Ethiopia can’t do without Nile | Here is why

”Ethiopia has many rivers and high rainfall, thus should not interfere with Egypt‘s lone source of water” is a proven PR strategy that Cairo used to costume its claim for exclusive use of the Nile waters.

The argument is so appealing that journalists and commentators tend to overlook the morally indefensible contested colonial era treaties on which Egypt bases its outrageous claim. Even some Ethiopians are sympathetic to Egypt’s lack of alternative source of water. [An errant perception to be dealt in a forthcoming post, in this blog]

What may be surprising is that some Ethiopians downplay the significance of Blue Nile. Though this may have to do with lack of information, I suspect it may also be a defensive mechanism as their aspirations got frustrated by poverty and western powers who chose to deny them access to international finance.

Of course, there are also those short-sighted politicians who who perpetuate the ignorance for political ends.

The argument that ‘Ethiopia can live without Nile’  has long been strongly refuted by Yakob Arsano, however.

He said, ‘by all considerations, water remains as the potential key factor for the economic development of Ethiopia’ in his doctorial thesis, titled ‘Ethiopia and the Nile Dilemmas of National and Regional Hydro-politics‘, published in 2007.

And where is that water? What makes it a potentially key factor of development? In a bid to answer that question, albeit partly, I assembled the data below from Yacob Arsano’s book and two other books.

66% of Ethiopia’s surface waters is in the Nile basin

Of the 123 bcm/year fresh water runoff only 3 per cent is retained in the country, while the remaining bulk finds its way out via the nation’s transboundary rivers.

There are 11 major water basins in Ethiopia. Of these, four basins are internal systems, while 7 are major transboundary rivers. Three of the rivers open up towards Sudan and eventually to Egypt.

The Abbay, Tekeze and Baro-Akobo sub-basins, with a combined total area of 32.5% of the country’s surface and 66.1% of the total run-off, are in the Nile basin, showing the high proportion of water resources and land area falling in the same basin. (See the two tables below) [Yacob Arsano] 

Table: Water Basins of Ethiopia

Water Basins of Ethiopia. Source: Ethiopia, Federal Democratic Republic of, 1990, Country Paper, the Nile 2002 Conference, March 15–19, 1999, Cairo, p 2. (Basins in the Nile Basin are marked bold). [Yacob Arsano, 2007]

Table: Basin Area as Percentage of the Country’s Total Area Water.

Basin Area as Percentage of the Country’s Total Area Water. Source: Aberra Mekonnen & Deksios Tarekegn (2001b), “Ethiopia’s Water Resources” in Water & Development, Quarterly magazine of the Ethiopian Ministry of Water Resources, in Amharic, p.17. [Yacob Arsano, 2007]

New Picture (9)

58% of the irrigable land is located in the Nile basin

Of the nine major water basins in Ethiopia, the three water basins in the Ethiopian Nile basin have the lion’s share of potential irrigable land. The total irrigable land for the nine basins is 2,583,000 ha, while the area for the three Nile headwater basins of Ethiopia is 1,496,000 ha, which is about 58 per cent of the total potential.

Of the estimated potential, only 6,200 ha have been developed for large-scale agriculture in the Abbay basin. So far there are no large-scale irrigation undertakings in the Baro-Akobo and Tekeze river basins.(2000/1 data) Details and comparison with other basins are given in the table below. [Yacob Arsano]

Potentially Irrigable Land in the Ethiopian Water Basins. Source: Aberra & Deksios (2001b), “Ethiopia's Water Resources” in Water & Development, Quarterly magazine of the Ethiopian Ministry of Water Resources, in Amharic, p.18. [Yacob Arsano, 2007]
Potentially Irrigable Land in the Ethiopian Water Basins

About 70% of Ethiopia’s Hydro-power potential is from Nile basin.

With regard to the country’s hydroelectric power potential, the master plan studies of the Ethiopian water basins have revealed that the country has 144,710 GW hour/yr potential, of which the combined potential of the Abbay, Tekeze and Baro-Akobo is 102,710 GW hour/yr.

