January 2012, Vol. 24, No.1

Water Volumes

Water Resources and Inter-Riparian Relationships in the Nile Basin — The Search for an Integrative Discourse

Okbazghi Yohannes (2008). State University of New York Press, 194 Washington Ave., Suite 305, Albany, NY 12210, 268 pp., $75, hardcover, ISBN: 978-0-7914-7431-0.

Bart Van der Bruggen

From history books, the role of the mighty Nile River in ancient Egypt is well-known. However, the Nile now is of crucial importance not only for Egypt but also for nine other riparian countries: Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

How much water from the Nile can be used by each country is stipulated in an agreement from 1959 (under British rule) in which most of the water is allocated to Egypt, with the remainder allocated to Sudan. Given the current demographic challenges and the economic challenges related to urbanization and globalization, conflicts in the Nile basin are far from unthinkable.

This book gives an overview of the current situation regarding distribution and consumption of Nile water in the 10 riparian countries, including all related influences and effects (ecological, demographic, and political). The majority of the book, five out of seven chapters, is a description of the specific situation in each country or group of countries. Each chapter is an in-depth analysis of the status and future challenges for the described region and concludes with suggestions about how problems can be solved.

Egypt, the main consumer, is the logical starting point for this journey. Egypt tries to use its power to protect its (over)consumption and has plans to use even more. The author suggests that population control would be a better way to go, instead of cultivating desert at high (water) cost. He also suggests investing in desalination and efficient irrigation systems.

Sudan has a clear link with the Arabic world, since it once was proposed as the breadbasket for the Middle East. This has been a failure for many reasons, water shortage being just one among many. Tensions between “Arabs” and Africans, which led to the Darfur crisis, paralyze every initiative. Furthermore, ecological disasters are likely, such as the construction of the Jonglei Canal, which would prevent water evaporation in the Sudd swamps but also would have a tremendously negative impact on the region’s ecology.

Ethiopia has an abundance of water, but almost none of it is used. There is a legitimate claim to use water of the Nile; however, the author predicts that this would not solve any of the problems. Other causes include recurrent droughts (and uneven water distribution), overpopulation, deforestation, soil erosion and land degradation; an additional factor is an unfailing presence in the international arms market, mainly because of the conflict with Eritrea.

The middle Nile “squatters” — Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda — share large lakes, including Lake Victoria, the origin of the White Nile. There are some ideas to build dams and canals, but Egypt refuses to let this happen. One typical example is the fact that Egyptian engineers and hydrologists are stationed permanently at the hydroelectric plant on Owen Falls Dam, the outlet of Lake Victoria, to ensure that water use remains nonconsumptive.

The final chapter in the book contains suggestions for improvement. Some are logical, such as population control, economic self-reliance, and development of a dependable public transport system; others are original ideas. Some of the most remarkable ones include the following:

  • The problem lies not within corruption (which is inherent to all neoliberal states) but in the outflow of resources to Western countries.
  • Production is too much focused on basic goods, such as coffee or cotton, subject to price fluctuations.
  • And last but not least, regional unions of countries could be formed, integrating their politics and economy, such as Egypt and Sudan; Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, and Djibouti; Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania; and the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi. A refreshing idea!


Bart Van der Bruggen is a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Leuven, Belgium. 


© 2012 Water Environment Federation. All rights reserved.