The Nile is one of the great rivers of the world, feeding millions and giving birth to entire civilisations. At a length of 6695km from the farthest source of its headwaters in the Kagera Basin in Rwanda and Burundi through Lake Victoria, to its delta in Egypt on the Mediterranean Sea, the Nile is the world’s longest river. The Nile Basin is shared by the following eleven countries: Burundi, DR Congo, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, The Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda.

Covering about 10% of Africa’s land mass, it is also home to 238M people and, according to State of the River Nile Basin Report 2012, this equates to 54% of the basin countries’ population.

The River Nile holds tremendous opportunities for growth, being one of the least developed rivers in the world. The basin has significant potential for clean energy (hydropower) development and power trade; for improving and expanding both irrigated and rain-fed agricultural production and for increasing water use efficiency. There is also potential for broader economic-regional integration, promotion of regional peace and security; and most important for jointly ensuring the continued existence of the River Nile for posterity through prudent and judicious utilisation.

"Nile Basin countries have been banding together for more than 45 years."

Faced with the ever-growing 21st century challenges and pressures, including massive population growth; climate change and the likelihood of extreme events (prolonged droughts and floods); as well as demands of faster economic growth, Nile Basin countries have been banding together for more than 45 years. They have been trying to tackle daunting challenges, take advantage of the tremendous opportunities for win-win outcomes and to save the River Nile, which continues to be an essential fountain of life for the Nile Basin citizens.

Nile Cooperation started with the Hydromet project in 1967, focusing on hydro meteorological survey in the lakes region. Running in parallel to Hydroment was ‘Undugu’ from 1983 to 1992 whose focus was on the establishment of the Nile Basin Economic Community. This was later followed by the Technical Cooperation Committee for the Promotion of Development and Environmental Protection of the Basin (TECCONILE) in 1993 among others. TECCONILE focused on technical cooperation (environmental and water quality). However, all these initiatives were beset with lack of inclusivity (there were riparian countries not represented in the effort) and above all, they did not anchor the cooperation effort in a comprehensive institutional setting and within the ambit of a shared vision.

Cooperation started to become a reality on 22 February 1999 when nine riparian countries with significant support from the international community launched a remarkable institution, the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI). NBI was to work towards attaining their shared vision objective: ‘To achieve sustainable socio-economic development through equitable utilization of, and benefit from, the common Nile Basin Water resources’.

It was formed as a transitional mechanism that will phase out when the permanent River Nile Basin Commission is established. Not only would NBI have to overcome decades of distrust and lack of confidence among riparian countries to engage in cooperative trans-boundary programmes and projects, it had to unite countries with widely different cultures, economies, water needs and water resources.

Nile Basin Initiative

Today, NBI is a ten-member inter-governmental partnership institution, with Eritrea participating as an observer. The highest decision and policy-making organ is the Nile Council of Ministers (Nile-COM), comprised of Ministers in charge of Water Affairs in the Member States. The Nile-COM is supported by a Technical Advisory Committee (Nile-TAC), comprised of 20 senior government officials, two from each Member State.

Day to day management is by the three centres, namely:

  • The Secretariat (Nile-SEC) based in Entebbe – Uganda.
  • The Eastern Nile Technical Regional Office (ENTRO) based in Addis Ababa – Ethiopia.
  • The Nile Equatorial Lakes Subsidiary Action Programme Coordination Unit (NELSAP-CU) based in Kigali – Rwanda.

The centres are responsible for implementing NBI’s three core functions. Nile-SEC is the lead centre for two of the core functions, namely facilitating cooperation and water resource management. ENTRO and NELSAP-CU are lead centres for water resource development within their sub-basins, the Eastern Nile and the Nile Equatorial Lakes sub-basins respectively.

Now in its 15th year of existence, NBI has several signature achievements realised in each of the three core functions, against a baseline of a history of conflict and lack of cooperation. At the same time, various lessons have been learned.

On the institution side, NBI has grown into a well-established and successful regional institution; with appropriate organisational structure, strong financial and operational management systems and effective program and project management procedures.

Facilitating cooperation

The NBI has launched, nurtured and advanced an on-going dialogue by actively providing and operating the first and only all-inclusive platform for riparian countries to discuss with trust and confidence, the joint management and development of the common Nile Basin water and related resources.

