.