Series: Reports

Turbulence in the Nile: Toward a Consensual and Sustainable Allocation of the Nile River Waters

Mwangi S. Kimenyi and John Mukum Mbaku


The Nile River is the lifeline for Egyptians. The very survival of Egyptians and the existence of both modern Egypt and the biblical Egypt of the Pharaohs are intractably tied to this critical and important resource. In fact, Egyptian political, economic, social and cultural life are so intertwined with the Nile that it is not an exaggeration to say that it would be difficult to envision a viable Egyptian civilization without the Nile.

Egyptians, of course, are not the only peoples whose civilizations have been influenced significantly and, to a great extent, shaped by the waters of the Nile. There are millions of other peoples who today owe their very existence to the Nile’s waters. Besides Egyptians, other beneficiaries of the Nile are today found in Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Eritrea, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Burundi. In today’s Nile River Basin political economy, each of these 10 riparian countries lay some claim to the river’s waters. Unfortunately, the legal scheme that governs the exploitation and allocation of the waters of the Nile River is a set of colonial-era agreements, which effectively reserved virtually all of the Nile’s waters for Egypt and Sudan.

The Nile River Agreements have become increasingly contentious and upstream riparian states have denounced the agreements as irrelevant, anachronistic and a major constraint to their national interests. Many of them argue that they should not be bound by what are essentially colonial impositions. Of course, the main bone of contention is that Egypt wants to bind the upstream riparian states to agreements that were concluded without their full and effective participation and which did not take the interests of these upstream riparian states into account. These states are, therefore, demanding that the agreements be renegotiated or totally replaced with a more comprehensive, inclusive and relevant legal framework.[1] With significant increase in the demand for water among the Nile River Basin states—due not only to rapid population growth but also to expansion of economic activities and significant improvements in the ability of many of these states to utilize the waters of the Nile for productive activities—existing methods of exploitation and allocation of the Nile waters are leading to an escalation of tensions among the river’s various stakeholders with the likelihood of open and widespread conflict. Unfortunately, there does not exist within the region a mutually accepted, beneficial and enforceable institutional framework that can provide the legal structure for the efficient, equitable, fair and sustainable management of the Nile.[2]


[1] For example, in 2002 then Kenyan Energy Minister, Raila Odinga (and now the country’s prime minister), denounced the Nile Waters Agreements (the 1929 Agreement and the 1959 Agreement) and called them “obsolete” and totally irrelevant to Kenya’s development agenda. See John Kamau, “Can EA Win the Nile War?” The Daily Nation (Nairobi-Kenya), March 28, 2002.

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[2] For example, see Valerie Knobelsdorf, “The Nile Waters Agreements: Imposition and Impacts of a Trans-boundary Legal System,” 44 Columbia Journal of Transnational Law, (2006).