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Who owns the River Nile?

The River Nile,  is one of the most significant geographical features in the region. It is also of special significance because water security and access to water is a global issue, and the politics of the River Nile is just one way in which the struggle is so real for lots of people in Africa.  

The Nile is generally regarded as the longest river in the world, a title it competes for with the Amazon in South America( the information is always changing on this).The Nile, which is 6,853 km (4,258 miles) long, is shared  by eleven countries; Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Congo-Kinshasa, Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, South Sudan, Sudan and Egypt. This is the source of the conflict over it particularly because it is the primary water source of Egypt and Sudan.


Illustrations of the uses of the River Nile

The origin of the Nile is a contentious point. Folks have always assumed it flowed North to South, so starting somewhere in Egypt and come down south and this fact has been used to justify Egypt’s claim to the river. However contrary to this belief, the river Nile actually flows south to north with two main tributaries, the White Nile and the Blue Nile. The White Nile is longer and rises in the Great Lakes region of central Africa and thought to start in Rwanda or Burundi. It flows north through Tanzania, Lake Victoria, Uganda and South Sudan on its way to meet the Blue Nile. The Blue Nile, that I actually got to visit, begins at Lake Tana in Ethiopia and flows into Sudan from the southeast. The two rivers meet just north of the Sudanese capital of Khartoum and flow towards Egypt. 


me sitting by the blue nile

Candid photo by the Blue Nile

The Nile is a significant historical feature of the history of Egypt and  it had a crucial role in the development of Egyptian civilization. Without that water, there would have been no food, no people, no state, and no monuments on the North African coast. Silt deposits from the Nile made the surrounding land fertile because the river overflowed its banks annually and the Egyptian economy was built around  this occurrence. The Ancient Egyptians cultivated and traded wheat, flax, papyrus and other crops around the Nile. Wheat was a crucial crop in the famine-plagued Middle East and became Egypt’s main export. This trading system secured Egypt’s diplomatic relationships with other countries, and contributed to its economic stability. In addition there are  similarities in architecture, engineering,  traditions, religion, political organization, languages  and food across north and east Africa are a result of  ethnic groups in Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan sharing the River Nile ecosystem.

The Nile was so important to the ancient Egypt, that their ancient calendar was based on it. These seasons, each consisting of four months of thirty days each, were called Akhet, Peret, and Shemu. Akhet, which means inundation, was the time of the year when the Nile flooded, leaving several layers of fertile soil behind, aiding in agricultural growth. Peret was the growing season, and Shemu, the last season, was the harvest season when there were no rains.

In modern day Africa, Egypt has been in fights over the Nile with other African countries for a long time now and everyone has various claims to it .Currently, the Nile’s water is governed by two major conventions.

The first was signed between Egypt and Britain in 1929 and it gave Egypt the lion’s share of the water, 57%,  and required other nationals to clear with Cairo before launching any major water projects. The second was signed in 1959 between Egypt and Sudan and it  raised Egypt’s share to 66 percent. Here are the issues with  these agreements.The 1929 one is now disputed because the British end of the deal was representing several colonies; Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda, and after gaining their independence from the British, they do not recognize the agreements because the British are not their custodian anymore. The 1959 one, well, Sudan and Egypt divvied up virtually all of the Nile waters and did not even consult Ethiopia, one of the main source of the river.

There has been various fights over the Nile over the last few decades, and in 1979 Egypt basically threatened war on violators of what they saw as their country’s rights to Nile waters. Upriver Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and Tanzania argue that they too need the water that originates on their lands. Ethiopia is the  latest biggest contender in this game. In 2012 Ethiopia started a big hydroelectric project, building a mega dam, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, on the blue Nile and Egypt has been up in arms against the project since. Egypt has been vehemently opposed to this project claiming that the dam will have negative effects on the  downstream water flow.

There is some truth to this from the past where mega dams have unanticipated environmental impacts. The Aswan High Dam, one that Egypt built itself between 1898 and 1902, disrupted the ecosystem of the river, the delta and the Mediterranean, resulting in reduced agricultural productivity and fish stocks. It also caused a series of seismic events due to the extreme weight of the water in Lake Nasser, one of the world’s largest reservoirs, so the Egyptians may know what they are talking about after all! However Egypt’s campaign against this dam has been in vain, with Ethiopia being supported by 5 other Nile Basin countries, and basically people being done with being bullied by Egypt over the Nile!

So yeah it’s mess out there with the River Nile!

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