Nile River Nations Agree to Cooperate, but Danger Lurks for One of Planet’s Great Wetlands

The beginning of the Blue Nile near its outlet from Lake Tana in the highlands of Ethiopia. Photo by Ondrej Zvácek/Creative Commons
The beginning of the Blue Nile near its outlet from Lake Tana in the highlands of Ethiopia. Photo by Ondrej Zvácek/Creative Commons

Earlier this month, the foreign ministers of Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia reached agreement on basic principles for managing what will be Africa’s largest hydroelectric dam, which is now under construction on the Blue Nile near the Ethiopian-Sudanese border.

While the unilateral building of big dams is often a trigger for conflict in international river basins, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam has the potential to forge much-needed cooperation and some win-win opportunities for those three Nile Basin countries.

Although its details have yet to be disclosed, the agreement would appear to open pathways to shared economic benefits from the Nile’s waters as well as to greater flexibility and resilience in times of drought.

But it also creates conditions for the resurrection of an engineering scheme in South Sudan that could harm one of the largest and most wildlife-rich wetlands in the world

A Complicated History

The Nile Basin now has 11 countries within it, but the two most downstream – Egypt and Sudan – have staked claims to the entire river’s flow.

The Blue Nile originates in the highlands of Ethiopia. At Sudan’s capital of Khartoum, it joins the White Nile, which begins around Lake Victoria. The two then flow together as one Nile north into Egypt and out to the Mediterranean Sea.

Egypt has long worried – with good reason – that upstream water development in Ethiopia would cut off some of its lifeline. Egyptian leaders from Anwar Sadat to Mohammed Morsi have warned of going to war over water if the nation’s supplies became threatened.

A stumbling block to equitable water-sharing in the basin is a 1959 treaty between Egypt and Sudan that allocated the entire flow of the Nile to —> Read More

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