Midriver States: An Overlooked Perspective in the Nile River Basin

The following essay is by Aletta Brady, Member of the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO Youth Working Group. She can be reached at clairealettabrady@gmail.com.

The majority of research on transnational cooperation in the Nile River basin (and elsewhere) has failed to note the distinct perspective of midriver states. Most academic literature on transboundary river basins classifies states solely as upriver or downriver states, even in instances where countries, geographically and behaviorally, are midriver states.  Midriver states have an important position and role to play in transboundary river basins as they intimately understand the needs and concerns of both their upriver and downriver neighbors. Midriver states also have a more complex perspective of their “rights” based on their combined upstream/downstream interests. This aspect is being ignored under contemporary analyses.

An upriver state is a country out of which water in a river flows. Such states generally advocate for their right to the equitable and reasonable utilization of the waters of a transboundary river. A downriver state is a country into which a river flows. Downriver states tend to advocate for the principle of no significant harm, desiring water flow upriver to be preserved in its near-natural state until it reaches their downriver territory. A midriver state refers to a country that has water from a discrete river flowing both into and out of its territory. Midriver states can espouse the desires of both upriver and downriver states, depending on whom they are dealing with.

river_nile_mapThe Nile River basin has three mid-river states: Sudan, Uganda, and South Sudan. The academic literature has classified these states based on historical political allegiance and economic interest. For example, Sudan is usually categorized as a downriver state largely based on its historic allegiance to Egypt. Similarly, Uganda’s advocacy for a fair share of the Nile River, along with Ethiopia, has led to its classification as an upriver state. These binary categorizations, however, do not accurately characterize the behavior and interests of these two states in the Nile Basin.

Sudan’s actions and statements over the course of the past century support a much more complex analysis. Consider, for example, that in 1929, Sudan rejected the Nile Waters Agreement (NWA)—an agreement that allocated shares of the Nile River waters, giving the majority share to Egypt—between Egypt and Great Britain. Then, in 1959, Sudan changed its position and signed the Agreement for the Full Utilization of the Nile Waters with Egypt. In 1991, Sudan signed a bilateral agreement with Ethiopia, to the dismay of Egypt, that established a joint technical committee for data sharing and exploring mutually beneficial projects, and that recognized a commitment to the principle of equitable and reasonable utilization of the Nile waters. In 1996, Sudan once again sided with Egypt in opposition of Project D3—an Ethiopian proposal to establish legal cooperation and water sharing among all of the basin states. But, in 2012, Sudan expressed support for Ethiopia’s Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) against the counsel of Egypt. Sudan’s vacillating allegiance between Egypt and Ethiopia is evidence that Sudan acts neither consistently in the interest of an upstream state nor in the interest of a downstream state, but rather fluctuates between the two because it is, quite literally, caught in the middle. Sudan wants both to utilize the water within its boundaries before it flows downstream, and preserve water flow into its territory from upstream neighbors.

Similar to Sudan, Uganda’s position on which Nile neighbor to support has fluctuated. The Ugandan government opposed Egypt’s 1929 NWA. But, when Egypt supported the joint-technical institutions, HYDROMET (1967-1992) and TECCONILE (1993-2002), Uganda became a member alongside Egypt. Ethiopia and Burundi wanted legal cooperation that granted upstream states an equitable water share of the Nile River and saw TECCONILE, a technical institution, as a distraction. In comments recorded from the 1995 annual meeting of the Council of Ministers for Water Affairs (Nile-COM), Burundi explained that it would not join TECCONILE unless it “completed [an] institutional framework… [that] must guarantee equitable benefits to all.” Uganda also supported Egypt’s UNDUGU organization that launched in 1983, which was opposed by the majority of Nile upriver states.  In 1993, the Ugandan government opposed the implementation of Project D3, a legal project intended to investigate each state’s need for water, which was also supported by a majority of Nile upstream states.  In those same Nile-COM MEETING notes, a Ugandan representative criticized upriver states for being “not yet sure of the benefit from ongoing” transboundary Nile collaborations, and described the possibility of Project D3 as an “optional utilization of the Nile River.” Uganda warned against D3 “paralyz[ing] other activities, especially those that could lead to large investments in the basin.” But, in 2014, during an interview that I conducted, a Ugandan official explained that Ethiopia’s GERD “was the right thing to do,” even though, at the time, Egypt vehemently disapproved of the project.

In addition, Ugandan and Sudanese government officials, in similar interviews, identified both the desire to ‘utilize’ and ‘maintain’ the waters as high priorities, underscoring their intermediary positions as midriver states in the basin. In contrast, Ethiopian officials ranked the desire to utilize Nile waters as more important than the desire to maintain the quantity of the water, which aligns with their position as an upriver state advocating for the principle of equitable and reasonable utilization. Following suit, Egyptian officials emphasized maintaining the quantity of water as more important than utilizing the water, which aligns with their advocacy for the principle of no significant harm.

When South Sudan gained statehood in 2011, media outlets and publications immediately began discussing South Sudan as an upriver state. However, while South Sudan’s time as an independent nation has been brief, it has already demonstrated tendencies of mixed allegiances fluctuating between its downstream and upstream neighbors. For example, soon after its independence, South Sudan’s Minister of Irrigation and Water Resources stated in an interview (see here) that it was “inevitable” that South Sudan would sign the CFA, which has long been opposed by Egypt. Since that time, however, South Sudan has yet to sign that accord, which some speculate is due to its relationship with Egypt. South Sudan’s emergence as the newest basin state should be discussed as an addition to the midriver cohort in the basin rather than an additional upriver state.

Where transnational basin agreements and negotiations are approached as bilateral in nature (with the two main positions of upriver and downriver states), negotiators will likely miss key interests and perspectives of the intermediary stakeholders. Moreover, approaching negotiations with a bilateral framework puts midriver states in the uncomfortable position of choosing which neighbor to side with, even when their interests do not fully align. This could lead to midriver states reneging on agreements, or shifting allegiances, as seen in the Nile River basin. This, in turn, could increase tensions. Accordingly, a new trilateral framework encompassing the midriver classification should be utilized to better describe the relationships and interests of nations in the midriver position.


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