The Grand Nile Basin Renaissance Plan

Beyond the debate over Ethiopia’s Blue Nile hydropower dam, we have to think big to productively share our precious shared resource

To proceed forwards, we often have to look backwards.

In 2,500 B.C, the world witnessed its first legal agreement of any kind being made—an agreement on the use of the Tigris river. It was concluded between the two Sumerian city-states Lagesh and Umma. The treaty, tagged the Treaty of Mesilim after the king who facilitated it, was literally carved in stone in the Sumerian writing system cuneiform.

The accord came about because Lagesh and Umma were disputing the use of river Tigris and related border issues due to a contested irrigation canal.  Eventually, King Mesilim, a prominent leader of neighbouring city state, Kish, mediated this treaty and came up with a comprehensive agreement.

The agreement included land-lease and annual tenancy fees, and a crop-sharing scheme for land that was cultivated by Umma in Lagesh territory as part of mechanisms for water allocation. This treaty, an early example of the mutual benefits of cooperation, also established the borders between these two states along the coveted canal.

However, the Umma kingdom breached the terms by not paying their tenancy debts, resulting in the world’s first known water war in 2470 B.C.

Since, transboundary water-sharing doctrines have evolved. From narrow, myopic approaches which favour either upstream or downstream riparians (absolute territorial sovereignty/ integrity) to ideas such as the prior appropriation doctrine, which says ‘first come first serve’, to modern transboundary water-sharing principles.

The world now favours equitable and reasonable use of a shared watercourse while placing emphasis on causing no significant harm and cooperation. The most notable articulation of these principles can be found in the Helsinki rules adopted in 1966, and later in UN 1997 Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses.

Apart from reinforcing the three pillars of modern customary water use, i.e. equitable and reasonable use, causing no significant harm on others and need for cooperation, both the Helsinki rules and the 1997 convention outline factors that need to be considered in determining equitable and reasonable use in a shared transboundary watercourse.

These factors include natural endowments and contributions of riparian states as well as current and potential demands of each riparian states as determining factors for water allocation. In addition, it goes on to state that all factors should be considered together according to the importance to riparian countries to reach at an equitable allocation on a basis level.

In plain terms, the 1997 convention states that equitable use should be determined by considering the above factors and the weights that countries would give to them. Contextualizing this notion to the Nile, it is clear that if we are to redistribute its water between riparian countries, the share of Egypt and Sudan would be nowhere close to the arrangements in their infamous 1959 treaty.

Under no imaginable equitable scheme would Egypt get 66 percent of the Nile waters and Sudan get 22 percent while the other riparians get 0 percent (the rest evaporates). This explains Egypt’s efforts to hold on to these outdated, skewed agreements, despite the chatter of not being against equitable use of the Nile.

Taking a stand for equitable and reasonable use by default invalidates unequitable and unreasonable claims. This is what Egypt and Sudan did in 2015 when they signed the Declaration of Principles on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) and expressed their support for equitable and reasonable use. Half a decade later, is high time that the basin states put their money where their mouth is and moved to an equitable and reasonable framework of water allocation.

It should be noted, however, that even under the best-case scenario, where we have equitable redistribution, Egypt and Sudan will not suddenly start using less water. The water in the Nile is already accounted for—there are millions of people, homes, communities and thousands of industries dependent on it already. It is also expected that demand in the basin will outstrip supply by 2040 unless we have proactive sustainable water management in place. It is therefore imperative to find a way of supplementing existing needs without impacting the needs and rights of others.

This is where redistribution of the water based on the principles of equitable and reasonable use takes centre stage. Once we know how much water each country is entitled to based on the factors mentioned above, there are numerous ways we can move forward without jeopardizing livelihoods.

  1. Physical Water Trade

Assuming we know the fair water shares of all riparian countries, it is evident that not every country will utilize its allocated water share, at least not immediately. Some countries would need more than their share while other countries would not use the totality of that share. This can be seen in the current situation of Sudan and Egypt: while Egypt uses more than its “allocated share” of 55.5 billion cubic meters (BCM), Sudan does not use its “share” of 18.5 BCM and the unused water goes to supplement Egypt. Here is where the concept of water trade comes in. By pricing water on a regional basis, we can have countries with water surplus sell their excess to countries in need, fostering economic integration.

Experiences from the European carbon trade can be used here. The European Commission set a cap on the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by multiple sectors with the aim of reducing emissions. The EU scheme allows for trading of “carbon credits” where companies with lower carbon emissions can sell their saved carbon allowances to companies over their emission limit.

  1. Virtual Water Trade

The concept of virtual water trade—trading the water embedded in commodities—is one way of overcoming global water scarcity, including in the Nile basin. The idea is countries which are rich in water can export their water virtually to water scarce areas by trading commodities. For example, instead of growing cotton, a water-intensive crop in a water-scarce area, the idea would be to grow the cotton in a water-rich spot and export it to the drier location.

This can be extended to hydropower and food production. Instead of building a hydropower dam in stifling lowlands where evaporation loss is high, hydropower would be produced in a cooler area, and the energy exported to where it is needed. By trading commodities, primarily energy and food, we are essentially trading the water embedded in these products.

