Friday, August 6, 2010

Why Sudanese people opposes the Nile Water Agreements?

In spite of the official stance favouring the 1929/59 Nile water agreements between Egypt & Sudan, the agreements are strongly opposed by most of the Sudanese people who represent the silent majority. This public resentment was denied its right of publicity by various entities which worked hard to confine these voices and ignore their existence.
The present Nile basin conflict reflects radical change in the way the Nile waters are managed and shared by riparian countries, behind these changes reside new mentalities, attitudes and conditions which indicate that the change is permanent, and that old days of inequitable distribution are gone forever.

A new agreement, Nile Basin Co-operative Framework, was signed in May 2010 by five riparian states; other two are expected to add their signatures soon. This action shows how serious upper Nile countries are in bringing an end to the extended negotiations which continued for a decade in a revolving manner, without a hope for breakthrough in solving the critical issue of water redistribution.


The Co-operative Framework was vehemently rejected by Egypt and Sudan on the basis of their claimed legal and historical rights over the full amount of water, as stated in the 1929/59 agreements. The two agreements were initiated by Egypt and maintained through the decades to ensure non obstructed flow of the Nile water to the country; the agreements were tailored to serve Egypt while ignoring other riparian states, hence they acted as seeds of disagreement which were growing beneath the surface and merged recently to create the present conflict.

Egypt and Sudan need to learn the lessons from past agreements and to analyze how and why they were unfair, only then they will be able to co-operate with other riparian states and seek a win-win settlement to the present dispute. Analysis of the various clauses of the agreements, together with the consequences of decades of their implementation shows that they are Unreasonable1, Humiliating2, Exploitative3, Unfair4, Represent a threat to water security5, Delayed economic development6, and Represent an element of political instability.

The belief that the agreements are unreasonable is a common factor among all riparian states, with basin wide opinion against the concept of water monopoly by the two D/S countries. The other six unfavourable features are suffered solely by Sudan.

Detailed analysis of the seven shortcomings follow.


The agreements were unreasonable because they:
- Were restricted to two countries only, other riparian states were ignored; a reasonable and sustainable agreement requires full participation of all the riparian countries.
- Allotted the full amount of water to two countries, and denied other riparian states their natural and equitable rights to use the Nile waters.
- Empowered Egypt with the veto right against any water resources developments in other countries


The agreements are considered to be humiliating to the Sudanese people and degrading the sovereignty of their country. The following examples are indicative to these factors: 1. In 1952 Egypt decided to inundate all the Sudanese towns and villages along the Nile for a distance of 200 kms south of the boarder, and to resettle 50,000 Sudanese Nubians who were living in this land which embraces the oldest African civilization. The decision was taken without informing the Sudanese government or the affected citizens, rumours were spreading for months and were only confirmed when the official Egyptian daily newspaper, Al-Ahram, issued the news.

This was an unprecedented case in the history of international relationship, in which a country planned unilaterally, and actually implemented a project which destroyed valuable and historical part of a neighbouring country. The military coup which overthrew the Sudanese government in 1958 brought four years of dispute and tension between Sudan & Egypt to an end, the new government surrendered to the Egyptian pressures and approved the inundation plan. This disgraceful settlement was included in the 1959 agreement, since then it was considered by Sudanese as a symbol of humiliation and Egyptian arrogance.

