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Who owns the Nile?

Who owns the Nile?

Nine countries want to have a say in answering that question, and they don’t agree. The great river moves through Burundi, Egypt,  Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, so they all may claim her as at least partly their own.

The White Nile, the Blue Nile, and the combined Nile:


The Nile’s headwaters and tributaries begin in Tanzania, Burundi, Uganda, and Ethiopia, so the southern states control the source of the river.  Despite that seeming advantage, according to treaties from 1929 and 1959, the northern states of Egypt and Sudan were allocated 75% and 25% of the Nile’s water respectively, with none allocated to the source nations.  Egypt and Sudan are arid countries with almost literally no other access to fresh water other than the Nile.

The Nile brings life to Egypt:


The 1929 treaty was orchestrated by the British between colonized states, giving Egypt and Sudan all the water rights, and the ability to veto development projects in the source countries.  Ethiopia wasn’t a colony, and didn’t agree, but it applied to them anyway.  In 1959, a treaty was arranged by Egypt and Sudan alone, agreeing between them that they should continue to receive virtually all the water.

I’m personally amazed that the arrangement held for as long as it has.  Other than words on a disputed and legally shaky treaty, there is nothing forcing the source countries to forego using the Nile, leaving it all for someone else.

That forbearance is over, though.  For more than ten years the Nile Basin Initiative has been trying to negotiate a new agreement.  Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, and Rwanda have signed a deal that approves more sharing of the water, while Egypt and Sudan reject it outright.   DR Congo and Burundi are on the fence.  If either of them sign the treaty, it will be considered binding on all the nations.

This week the talks broke down, with little hope of reaching a conciliatory agreement.

Regardless of the contention by some people that climate change is a figment of the imagination, virtually every report on the Nile conflict cites it as the new factor, along with population growth, making an agreement that much harder.  During the years that Egypt and Sudan essentially owned the river, many of the upstream countries were able to rely on rain to supply their basic water needs.  In recent years, however, the rains have been more unreliable.  They can’t count on that any more, so it is natural that they turn to the Nile.

Ethiopia wants to build dams for hydroelectric generation.  Tanzania wants to use water from Lake Victoria to supply thirsty villages.  The water is needed for irrigation all along the route. The water needs of the ecosystem seem to not even be on the table.

The Blue Nile, Ethiopia:


So the question is still raised, who owns the Nile?  If the new agreement should take effect, ostensibly binding Egypt and Sudan to its terms, would they go along?  Their initial responses are no.  But what can they do?  If, for example, Uganda builds a few new dams, literally thousands of miles up river, what could they do about it?

Without the Nile, Egypt and Sudan would literally die, so the threat is that they will use military force to prevent that from happening.  The fear is that this could be one of the first of the Water Wars, as climate change affects people around the world who are already experiencing resource stress.

The Nile River Basin has found a way to live together for a long time, recognizing that the water is valuable to them all.  The Nile River binds all these countries together, for better or for worse.  I hope that they will find a way to compromise, because if the conflict results in war, everybody loses.

Learn More:

Guardian: Battle for the Nile as rivals lay claim to Africa’s great river, June 25, 2010

Time: Death (of an Agreement) on the Nile, June 28, 2010

AFP: Egypt, Sudan won’t be forced to sign Nile treaty, June 26, 2010

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Andrew Klein
Andrew Klein
13 years ago

If you are interested to learn more about this topic, then this book is ESSENTIAL reading:

The Nile Basin: national determinants of collective action
By John Waterbury, Yale University press 2002.

From a sociological/political science/historical perspective, Waterbury examines the relationships between the ten states that share the Nile in an easy-to-read and understand, story-like format.

It’s an insightful case study that clarifies the situation, and you can use this book to understand similar cases of water conflict.


Gabriel Eckstein
13 years ago

The signing of the Cooperative Framework Agreement by five Nile Basins states is a very interesting development, though, whether the agreement will survive Egypt’s ire is unclear. I just posted a two-part editorial on my International Water Law Project blog commenting on the new agreement: and I also include the text of the CFA.

13 years ago

I think that the question is much bigger than who owns the Nile. your post is a great example for a problem that we’re going to see more and more, whenever there’s a big river going between countries.

Water are becoming more and more rare all around the middle east and africa, no doubt that this question needs an immediate answer

13 years ago

[…] meanwhile, is completely dependent (as it has been for millennia) on water from the Nile, which is now a source of dispute among several African nations as Julia Hitz […]

13 years ago

honstly speaking the water is belongs to GOD and gave it to ETHIOPIA she owns it the water but still as GOD gave it to share amoung human beings that will be enough every one wants to change the country feathers in diplomatical way.ETHIOPIA has to start its development sooner rather than later.

12 years ago

I think Egypt should just sign the agreement before it is too late as there is no other possible way that this countries can agree and even Egypt can benefit most.

If the old strategy that Egypt to own the vito power? This is just a day dream because nations will prefer to face Egypt and feed themselves and die that die of hunger and leave poverty to the next generation.

If Egypt arogantly persue to say no no no then this deal might lead to a severe intractable loos and might rriversibly destroy the rlation and future mitual win win that will forsure affect Egypt.

No best way that the win win entebe agreement!

pretty young
pretty young
11 years ago

The Nile River belongs to God and be taught that we all die and leave the waters or the resources name them that r making us fight.The reason Why there is still a confusion of who owns the Nile ,is because God owns it for all his people he created.

Ugandans would still hold a vibrant say about the Nile since the source is clearly indicated in Uganda, now lets see who stops the Nile from flowing,if it was Egypt ,but the water is still behind Egypt so it must be Uganda.

The water resource is for the almighty God and we should be warned not to fight over what belongs to him.Gadhafi would still exist if that was the case.

7 years ago

The thing what the Egyptians & others are saying is, “we are the only one to survive.” assume ,how much soil is flooded in Ethiopia and carried away by the Nile to Egypt. this is like pouring water with soil of a jar in to another one and I think what Ethiopia doing is just feed her own people and survive and don’t forget ,Ethiopia is 85% source of the whole Nile and got nothing from it come on! this not fair.

Rohit Attri
1 year ago

The article delves into the historical and legal aspects of the Nile River ownership debate, which has been shaped by colonial-era agreements and conflicting interests between upstream and downstream countries. The article also discusses the potential implications of the ongoing Nile River ownership dispute, including the impact on water security and regional stability.
Overall, the article aims to provide readers with a comprehensive understanding of the complex issue of Nile River ownership and the challenges involved in managing this crucial water resource. It serves as a valuable resource for those interested in environmental policy, international relations, and sustainable development.

Asiandu Lawrence
Asiandu Lawrence
Reply to  Rohit Attri
11 months ago

For us in Uganda we shall always use our Nile the way we want to help our people because it’s our water and lake Victoria belongs to Uganda, the British are the ones who gave some parts to Tanzania and Kenya.
Egypt should decide on the water that is already in their land not in another countries land.