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Last Updated: 03/18/2004
How likely is conflict over the Nile waters?
Ferdinand Katendeko

Ferdinand Katendeko finds that pre-independence agreements by the then dominant Colonial power over the control of the vital Nile waters may lead to further conflict in conflict-torn Africa.

How likely is conflict over the Nile waters?



The River Nile may be flowing to the Mediterranean Sea quietly, but all is not well among its ‘predators’! Egypt has been using the Nile waters basing herself on the 1929 Agreement, drawn up between her and Great Britain, which also represented her former coloniesnSudan, Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. This agreement gave Egypt “full utilization of the Nile waters” which of recent, the East African countries have been questioning its legality. It is a known fact that despite their independence and the Nile having its source from these countries, the East African countries are still denied its use without permission from Egypt, and this is now the current puzzle. This has not gone well with Egypt since it has been using the water for over 75 years without any question.


The control of the Nile by Egypt is basically historical. During the colonial era, Egypt and Sudan wanted to grow cotton perennially for the British industries, following relative cotton shortages worldwide. The only way to grow more cotton even in summer was by irrigation. The summer water and flood control for irrigation brought clashes between the proponents of Egyptian and Sudanese interests within the British Foreign Office. The clashes were calmed through the Nile Projects Commission, which decided that there should be an agreement on the use of the Nile waters. Britain therefore drew up an agreement between Egypt, Sudan and herself (representing her colonies) in 1929 and later amended it in 1959 that granted Egypt the lion’s share in using the Nile. A section of the treaty stipulates that “without the consent of the Egyptian Government, no irrigation or hydroelectric works can be established on the tributaries of the Nile or their lakes if such works can cause a drop in water level harmful to Egypt.”[i] Under the 1959 amendment, Egypt was guaranteed to use 55.5 billion cubic meters out of the total 84 cubic metres of the Nile water while Sudan was to use 18.5 cubic metres and 10 cubic metres for evaporation and seepage. It also says that “once other upstream riparian states claim a share of the Nile waters, both countries –Egypt and Sudan- will study together these claims and adopt a unified view thereon. If such studies result in the allocation of a specified volume of the Nile water to one or the other of the upper riparian states, then the amount shall be deducted in equal shares from the share of the two countries”[ii]. It also gave the Egyptian government powers to complain if the Nile waters were used by other countries without informing her. It is surprising that there was no mention of or provision made to other Nile water users, which Britain represented in the agreement!  It is this omission that is responsible for the current discomfort among other Nile waters users who are now referring to it as illegal. It is every one’s conviction that a good agreement should always involve all concerned parties rather than making a one- party agreement.


One wonders why the upstream countries like Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi and Ethiopia are raising the matter at this time! Were they content with the 1929 agreement? Is it because Egypt has profited so much from these waters and now they also want their share? Has there been any recent diplomatic problem between Egypt and the rest of these countries? Are there any agreements regulating the Nile waters and its use? Should Egypt keep monopolising water to the disadvantage of other users? What is the story here? What is the way forward?

The East African countries are wondering why Egypt should use water of the Nile without asking them when they are the main source!  The Ministers, parliamentarians and even the commoners have been questioning how Egypt could limit other countries from using the water. One East African parliamentarian, Hon Yona Kanyomozi, commented on why Egypt does not participate in the conservation of Lake Victoria since it is the source of the Nile waters.  He further adds that “What bothers me is that when Uganda developed a scheme to divert the Nile to Karamoja, the plan was opposed by Egypt, yet for them they can do any thing with the Nile waters”.[iii] Other East African politicians like Paul Muite of Kenya complained that Kenya was importing food from Egypt which uses the Nile water for irrigation when Kenya is not allowed to use the same water to grow fruits for her own people.  The east African newspaper commentator, Onyango Obbo wrote that “Egypt can’t enjoy the benefits of having access to the sea, while blocking a landlocked country like Uganda from profiting from the fact that it  sits at the source of the Nile”[iv] All this indicates that there may be more serious trouble brewing with the Egyptian monopoly of the Nile waters.


 Out of disgust, Tanzania has launched a Tsh 27.6 billion project to draw water from Lake Victoria to supply Kahama in Shinyanga region which has been suffering with drought. The Ugandan parliament has also been asking Egypt to pay for the costs of maintaining the water reservoir- The Lake Victoria since they are restricted from using the water by the 1929 and 1959 colonial agreements. Uganda is also contemplating about building another dam on the Nile water- The Bujagali Dam.


With such developments, will Egypt negotiate or face up to conflict? Recently, ‘the Egyptian Water Minister, Mahmoud Abu-Zeid, described Kenya’s intention to withdraw from the agreement as an ‘act of war’. Boutros-Ghali, the former Secretary General of the UN and an Egyptian by birth, has predicted that the next war in the region will be over water.’[v] The same threats of war have been used by Egypt before, “for instance in June 1980 when Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) opposed attempts by Egyptain President Anwar Sadat to divert the Nile waters to the Sinai desert; Sadat had promised Israel that he would irrigate the desert after the historical peace agreements made in Camp David brokered by the US government. Ethiopia then threatened to obstruct the Blue Nile, prompting Egypt to prepare for war.”[vi]  Is Egypt therefore planning to go to war over the waters? Are the upstream countries preparing to use the Nile waters in disregard to other users like Egypt which is dependent on the Nile for her millions of people? Will these countries become insensitive to the needs of Egypt which relies on the Nile for 98 percent of its irrigation? I hope not. Though, Egypt has monopolized the use of the water for decades, it appears that it is now time to sit and re-negotiate the 1929 and 1959 agreements which are being described as ‘ illegal’ and ‘obsolete’ by East African countries.


