An Ancient River Divided

Water is becoming scarcer for the half a billion
people living in Africa's Nile River basin.

Will Nile countries come together to find solutions -
or will the shared waterway tear them apart?

Journalists from around the basin explore in an
original series of documentaries and podcasts.

By: Fredrick Mugira (Uganda), Annika McGinnis (Uganda), Safaa Saleh (Egypt), Dagim Terefe (Ethiopia), Ishraga abd Arrhman (Sudan), Jacob Mugini (Tanzania)

The Nile River is the longest river in the world; life-sustaining to the 11 African countries it winds through.

Its waters flow with countless stories and complex history. Throughout the ages, the river has served as a source of mythology and religious significance to civilizations from Ancient Egypt to the Bantu tribes of sub-Saharan Africa.

But when it comes to pinpointing the source of the Nile, most still do not seem to know.

“When someone says River Nile, each Rwandan, what comes into his mind or her mind is the source of the Nile [in Rwanda],” argues Irene Felix Munyejuru, a fourth year student of water and environmental engineering at the University of Rwanda, in Kigali, Rwanda.

The other sources of River Nile are said to be in Lake Victoria, Uganda, or Lake Tana, Ethiopia.

This small dispute is emblematic of larger conflicts over the Nile, which are escalating as basin countries vie for water resources in an age of water scarcity and climate change.

Demand versus Supply

One thing basin residents do seem to agree on is that their iconic river may not meet the needs of the future generation. 

“The demand is increasing, and of course the supply of water is fixed,” Munyejuru said.

For centuries, River Nile, the longest river in the world, has been a source of pride not only for Rwandans but all citizens of the 11 countries in the Nile basin.  It is a source of livelihood for about half a billion people in the region.

This 6,695 kilometer–long river (4,160 miles) caters for their water, food and energy needs, among others.

As African countries continue to undergo a population boom, experts estimate that the Nile basin population will double by 2050.

Most people in the downstream Nile Basin countries of Egypt and Sudan tend to live close to the river, while population in the upstream countries including Ethiopia, Tanzania and DR Congo is based around areas of high rainfall.

What will happen if the amount of water needed to sustain this population exceeds what is available? 


Water conflicts are not new in the Nile basin. But they are worsening - as climate change and population growth exacerbate water challenges, and new hydropower projects across the basin threaten to redistribute the Nile's flow.

"Where there is no water, there is conflict."
Dr. William Onyango Ogembo, Professor of Hydrology, University of Nairobi in Kenya.

“In many countries, [the river] is a source of conflict. [But] it should be able to satisfy our needs and not to stay a conflict maker,” said Umutesi Mameline, a student of water and environmental engineering at the University of Rwanda.

“Through cooperation, each country should set decisions by considering other countries' benefits,” she said.

As basin countries' economies grow in our interconnected global era, recent water disputes in the basin mainly involve cross-boundary uses of the Nile's water.

While dams are important sources of power and water, negative impacts of dams often include drastic changes in the flow of the river and the resettlement of displaced people. Since 1840, in the 11 countries of the Nile Basin, 153 dams have been built or are currently being completed.

Overall, the map above shows a trend of increasing hydropower projects in the region. Of the total dams depicted on this map, about half are currently in planning stages or are in the process of completion.

Currently, the most prominent water dispute is the row between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan over the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile in Ethiopia.

Source: The International, Non-partisan Eastern Nile Working Group 2014

Source: The International, Non-partisan Eastern Nile Working Group 2014

Begun construction in 2011, the dam will be the largest in Africa and the 7th largest in the world when it is complete. It will produce over 6,400 megawatts of power.

Disputes over the impact of this project on Nile River’s water distribution continue to escalate. Egypt - already facing  severe shortages of water - fears that the dam could reduce its water supply. The arid country depends almost solely on the river to sustain its economy and provide food and water to its people. 

Sudan and Egypt have long divided the Nile's water according to a 1959 treaty negotiated by the then-colonial power, Great Britain. But Sudan has historically used less than it was allotted, allowing the majority of the water to flow to Egypt.

Now, as the arid country seeks to boost its agricultural economy,  Sudan is supporting Ethiopia's efforts to build the dam and fill the reservoir - fast. The reservoir could begin to be filled this year.

The story of how Egyptians feel about Ethiopia following the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is well told in a 2017 documentary by Safaa Saleh, an award-winning Egyptian environmental journalist.

The documentary, ‘Hate Speech on the Banks of the Timeless River,’ shows that the construction of this dam has led to hatred and cold war fought by not only governments but also media and nationals of Egypt and Ethiopia.

'Hate Speech on the Banks of a Timeless River' by Safaa Saleh

'Hate Speech on the Banks of a Timeless River' by Safaa Saleh

But Asmama Kume, the director for Basin Administration directorate in Ethiopia’s Ministry of Water, Irrigation and Electricity, said there should be no cause for alarm over how Ethiopia is utilizing Nile River waters.

“Our foreign policy is well formulated to share all crossing rivers with other countries,” Kume said.

Amidst heightened disputes, Kume called for approaches that cater not only for present-day needs, but also for the future.

“Even though there are different kinds of thinking, we have to work together for sustaining the river.”

Contrary to Egyptians, the GERD’s construction is bringing smiles to Ethiopians’ faces, as award-winning Ethiopian journalist Dagim Terefe found in his ‘Smile on the Nile’ documentary.

The documentary also gives account of the challenges media practitioners face to get factual and tangible information from government officials and politicians who already have biased opinions about sharing the Nile.