2. The inundated Halfa town was the heart of the old Nubian civilization, which was known of its huge, mostly unexcavated antiquities. The Egyptian government decided a compensation amount of M 15.0 pounds; this was less than 30% of the actual value of the buildings, infrastructure and agricultural land, without considering the highly invaluable historical sites. This compensation is tantamount to insult and low consideration, and was widely rejected by Sudanese people and organizations.. 3. Jebel Awlia Dam: The 1929 allowed Egypt to build Jebel Awlia dam across the White Nile in Sudan in the year 1937. The dam was built by Egypt to store and control water flow to Egypt. It became obsolete after building Aswan High Dam (AHD) in 1971, and was then abandoned and handed over to Sudan. This dam represents an other instance of arrogant Egyptian attitude towards Sudan, it constitutes a bunch of problems which were created by the construction of the dam, with their negative impacts still prevailing and will continue for generations. Examples of the negative impacts are stated below:
- The dam inundated millions of acres of fertile arable lands; the reservoir extends for more than 600 kms, with an average width of 3 kms.
- The local people rejected the inadequate compensation offered by Egypt and suffered considerably from negligence.
- The extended reservoir created poor environmental conditions and caused the spread of diseases.
- All existing and planned irrigation pump schemes suffered from the extended shallow, mildly sloped reservoir banks, this requires excavation of very long and expensive inlet channel for each pump station, and considerably increases the capital and operation costs of all the irrigation schemes.
- The extended reservoir causes excessive evaporation of valuable amount of water, a burden caused by Egypt while Sudan paid and continues to pay the huge cost.
- In 1971 the dam became obsolete to Egypt was therefore abandoned by them; the operation responsibility was then transferred to Sudan. The harmful structure continues to exist and to cause endless troubles and continuous cost without obligation to Egypt.


There are strong reasons to believe that Egypt exploited Sudan’s institutional and technical weakness at the time of the agreement, the country was moving its first steps in the road of independence, and was just starting the process of building its national institutions. During the negotiations, Sudanese delegation lacked experience, information and technical support to make appropriate decisions, and to fully understand the consequences of its decisions. Due to that some clauses with obvious negative impact were accepted merely because the consequences were not properly understood. Below are some examples of exploitation: 1. Evaporation Losses of Aswan High Dam (AHD): The agreement stated that the two countries shall equally share the evaporation loss from AHD, estimated at 10 Km3 annually. By agreeing to this clause, I believe the Sudanese delegation accepted the unacceptable without exploring the intricacies of the subject, the reasons supporting this opinion are:

- Egypt solely planned, financed, built and operated AHD; its intentions were never revealed to nor discussed with Sudan at any stage. The dam was built by Egypt, for its sole benefit, it uses all the generated power, the stored water; and receives controlled and secured flows. Evaporation losses should naturally be fully incurred by Egypt which owns and benefits from the dam.
- AHD was built mainly to protect Egypt from water shortages during low flow years, this is why it was designed as an over year storage, otherwise a much smaller dam, with much less reservoir and evaporation loss would have been sufficient to control water from flowing to the sea.
- A better choice was to control the river further U/S inside Ethiopia or Uganda, and the three countries will benefit: Ethiopia/Uganda by generating hydro power, Sudan and Egypt by receiving controlled flows, and by securing a cheaper source of power. This attractive and reasonable option was rejected by Egypt because they were able to convince Sudan to share the evaporation losses with them.
- Egypt is using 78% of the water; therefore the simple logic requires that the evaporation loss should at least be shared at the same proportion.

2. Sharing Increased river flows: The agreement stated that the two countries shall implement conservation projects to increase the river flow, the cost and benefits shall then be equally shared, the same apply even if only Egypt needs the water. This clause should have also been rejected because of the following:

- By accepting this clause Sudan granted Egypt its internal resources free of any cost or obligation. The river losses represent water reserves which could be tapped by Sudan when the need arises without sharing it with Egypt. Large portion of this lost water is generated from within Sudanese land, i.e. Bahr Alghazal and Sobat basins,
- The agreement did not make any consideration for the local people whom livelihood depend on the swamp land which will be drained by implementing these projects, there was no mechanism or guidelines for compensations, resettlement, and community development projects.
- The agreement did not consider any guidelines for environmental and social impact studies, which are essential prerequisite of such projects.

3. Water loan: the agreement awarded Egypt a water loan from Sudan’s share, this aimed at enabling Egypt to proceed with planned programs for Agricultural Expansion. This loan will help Egypt in claiming more acquired rights in the future, and will increase the ceiling of it’s water use, accordingly the starting point of compromise in future negotiations will be higher.

4. Utilizing the Military Coup: The Sudanese democratic governments refused the Egyptian proposals for three years. Egypt failed to convince or intimidate the government, and the negotiations failed to reach agreement from 1955 till 1958 when the government was overthrown by a military coup. The new government received the needful political support from Egypt; in exchange the agreement was signed in few months.