 The1929 agreement and its 1959 amendment were made before the independence of the upstream countries and were represented by Britain. Now that they are independent, should they still be bound by such an agreement since Britain has even pulled out of their control?  Should the people of the East African states suffer hunger due to drought when they there are source of the Nile waters?  I think as the 1929 agreement insinuates that “once other upstream riparian states claim a share of the Nile waters, both Sudan and Egypt will study together these claims and adopt a unified view thereon.”  Egypt and the affected countries should therefore study the situation and come up with a new position on the use of the Nile water. Given the down stream position of Egypt on the Nile, it would be in her best interests to seek negotiation because it will be more vulnerable if anything went wrong with the Nile. Egypt should therefore consider other uses. I don’t think Egypt would like people in the East African countries to perish due to drought and hunger when she is still glued to 1929 agreement  Many development projects within the upstream countries have either been shelved or stalled due to this archaic agreement. Recently, the Uganda Commissioner for Water Resource management , Mr Nsubuga Senfuma explained that “for any project to take place on either Lake Victoria or the River Nile, Egypt must be consulted first”[vii].I don’t object to this consultation but let it be seen on the ground that people in the upstream Nile are also benefiting from this natural resource. This is natural justice. I think it is time to invoke international laws regarding use of river resources equitably and reasonably, after all, water belongs to all.


The International law governing the international water courses such as the Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational uses of International Waters (1997) should guide the Nile countries to sort out this problem. This convention stresses “equitable and reasonable utilisation and participation”[viii] of the water course states. States should therefore use waters courses equitably and reasonably with regard to other users.The Convention also provides for “states to cooperate on the basis of sovereign equality, territorial integrity, mutual benefit and good faith in order to attain optimal utilization and adequate protection of an international watercourse”[ix]. Indeed, this mutual cooperation is enhanced though exchange of information on the watercourses and this is provided for in article 9 of the same convention, which states that “water course states shall on regular basis exchange readily available data and information on the condition of the watercourse, and if not readily available, the state (concerned) shall employ its best efforts to comply with the request.”


But the most perturbing issue is that though this convention would provide some solutions of how to use the water equitably, none of the Nile basin countries has ratified it as of 26th August 2003[x]. It appears that right from the start; the Nile Basin countries seem either unconcerned or refused or neglected the water treaty. Even at the time “when this convention was presented to the UN General assembly, Sudan was the only Nile basin country in favour, Burundi opposed, Egypt, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Tanzania abstained while Eritrea, Uganda and DRC (Zaire) were absent”[xi]  I would urge the Nile Basin countries to ratify this treaty as it will be a leeway towards settlement of the dust so far raised. This could be the starting point because once they are bound by the convention ratification, then any breach would be pursued at an international level.


 Another puzzle is about the Nile Basin Countries initiated organization, the Nile Basin Initiative of 1998, whose aim was to achieve sustainable socio-economic development through equitable utilization of or benefit from the common Nile basin water resources. How can states agree to use the Nile water resources amicably through the Initiative and fail to seal other cracks of dis-integration? I understand there is a unit of information exchange in this Initiative, why don’t they share information on this rather crucial matter of the old agreements of 1929 before even discussing resource utilization? Why don’t they use the new broom of African Union to handle this matter and involve Britain too since she drew the 1929 and 1959 agreements? Indeed, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) convention is clear on the equitable utilization of riparian resources. The International Community and Independent Commissions can also assist in ameliorating the situation. Let the Nile Basin utilize all these bodies to address the pending ‘explosive’ water of the Nile.


The way forward in this crisis, is to use reliable institutions, ratify and invoke the relevant laws rather than resorting to exchange of hot words in parliaments, bars and the related places. Africa has enough troubles and problems to handle; there is no need to add more wars to the already war-torn continent!

[i] The Nile Agreement Waters Agreement, available on  , last accessed on 5/3/2004

[ii] IPS,  East Africans consider pulling out of the Nile water treaty, available on, last accessed on 6/3/2004


[iii] John Kamau, Can E A win the Nile war? The Nation: Kenya, March 28,2002, Available on

[iv] Jeevan Vasar, Africa needs Nile Water but Egypt won’t share,  The Guardian,  available on

[v] ibid

[vi] Faustine Rwambali, Tanzania Ignores Nile Treaty, Starts Victoria Water Project, The East African newspaper 9th Feb 2004.

[vii] John Kamau, Can EA win the Nile War, The nation, Kenya  28/3/2002, available on

[viii] Article 5 of the Convention of the Law the Non-navigational uses of international waters (1997).

[ix] Ibid)

[x] Keith Hayward, “Catchment Convention” water 21, The Magazine on International Water Association (IWA), June 2002.

[xi] UN GA (1997) Press Release GA/9248, Annex: Vote on International water course Convention, available on http://www.internationalwater

Ferdinand Katendeko, is a former Investigation officer in the Uganda Human Rights Commission. His other contributions include Ferdinand can be contacted at: