Dividing the Nile

Published online 30 November 2017

Conflict over Nile water is rooted in population growth and poor soil productivity.

Elfatih A B Eltahir

MIT professor Elfatih Eltahir suggests curbing population growth to prevent conflict over Nile water.
MIT professor Elfatih Eltahir suggests curbing population growth to prevent conflict over Nile water.
Image courtesy of Elfatih Eltahir
When the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam or GERD was announced, neighbouring Nile basin countries, including Egypt, had not been consulted. The news was met with anxiety, and in case of Egypt, much fury, and concern over the potential for a dwindling share in the river’s water. 

Ethiopia’s decision is consistent with its long-term plan to utilize its hydropower potential to generate electricity which it can export to neighboring countries in exchange for badly needed income. 

Africa’s population problem is worse for some countries than for others. The combined population of Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt has doubled in the last 30 years or so. Current rates of population growth range from around 1.5% to 3.0% depending on the country and data source. It would be safe to predict that the population of the three countries will approach 400 million by 2050. 

This population growth is at the root cause of the Nile water conflict. 

Along with the greater demand for water, the rate of fertilizer application and the introduction of agricultural technologies in Africa is the lowest compared to any other continent, and thus the productivity of African soils is also the lowest compared to other regions.2 

In fact, land fertility in some parts of Africa is being depleted through unsustainable cultivation practices. Aside from Egypt where application of fertilizers is relatively high by regional standards, fertilizer use in Sudan and Ethiopia is among the lowest.  

How does fertilizer use relate to what appears to be a conflict on water? The amount of crop produced per unit volume of water is to a large degree dependent on the rate of application of fertilizers and the type of seeds used. In order to expand agricultural production in Africa, there are two possible routes: horizontal expansion using more land and more water, or vertical expansion using the same land and water volume, but producing more crops aided by fertilizers, better seeds, and more efficient water use technologies. 

The first route usually leads to conflicts over land or water (or both). The second route can help countries avoid these conflicts.  

The slow rate of adoption of agricultural technology combined with the rapid growth in population would significantly reduce crop production per capita and in turn the associated GDP per capita. Under such difficult regional conditions, countries would naturally try to achieve more growth by maximizing their share of the limited water resource. 

However, this comes at the expense of other countries. Because of this, the GERD issue seems only to be a symptom of a more serious malaise that I call the African ‘fertility’ challenge. In other words, although the emerging conflict over the Nile water appears at the surface to be caused by the introduction of GERD, it is indeed entrenched in more serious problems related to poor population management and a fragile agricultural infrastructure. 

In order to effectively address the conflict on the Nile water, the key is not to focus on how we fill a reservoir behind a dam here or there, but instead to address the root cause of the problem by finding ways to curb population growth, and nurture soil fertility across the Nile basin. 

Here, I propose five elements that are necessary to include in order to achieve sustainable agreement on sharing water between Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan:

  1. The first priority is to reach an agreement between the three countries on curtailing the rate of population growth. In my opinion, a target population growth rate of about 1% in each of the three countries, reached within a period of about 10 years seems ambitious enough to bring the population crisis under control. Education is probably the best approach to address the population problem in the long-term. In particular, a goal of educating all African girls until the secondary school level should be adopted in the Nile basin countries and beyond. There is ample evidence from around the world that such level of education is associated with lower birth rates. 
  2. A commitment from the three countries to invest in new agricultural technologies such as better seeds, greater use of fertilizers, and efficient water use technology including more efficient use of water for cropland irrigation, such as drip irrigation, is necessary. All international partners with interest in the stability of this region should try and help bring about a significant level of adoption of agricultural technology in order to enhance development and economic growth, while reducing the intensity of conflict over water. 
  3. Given the natural topography of Ethiopia and the associated hydropower potential, Egypt and Sudan should support the Ethiopian plan for developing its hydropower resources. Hydropower conversion is a non-consumptive use of water. Rather than obstructing the efforts for building the GERD, the two downstream countries (especially Egypt) should commit to playing the role of a reliable customer for Ethiopian electricity, sold at fair market price. This should insure a sustained flux of currency from Egypt to Ethiopia, which would finance badly needed development plans and help to sustain the Ethiopian economy.
  4. Given the natural disparity in the distribution of rainfall between Ethiopia and Egypt, Ethiopia should develop its rain-fed agriculture instead of irrigated agriculture, while ensuring a sustainable annual flux of water downstream, close to the current rate of flow into Sudan, to be divided in a separate agreement between Sudan and Egypt. 
  5. The countries of the Eastern Nile Basin should develop a common regional approach to incorporate the potential impacts of climate change on rainfall and river flow in any negotiated agreement. Climate change will modify the hydrology of the Nile, offering new opportunities and presenting new challenges that can only be addressed through cooperation between these three countries. 

Elfatih A B Eltahir is a Breene M Kerr Professor of Hydrology and Climate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston, USA.


  1. United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs. Population Division, Population Estimates and projections section. "World Population prospects: The 2012 Revision". www.esa.un.org (2012).
  2. FAO, FAOstat: "Statistical Databases" (2009).