This proposal requires thinking big and considering the whole Nile basin as an economic unit and capitalizing on its resources. This means countries pursuing their interests through more cooperation, and less competition. The basin is endowed with significant hydropower, irrigation, fishing, and navigation potential. By investing in these resources at basin-wide scale and virtually trading water through other resources, we not only free more water for other non-tradable services, such as domestic use, but also save so much water that would otherwise have been lost to the inefficiencies.

  1. Increased efficiency, conservation, and water consciousness

Current water use in the Nile basin is extremely inefficient. Seepage from watercourses and dams is significant, especially in Egypt and Sudan where open irrigation canals are common. By investing on increasing the inefficiency and reducing waste we save so much water which can be used for other purposes.

Concerted environmental conservation endeavours by all riparian countries—in order to increase the water stored in the basin and to reduce pollution and enhance the ecosystem—is necessary for sustainable use. In conjunction with this, we must create a water-conscious population, one which knows the value of water and uses it judiciously, by starting with kids, enforcing water-conservation measures, and promoting water-saving practices.

  1. Water-smart investments

Because we do not have a basin-wide integrated use approach in the Nile Basin, countries try and maximize individual benefits and hence many water-related investments in the Nile basin are not ‘smart’. We lose a staggering amount of water because of choices which are not water smart, such as growing water-intensive crops or building a large reservoir in the desert. Such projects result in immense losses because they are not water-smart decisions and only serve narrow national agendas.

However, integrated water-resource management, such as storing water in places of low evaporation, capitalizing on suitable irrigable land where appropriate, investments in conservation and water-storage enhancement practices upstream on the head waters of the Nile, are critical for ensuring the Nile is a sustainable resource.

  1. Exploring alternative water resources

The fact of the matter is the Nile only has so much water. With the above-mentioned practices, we can stretch and extend the hand of the Nile—but it can only be spread so far. It is important to explore other sources to supplement it. Rainwater harvesting, groundwater recharge, wastewater reuse, and alternative sources such as desalination are worthy avenues to pursue.

It should be noted that these recommendations are not silver bullets, but rather starting points to flex our imagination. Arguments that have to do with ensuring self-sufficiency on a national basis are bound to pop up against many of these recommendations. However, in this growing world of increasing interdependence and growing scarcity, leaning on each other seems to be the way out for everyone; while a colossal crisis will surely come to pass if we unilaterally choose narrow conceptions of self-interest.

These are long-term ideas which require considering the basin as an economic unit and achieving basin-wide collaboration to maximize benefits. This however requires significant regional economic and political integration as well as good will from the basin states to move forward. As things stand now, the discussions in the Nile Basin are focused on the GERD.

The GERD is a significant project and negotiations should proceed, considering international laws and compassion for the people on the ground. This would mean coming up with an agreeable filling and annual operation scheme without the baggage of water allocation. While it looks unlikely that an agreement would be reached by the time Ethiopia says filling will start in July, the resumed tripartite talks can potentially produce nuanced arrangements which would appease all three parties.

The GERD is a flagship project on a transboundary watercourse and can pave the way for enhanced collaboration throughout the basin. However, the discussions should zoom out to a progressive dialogue on an inclusive basin-wide water-allocation arrangement, which the Cooperative Framework Agreement is designed to be, and other ways to move forward.

Issues related to sharing a transboundary water are not unique to the Nile. We have seen that the history of transboundary water management goes back to near the start of human civilization itself. There are so many elements we can learn from this ancient Treaty of Mesilim: cooperation and good will, mediation, good neighbourliness, as well as the terrible cost of zero-sum narrow-minded thinking—war.

The ancient Sumerians came up with mechanisms like trade and compensation as ways to get around the use of scarce resources. We can definitely do better. The modern world is not lacking precedents on how to move forward; rather it’s missing goodwill and farsightedness. We have lessons and examples to learn from dating back millennia. It is up to us to step up and stand on the shoulder of giants and leap forward together.

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This is the author’s viewpoint. However, Ethiopia Insight will correct clear factual errors.

Editor: William Davison

Main photo: Heads of state meet at the first Nile Basin States Summit held in Entebbe, Uganda; June 22, 2017; Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs

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About the author

Mekdelawit Messay Deribe

Mekdelawit is a civil engineer and an environmental scientist working on water science research and Nile-related studies. She is an independent researcher and can be reached at


  • Thank you for this well researched and fact-based article. I was fortunate to visit Luxor a few years ago. As the plane was flying over Egypt, I could see miles and miles of desert land. The only green area you see is the land alongside the river Nile. Egypt needs the water; the river Nile is not a nice to have but a lifeline for them. Egypt also needs to accept Ethiopia’s right to benefit from the river Nile. There is a huge amount of water being wasted in Egypt every year and Egypt needs to start using the water wisely and efficiently. Ethiopia needs utilise the river Nile in the way that does not harm Sudan and Egypt. Military confrontation, sabotaging each other’s economy and stability does not help anyone. Instead, all three countries need to sit down and work out a mutually benefiting arrangement.

  • Great explanation about the issue! the cooperation is the basis for succes of GERD and the enviromental themes in general.