Only a small fraction of this potential has been harnessed so far. The total output from the Abbay is 1,094 GW hour/yr. Practically no hydroelectric power plants have been installed on Tekeze or Baro-Akobo rivers (2000/1 data). [Yacob Arsano]

Could and Should Ethiopia substitute rain for Nile?

Yacob Arsano says:

Ethiopia seeks to use its water resources in order to mitigate the prevailing poverty in the country. It uses rainwater, but rainfall is often erratic. Therefore, there is the need to dam the river flows in Ethiopia, including that of the Nile, and use this for more predictable reservoirs in small, medium and large-scale irrigation.

Anja Kristina Martens explains:

Ethiopia faces economic water scarcity rather than physical. Up to now, the country has ‘only been able to utilize 5 percent of its total surface water, or a meager 0.6 percent of the water resources of the Nile’, 4.7 percent of which are used in irrigated agriculture(2003/4 data).

The Nile as the major water source will therefore play a significant role. However, this is not to say that there are no alternatives to Nile waters. Technologies, such as rainwater harvesting, for instance, can offer some reprieve from rainfall variability, but only reservoirs will bring about real water control for agricultural development.

As the Figure shows, climate variability is closely correlated with GDP growth in Ethiopia. Variability is expected to increase in both frequency and intensity as a result of climate change with expectations of both increased floods and droughts.

Rainfall variation around the mean and GDP growth in Ethiopia
Rainfall variation around the mean and GDP growth in Ethiopia

Ethiopian academics and Technocrats [Simon A. Mason]:

Non-Nile river basins that do not have an effect on downstream countries have already been developed, e.g. the Awash valley. Many of Ethiopia’s rivers, also the non-Nile ones, flow into neighboring countries, thus making them all politically more delicate than internal rivers.

In general, there is agreement that HEP would have a greater economic return than irrigated agriculture. Some additional points need to be mentioned, however. First, the greater proportion of Ethiopians live in rural areas where there is no electricity. Thus HEP generation would mainly benefit the urban population. Second, Ethiopia’s development policy is based on agriculture.

In response to the suggestion that one should increase the efficiency of rain-fed agriculture, there is a very wide consensus in Ethiopia that this needs to be done, while also developing all possibilities for irrigated agriculture: at the farm-level (a few hectares), at the micro-level (< 200 ha) in the north, and at the macro-level (~1000 ha) in the western lowlands and Rift valley. Rain-fed agriculture has to be developed in areas where rain is reliable and irrigation in areas where the rainfall is less reliable.

Large-scale irrigation projects could be a stable element in the unstable agricultural sector, independent of climatic variations. It could produce cash crops for export or for the local market, such as vegetables and flowers. Combining large-scale irrigation schemes with HEP dams could increase the economic return from these dams. Farm-level irrigation projects based on small ponds are a very applicable form in many areas. Micro-dams can be built by farmers themselves. The problem of sedimentation of reservoirs has already been experienced in such projects. The dead storage, e.g., may be filled within 10-20 years. The same is true for larger projects, but the larger the reservoir, the longer it takes to fill it up. On the other hand, the reservoirs behind micro-dams are easier to empty.

Ethiopia’s present food production is dependent on rain-fed agriculture, which is unreliable because of the irregularity of the seasonal rains. The irregularity in rainfall and water flow is a characteristic of the entire Nile Basin, but especially of the Eastern Nile Basin as this sub-basin does not have a large reservoir similar to Lake Victoria, source of the White Nile, that can act as a buffer.



Anja Kristina Martens. 2011. Impacts of Global Change on the Nile Basin Options for Hydropolitical Reform in Egypt and Ethiopia, IFPRI Discussion Paper 01052, International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).

Simon A. Mason. 2004. From Conflict to Cooperation in the Nile Basin: Interaction Between Water Availability, Water Management in Egypt and Sudan, and International Relations in the Eastern Nile Basin, Conflict Sensitive Interviewing and Dialogue Workshop Methodology. Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.

Yacob Arsano. 2007. Ethiopia and the Nile Dilemmas of National and Regional Hydropolitics. Thesis presented to the Faculty of Arts of the University of Zurich for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Center for Security Studies, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich.


The documents contain much more useful info that I hope to present in the forthcoming posts. It is recommended that you download and read them.

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Daniel Berhane
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