International Water Law: Egypt, Ethiopia, and the Nile

A guest post by Daniel Abebe:

To many people, water law might not sound like the most exciting area of international law but it is becoming an increasingly important issue. The dispute between China on one side, and Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand on the other, over the Mekong River affects access to water for millions of people in Southeast Asia. In more volatile parts of the world, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey have not agreed on dividing the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, while the Jordan River is subject to dispute among various countries in the Middle East. Perhaps most prominently, Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan, and other countries in the Nile River Basin, have failed to agree on the equitable division of the world’s longest river, the Nile. As populations grow and economic development demands greater access to water resources, these disputes will likely become more intractable.

But just a few days ago, the leaders of Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan signed an initial agreement in which they pledged to better share the Nile River’s waters and, according to Egyptian President Al-Sisi, realize “mutual gains for everyone and avoid damage to any party.” Although the key details have not been negotiated, the impetus for the agreement was Ethiopia’s decision to construct the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile, the Nile’s largest and most important tributary originating in Lake Tana, Ethiopia. In Egypt, Ethiopia, and the Nile, The Economics of International Water Law, I analyze the dispute, describing the complex legal, political, economic, and national security issues that have made reaching a comprehensive agreement on the Nile between Egypt and Ethiopia so difficult. The importance of the Nile to both countries is clear. For example, since the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam has the potential to reduce the Nile’s downstream water volume — and the Nile provides 96% of Egypt’s freshwater and the Nile Valley hosts 98% of Egypt’s 85 million people — Egypt had been vehemently opposed to its construction. Ethiopia, on the other hand, wants to exploit its water resources — Ethiopia provides over 85 percent of the Nile’s volume but utilizes less than 1 percent of the Blue Nile — to provide hydro-electric power to a growing population. Any final agreement would not only have to delineate a mutually agreeable division of the Nile’s waters, but also include mechanisms for implementation, monitoring, enforcement, and compensation for violations between two non-democracies with a long history of mistrust. In short, stay tuned. If you want to learn more about the dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia over the Nile or potential approaches to resolving it, the paper is available on ssrn.