Can the Nile States Dam Their Way To Cooperation?

Lori Pottinger
Monday, March 1, 2004

“One day, every last drop of water which drains into the whole valley of the Nile… shall be equally and amicably divided among the river people, and the Nile itself … shall perish
gloriously and never reach the sea.”
-Winston Churchill, 1908

The Nile Basin – home to 160 million people in 10 countries, four of which are “water scarce” – has for years been a global hotspot for potential conflict over water resources. Water experts elieve there is not enough water in the river to meet the various irrigation goals of the Nile basin nations. In addition to unrealistic ambitions for irrigation schemes in the basin, any large hydropower dams also being considered for the Nile. All these competing projects combined with a dose of climate change could send the region’s already over-tapped water resources to the brink of disaster, leave economies weaker rather than stronger, and do little to reduce ongoing conflict over the Nile.

The Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) was established to address the region’s brewing water conflict, as well as reduce poverty and promote economic integration. The proposed program has many ositive aspects, and has the potential to reduce a number of problems in the basin. However, the NBI is expected to rely quite heavily on constructing large-scale irrigation and hydropower dams to promote economic cooperation. The worldwide record of large dams, as documented by the World Commission on Dams (WCD), reveals that poorly planned large dams are as likely to exacerbate problems of poverty, water inequity and environmental degradation, as solve them (see box, page 6). Will the NBI follow the recommendations of the WCD in planning for the basin’s water and energy needs? Or will it follow a “business as usual” approach and build dams out of expediency rather than need?

This paper provides background on the NBI and its emphasis on the development of large dams to foster cooperation.