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Likely Water Wars: The River Nile Could Be the Cause.

Updated on July 30, 2020
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MG is a keen political observer and commentator who has a ringside seat to the turbulent years of the present political scenario


The river Nile is the longest in Africa. It has two major tributaries the Blue Nile and the White Nile that integrate in Sudan and then flow into the Mediterranean Sea. The Blue Nile originates in Ethiopia and joins up with the white Nile which originates in Central -East Africa. The Blue Nile is the river that is the bone of contention. Three countries namely Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan are dependent on the waters of the Blue Nile which flows through Sudan and Egypt and is known as the Nile.

Out of the three countries only Egypt had a developed civilization while both the other countries had comparatively primitive civilizations. For centuries Egypt was the main beneficiary of the Nile and the Egyptians have got used to it.

Both Sudan and Ethiopia did not have the means to make use of the waters of the Nile and frequently suffered from drought and famines. After colonization by the British, East Africa began to develop and so did Sudan and Ethiopia which had vast tracts of barren land without water. it was on the cards that they would construct a dam over the Nile and build a reservoir to make use of the water for the arid lands.

The problem had flared up earlier in the 19th century when Egypt had invaded Sudan and occupied Ethiopia. Subsequently, two treaties were signed in 1929 and 1959 between the three countries for the division of the Nile waters. These treaties favored the Egyptians as they were the more developed country.

The problem came to the fore when Ethiopia started constructing a dam on the Nile. The construction began in 2011 and is going on. The dam is nearing completion and the Egyptians and the Sudanese realized that in case the dam is constructed and there is a reservoir built, there's a good chance that the supply of water to Sudan and Egypt will be greatly curtailed.

They have opposed the construction of the dam and the Egyptian President has even hinted that all possibilities are on the table and that probably includes the military option as well.

The situation is acute because with the changing climate and lack of precipitation resulting in less rainfall the Nile is no longer as bountiful as it was earlier. With less water in the Nile and greater demands of Egypt and Sudan, the situation is fraught with risk. Ethiopia has rejected the Egyptian demand to stop the construction of the dam. This is the classical case of what we have always been fearing; the lack of freshwater and the resultant war over it.


All three countries are entirely dependent on freshwater from the River Nile. Egypt is the worst affected, as right from the early ages the entire civilization of Egypt flourished only along the banks of the River Nile and 90% of the population lives around it. The balance of Egypt is an arid desert that cannot sustain life. Therefore for Egypt, the Nile is something essential and in case it is not there their entire civilization can decay. The ancient civilization when the Pharaohs ruled was entirely dependent on the Nile. The problem in Sudan was not that acute it was under the control of the English and development came very late but now they also feel the necessity of more water.

Ethiopia was a developed civilization earlier during Biblical times but then went into decay and in the 20th-century famine stalked the land as water could not be harvested from the river Nile. With the change in priorities, the Ethiopians are the best placed as the river Nile originates from their land. They started construction of a dam on the river in 2011 and once it is completed Ethiopian agriculture will get a boost. It could also mean less water for Sudan and Egypt. The recent rains delighted Ethiopia as the dam's reservoir began to fill up but when news reached Egypt there was sadness.

The Egyptian government is on the horns of a dilemma and has realized that the geopolitical situation has changed and it may no longer be possible for them to exercise the military option. The only way that Egypt can stop the construction of the dam is by bombing it. But this is easier said than done as Egypt is not Israel and it does not have the means to bomb the dam. It also does not have the military capability to invade Sudan and then take possession of Ethiopia. The days of this form of diplomacy are over and in any case, the Egyptian army is incapable of carrying out such a campaign. One the major reason for this is that Sudan is an Islamic regime which is not enamored of Egypt which under General Sisi is moving closer towards secularism.

The Egyptians have been making dire threats and the president has said that all options are on the table and that perhaps includes a military option also. Sudan and Ethiopia would like to renegotiate the Treaty of 1959. Egypt however is not in favor of it as it fears that it will not get favorable terms that it had got in the 1959 treaty. The Egyptian President and the Ethiopian Prime Minister met in Sochi last year and agreed to continue with negotiations.

This is only a stopgap solution and cannot lead anywhere as the crux of the issue is the entire Egyptian civilization at the moment is dependent on waters of the Nile and in case they do not have access to it, they will have to do something drastic.


The dam will be built and only then we will know how much of an effect it will have on the supply of water in the hinterland. Matters have been compounded with climate change and wide-scale deforestation in these areas. The ecological balance is disturbed and there is less rainfall in the catchment areas of the Nile. The water demand is increasing and with a growing population, the situation appears very dark.

The United States has offered to meditate and find a solution but the solution is not going to satisfy anybody because the water in the river Nile due to greater sedimentation and lack of rain in the catchment areas is becoming less. The Ethiopian dam will only aggravate matters but at the same time Ethiopia certainly needs water also and I do not see any way that they will stop construction.

The lack of freshwater is a problem all over the world and is being aggravated with climate change. One will have to wait and see how things pan out once the dam is made operational


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