The Nile Basin is one of the most biodiverse regions in the world, hosting diverse ecosystems that range from rainforest and wetlands to mountainous highlands, desert and grasslands. Water Journalists Africa

People in the Nile basin depend on the river to sustain their everyday needs. In this photo, a family collects firewood from trees grown by Nile waters. Water Journalists Africa

“Smile on the Nile” (Ethiopia 2017) by Dagim Terefe

“Smile on the Nile” (Ethiopia 2017) by Dagim Terefe

More than two countries

Preliminary findings from a study on Nile media debates in Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan seem to indicate that reports framing the GERD as a bilateral issue between Ethiopia and Egypt tend to have a more confrontational tone, said Emanuele Fantini, a researcher at the Institute for Water Education in Delft where he leads the project  Open Water Diplomacy: Media, Science and Transboundary Cooperation in the Nile Basin. 

If Sudan is included in the picture, and the issue become multilateral, the reports get more constructive, highlighting spaces for negotiations and cooperation
Emanuele Fantini, Researcher, Institute for Water Education, Delft

As climate change has worsened water supply challenges, countries in the Nile basin are turning to the Nile to fulfill their water needs. This poses challenges to the historical river, according to Alex Byarugaba Bakunda, the chairperson for Uganda’s parliamentary committee on Natural Resources.

“Irrigation, yes it is good. This power generation, yes, it is good, but we must do it sustainably,” Bakunda said.

“Currently we are having erratic weather conditions. We are not going to rely entirely on rain-fed agriculture. The best we can do is to make use of the water of river Nile to feed the generations to come,” he noted.

“One way of achieving this is to ensure that the watershed areas, the engines of this river, are conserved.”

Conservation is also the ultimate message from Nkurikiye Anicet, the Chair of Burundi Country Water Partnership.

“River Nile is an important river for future generations. We must protect it.”

“River Nile must be one river, from upstream up to downstream. In that case we can share benefits,” Nkurikiye said.

Challenges for water sharing in the Nile basin could be mitigated by cooperation, award-winning Sudanese journalist Ishraga abd Arrhman discovered in her documentary, ‘Coherence and Aggression.’ If Nile basin countries can cooperate for mutual benefit, the documentary narrated, they could better collectively manage climate disasters such as floods.

“For example, can the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam contribute to the reduction of floods in Sudan and at the same time does not affect the water needs of Sudanese to irrigate their land, and the future of agriculture?” she narrated.

“Coherence and Aggression” (Sudan 2017) by Ishraga abd Arrhman

“Coherence and Aggression” (Sudan 2017) by Ishraga abd Arrhman

River Nile, according to James Eliyao Walaka, the information officer for South Sudan’s Ministry of Water Resources, is the blood of Africa that should be guarded jealously.

“This can be achieved through cooperation between countries in the basin and also cooperation from international communities,” he said.

A number of water researchers have argued that some governments in the Nile basin are basing on emotions instead of reason when arguing about sharing the Nile.

We spoke to Wondwosen Michago Seide, a PhD Student at Lund University in Sweden, about how emotions impact and influence transboundary water management especially of the Nile River. He responded, citing examples of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. 

But as downstream countries engage in endless wars over the share of the Nile's water, upstream states are steadily harnessing together the benefits of this shared water resource.

For example, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi are currently engaged in construction of an 80 MW hydropower dam at Rusumo Falls on Kagera River just at the border between Tanzania-Rwanda, about 20 km from Burundi. The project, funded by the World Bank, is expected to deliver renewable energy worth $360 million that will be shared by the three countries.

Also, plans are underway to make some local communities in Tanzania benefit from a transboundary water resources management and development project being implemented under the Nile Equatorial Lakes Subsidiary Action Program (NELSAP) of the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI).

About 17 rural villages are set to benefit from a multimillion dollar water dam that will be constructed at Borenga village on Mara River, in the Tanzanian wildlife-rich district of Serengeti, according to the NELSAP/ Mara River Basin Management Project Officer, Engineer Ngoda Ahmad.

“We are about to start looking for the contractor, and once constructed the dam would help the many villagers to conduct irrigation farming, improve water supply for livestock and domestic consumption and electricity in the villages,” Ahmad said.

Covering an area of 13,750 square kilometers, the Mara River Basin is shared by Tanzania and Kenya.

Besides boosting social-economic growth, the project is aimed at mitigating direct effects caused by human activities around the Mara River Basin, which hosts approximately 1.1 million people.

“Water coming from several rivers like Tobora and Tigithe, which are tributaries of Mara River, finally flows into River Nile through Lake Victoria. Therefore, we are focusing on environmental conservation and initiating projects that would help transform lives of citizens and reduce environmental degradation. We are doing this in collaboration with the government,” Ahmad noted.

Looking to the future

Overcoming challenges of water sharing in the Nile basin calls for a complete overhaul in the way Nile issues are managed, according to Mina Girgis, the Producer and CEO of the Egypt- based Nile Project.

The Nile Project brings together musicians from 11 countries in the Nile basin to inspire, inform, and connect Nile citizens through music in a move to help them collaborate on cultivating the sustainability of their river.

“The Nile conversation over the last 20 to 30 years has been dominated by a top-down approach,” Girgis said. “We need to give a lot more room for a grassroots approach, from a bottom-up approach.”

This would allow “some of the creative solutions to come from the private sector, from civil society, from entrepreneurs, from young people,” he said.

“River Nile is an important river for future generations. We must protect it.”

Nkurikiye Anicet, Chair of Burundi Water Partnership

A woman collects water from Lake Cyohoha at the Rwanda-Burundi border. Water Journalists Africa

A woman collects water from Lake Cyohoha at the Rwanda-Burundi border. Water Journalists Africa