  • I like the way you spoke in, well thought, as an egyptian I wish if both of our countries can reach a reasonable agreement that will be fair for all of us, war is definitely not a good option, no one wants to see the plood on the shores of the Nile

  • Thank you Mekdelawit. It is well articulated on the future redistribution of the precious resource,water, among the Nile basin countries on the principles of equitable and reasonable share without significant harm. Ethiopia is the tower of water for East Africa countries and Egypt.

    I will wait more to read your lovely article.

  • Wonderful and professional presentation. Good job! Dear Mekdelawit, look forward to read more of your rich analysis and thought-brovoking ideas (for policy makers and academia). Why not you go for a kind of institutionalized and sustainable work on the issue of GRAND NILE BASIN RENAISSANCE INITIATIVE. I think this will interest Nile basin countries as well as international communities. Develop a Concept Note and press forward, this useful plan for action, please.

  • An interesting article.
    I applaud the way you tried to widen our thinking box on the matter from scientific perspective.
    On behalf of me, We don’t face this time challenges if GERD project had finished as per scheduled. This whole crisis emanated from internal instability being happening on.
    By hook or crook we’ll made it happen.

  • I suspect that the issue of the Renaissance Dam is probably overhyped, if not oversold, by policiatians and their surrogates and allies now and then. Melez & Co. did it just as Abye & Co. intends to do in good measure. And the main reason is to countre-weigh and distract or duck off from other immensely pressing issues of political, economic, demographic and environmental problems. This is patculary relevant right now than ever.Note that I’m not saying the Dam isn’t important perse or couldn’t have considerable economic benefit upon completion or that other geopolitical rivals saren’t opposed to it at any cost. What I’m saying is that it couldn’t alone be a panacea perse for other mryriad of socio-political, governance disfunctions and other pressing reform issues. Remember also having bestowed upon resources or other geostrategic location doesn’t
    guarantee progress or necessarily translate to success for any nation. It could be a curse at times, if not well managed and taken serious precautions. Just look no further
    those failed and quasi-failed nations in Africa and elsewhere which the Almighty Allah/God bestowed upon precious natural resources such as oil and other minerals. Compare that with the success stories of the resource poor nations like the Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, ect.! There are host of other perquisites issues and steps for lasting success and for holistic benefit of given resource to society such as good governence, institutional competence, rule of law and pacification, literacy or know-how capabilities,, transparency and anticorruption regimes .

  • Mekdekawit Messay Dreibe word can’t express for your valuable time, Ethiopia needs her children. Your emmens contributions will bring young Ethiopians to stand for their motherland.

  • Thank you Mekdi it’s very important issue. You give us your time and write it on a very interesting manner.

  • Your hopeful ideas may not be misplaced. If sense flowed among tyrnats five millennia before, there is no reason it will not now. Wish us all the luck we need so desperately

  • Very interesting article. It discussed the historical, legal and economic issues of shared water resources and put amicable way for the negotiations of the three countries of the Nile

  • Your article on nile water sharing is inteesting. In my view, Ethiopia as the main source of the nile-the blue nile, has even more rights on the river but has never used its share for centuries.

    It has every right to use its natural resources. As Ethiopia is one of the poorest nation on earth economically, but one of the richest historically and culturally, is only trying to generate hydroelectric power since half of its population around 60 million do not have any kind of electricity in the 21st century. 

    Even though its population doesn’t have enough agricultural productions to feed itself, the renaissance dam being constructed is not for irrigation purposes at all. 

    In my opionion, if Egypt is not really selfish, it can provide help to Ethiopia to utilize its other water sources so that Ethiopia can only use the nile water in a limited way.
    Yes Ethiopia is so much rich in water resources. However, it does not have the money and expertise as such to utilize its other water resources for smaller and regional power sources as well as irrigation projects to feed its people. Thus, it invested huge amout of money and resources to build the GRED. 

    Western, southern, central and southwest parts of Ethiopia are rich in water resources. 

    If Ethiopia gets help from Egypt as a form of compensation, for Ethiopia giving away its share of the nile to Egypt, and be able to generate electric power as well as irrigation projects for food productions, it will surely limit its use of the nile water to avoid any fear on the part of Egypt and Sudan. 

    Otherwise, the obsolete arrangements as crafted by Egypt and Sudan will never govern the use of the nile water anymore.

    Thus, if Egypt genuinely desires a resolution to the issue, there is a way out. The status quo will never work. 

    I like your suggestions as a long term shared benefit for all riperian states if accepted by all; but Egypt is so greedy that it wants to benefit only itself.  
    98% of Egypcians have electricity but only 50% of Ethiopians get electricity.
    It is only few industries established in Ethiopia for lack of power but there are hundreds of heavy industries in Egypt all for Ethiopia completely gave aeay its share.
    Annual per capita income of Egyptians is around $12, 000.00 but Ethiopians is around only $2000.00 

    This must change! Ethiopia also need to develop in every respect.

  • What an insightful and compelling article I have ever come across. I very much hope the experts and politicians of all the Mile reparian counties will get hold this well articulated and an article full of implementable recommendations.

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