The agreement clauses were tailored to provide Egypt with the lion’s share and accordingly were totally unfair to Sudan, examples are shown here: 1. Water Shares: The water was shared in the ratio of 78 to 22, granting Egypt almost 4 times Sudan’s share. According to international water law, water should be shared on equitable and reasonable basis, which is achieved by considering the various elements of existing and potential demand, efficient use, economical utilization, population. None of these elements suggests that Egypt receives 78% of all the Nile waters, while Sudan with its huge fertile lands, hydropower potentials and lower losses is limited to 22%. The only factor in favour of Egypt is the population, which is double Sudan’s population, but this is one of many factors, if applied properly, will lead to much less share for Egypt.

2. Encourage Non efficient water use: The agreement awarded Egypt much more than it can utilize efficiently, and deprived other users of their opportunity of highly efficient use. This encouraged Egypt to expand beyond reasonable extents, and to execute huge, non-feasible desert projects in poor soils located at Toshki, New Valley, Sinai and West Delta. These projects will prevent Sudan from implementing highly feasible and very attractive projects proposed at Kenana, Rahad, Upper Atbara, White Nile, Blue Nile & Gezira.

3. Lead Sudan to Unnecessary hostilities: Sudan receives small amount of water, but shares the full response of the unfairness to other Nile basin countries. For these countries Sudan and Egypt together agreed to utilize the full amount of the Nile waters, so both countries are equally responsible for the unfair action. In realty, Sudan suffers similar unfairness, and is a victim wearing the cloak of a tyrant.

4. Deprive Sudan from Its Remarkable Neutral Position: Sudan has a unique and remarkable position among the Nile basin countries, the main features of this position emerge from the fact that Sudan:
- Is both a source and user country of the Nile waters; therefore it understands and share threats and benefits with both sides.
- Shares boarders, and has tribal and ethnic relationships with most of the countries.
- Have historical relationships with most of the countries.

Therefore Sudan was supposed to play a crucial role in binding the Nile basin countries together, creating friendly environment and enhancing basin wide co-operation. But the country is tied by the Nile water agreement which require a unified Egyptian-Sudanese position; therefore instead of being an important solution element, it became part of the problem.

5. Weakening the Negotiation Position of Sudan: Sudan enters the negotiations under the Egyptian umbrella, therefore all other countries look at Sudan as a follower, and focus on Egypt as the main counter part. The final solution will be a compromise between the major parties, Sudan as a follower will be the first looser.

6. Inundation of Samna water fall: AHD caused inundation of Samna waterfalls which was considered one of the potential hydropower generation sites across the Nile. There was no mention in the agreement to this site, and hence there was no compensation. This is quite odd, since AHD is generating plenty of hydropower for Egypt, and at the same time depriving Sudan from similar power site without compensation, or extension of the power lines to the South to compensate for this loss.


Article 5.2 of the agreement states that: “if other riparian states claim part of the Nile water, and if the negotiations lead to acceptance of this claim, then the accepted amount shall be deducted from the shares of the two Republics in equal parts”. This clause represents a great threat to the water security of Sudan, the on going conflict over the Nile water will definitely lead to its redistribution, the source countries claim around 20 Km3, undoubtedly, they will get what they claim, and the redistributed amount will be equally deducted from Sudan and Egypt. Hence Sudan’s share will fall down to 8.5 Km3 while Egypt’s share will still remain very high, i.e. 55.5 Km3.

Sudan is already losing 5 Km3 of its share in power generation as dams’ evaporation losses, if we exclude domestic use the remaining for irrigation will be less than 3 Km3 ; this amounts require abandoning 80% of the existing irrigation schemes, and all the planned water resources projects. The situation will even become worse if South Sudan decides to go for separation in the coming referendum of Jan 2011, in which case the new state will claim at least 6 K m3 as its share of resources, and Sudan will remain with practically no water from the Nile.


The agreements empowered Egypt with the veto right against any water resources developments in other countries, this power was utilized in delaying the development in Sudan in many occasions, in each of which Egypt gave its consent after receiving unreasonable, very high price. The following are examples:
- In 1925 Egypt delayed the construction and operation of Gezira scheme and Sennar dam for 4 years; the price paid by Sudan to get the green light for the project was the approval of constructing the problematic Jebel Awlia dam across the White Nile in Sudan.
- In the 1950’s the construction of Roseires dam and Managil irrigation schemes were delayed for more than 10 years awaiting Egypt’s approval. Sudan was asked to approve the inundation of Halfa region by construction of Aswan High Dam and to sign the 1959 water agreement as a price for these projects.


1959 agreement gave Egypt the right to construct conservation projects in Southern Sudan to save the lost water at the swamps area, accordingly Egypt started construction of Jongli canal in 1978 to save 7 Km3 of the White Nile waters by digging a canal through the swamp region. The project was not accepted by the local people who believe that it will drain their waters, destroy the environment, deprive them of their main economic activities and lead them to poverty, misery and death. The project aimed at squeezing as much water as possible from the swamp area, without benefiting or protecting the local people from the various negative impacts, this was natural because the project was planned and implemented by Egypt, Sudan was not in need of the saved water since its share was not yet fully utilized by that time. But, according to the agreement, Sudan was bound to accept the project, and even to pay 50% of the cost, the agreement was silent in regard to the local people who will be negatively affected by the project.

This event was a turning point in Sudan’s history; it was one of the main causes of the civil war, which started in 1983, and one of its early declarations was destroying the huge Jongli canal excavator. The war claimed millions of victims, destroyed hundreds of towns and villages, crippled the economy and separated Sudan into two countries. What a big price for additional water for Egypt to implement non feasible irrigation schemes in the heart of the desert.


The present dispute is the right time for all parties to start thinking out of the box, and endeavour to change the old attitudes which led to this dead end. The Nile basin is clearly divided by the conflict into two blocks, the custodians of the old rules on one side, and the leaders of change on the other; the essential difference between the two blocks is how they value the historical agreements for water distribution, and how they interpret the concepts of fairness and equity.

The Nile water agreements provide a wealth of experience, this should be analyzed and utilized in reaching a common understanding about the above concepts. Some of the lessons and implications of these agreements are stated below:

- Unfairness and unreasonableness can never build a basis for perpetual settlement: Nothing can protect unfair agreements in the long run, and they will eventually fail under the pressure exerted by those who suffer their shortcomings. Egypt is defending its position by claiming historical and legal rights vested in them by the Nile water agreements, a debate is created as other countries deny these rights. The rejection of the agreements will grow and acquire strength as long as the unfair issues are not aggressively addressed and solved.

- Latent Resistant will Emerge: In the past, Egypt succeeded in confining the Sudanese resistance to the agreements, the force exerted by Egypt was more than that created by the shortcomings of the agreements, mainly because the negative impacts were not direct, and were not widely spread. Now conditions have changed drastically, and the impacts started to affect directly the Sudanese institutions and people, therefore, movements against the agreement are growing fast, and will soon dominate the relationship between the two countries.
- Proactive Attitudes: In view of the above shortcomings, the 1929/59 Nile water agreement has no chance of survival, therefore it is a wise attitude to be proactive and secure controlled, agreeable and well planned termination of the agreement instead of mandatory, unpredictable one. Events are moving at a fast pace, actions should be faster and ahead of events, otherwise Sudan will be the main loser in the whole region.
- Water poverty line is one of the most misused concepts within the Nile agreement context; the threshold of 1,000 M3/capita/year represents the average amount of water needed by an individual to cover the annual needs for domestic use, food production and industrial requirements. However, it dose not indicate that this amount should be physically available in the form of water; therefore the concept of virtual water was created to show that water is exchangeable in the form of commodities. The only rigid part of the threshold is the domestic requirements, which is normally not exceeding 50 M3/capita/year, the remaining 950 M3, although necessary, is not critical or life threatening, and therefore subject to negotiations.

Nile is the longest river; this record breaking length is a disadvantage as it should satisfy the requirements of 9 riparian states with its relatively very low flow. Therefore, water poverty is the norm in the basin, and should be evaluated in a basin wide manner.

- Red Lines Myth: Egypt and Sudan are always spreading words that their share of Nile water is a red line which should not be treaded. Drawing such red lines is a negative action which affects building healthy negotiation environment.

The author is water resources engineer in Canada. He worked for the Ministry of Irrigation Sudan - in Dams, Planning and Hydraulic Research Directorates. He can be reached at

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