Starting virtually from scratch, NBI has built and facilitated various multi-level platforms raising awareness and promoting an informed dialogue. As a result, the Nile Basin is today witnessing observable improvement in both the extent and quality of cooperation among Member States. There is a level of inter riparian trust, confidence and a sense of shared mutuality that hardly existed before. There is now more appreciation about the fact that the Nile is a common asset of all riparian communities and countries, its fragility and the need to take care of it collectively and to preserve it for future generations. This is an historic effort.

Joint water resource management

A number of Nile Basin environmental assets are trans-boundary or have trans-boundary significance and require cross-border cooperation for their management and sustainable use. NBI has promoted the scientific understanding of the River Nile more than ever. It has developed and operationalized a number of water resources planning and management analytic tools. These include the Nile Basin Decision Support System (NB-DSS) developed jointly with Member States, as well as the Nile Equatorial Lakes and Eastern Nile Planning Models respectively. A suite of basin-wide policies and strategies have been developed and adopted by NBI’s governance. These policy instruments will enable the protection of key environmental assets of global significance such as wetlands while supporting efforts toward adaptation to and mitigation of the potential adverse impacts of climate change.

Cooperative development of the shared waters

The basin-wide platform for cooperation has created an enabling environment for joint preparation and implementation of investments, which in turn has enabled Member States to establish common values, principles and norms, without which long-term cooperation would be difficult or impossible.

In terms of investments, NBI has to date identified, prepared and/or facilitated projects worth over US$1.3B in power, agriculture and regional trade as well as river basin management and development. The projects are aimed at bringing tangible benefits to Nile Basin citizens and distributing costs among participating countries.

"NBI has to date identified, prepared and/or facilitated projects worth over US$1.3B in power, agriculture and regional trade"

Focusing on power projects, it is worth highlighting that hydropower is the preferred source of energy for most of the Nile Basin countries for various reasons, key among them the low production cost of electricity from hydropower options, which could make power affordable to the urban and rural poor.

According to the State of the River Nile Basin 2012, the Nile Basin with its characteristic landscape, offers huge potential for hydroelectric power generation exceeding 20GW, which largely remains untapped with existing facilities representing about 26% of potential capacity. In addition the Nile Basin remains the only region on the African continent without a functional regional power grid with very insignificant volumes of power traded among the countries. With the exception of Egypt, hydropower supply among the Nile Basin countries remains inadequate, unreliable and expensive.

The NBI led comprehensive study on Basin-Wide Power Development Options and Trade Opportunities in the Nile Basin (December 2011) indicated that the total energy demand in the Nile Basin countries is expected to increase from 183,711GWh in 2010 to 1,170,328GWh by the year 2035, representing an increase of 300% and higher over present demand.

However if each riparian state was to pursue and implement its national hydropower infrastructure development plans without consideration of the larger river basin context, there is a risk that some of the national hydropower investments could be sub-optimal (seen regionally) and may foreclose future development opportunities.

Trans-boundary water cooperation in hydropower development and management could offer real solutions to national energy challenges if countries while preparing their power development plans take into consideration the larger river basin context. This would enable Nile riparian countries to unlock and optimise the hydropower potential and allow for a more efficient location and operation of hydropower infrastructure. Countries would then embark on constructing transmission lines and interconnectors that would greatly enhance cross border power trade, improve power reliability and affordability as well as promote regional integration.

Power projects facilitated by NBI

The NBI is leading efforts to transform the region’s power sector in various ways: it provides a forum for joint planning and cooperative development of hydropower generation and transmission options as well as power trade among the Nile Basin countries. It does this through strengthening trans-boundary planning, coordinating the construction of the regional transmission grid and encouraging further integration of the regulatory and supervisory framework.

"The US$470M Regional Rusumo Falls Hydroelectric project…will generate 80MW to benefit Burundi, Rwanda and Tanzania."

Examples of power projects identified, prepared and/or facilitated by NBI include the Ethiopia-Sudan Transmission Interconnection which was commissioned in 2013, facilitating cross border power trading between the two countries and optimizing the utilization of existing and planned generation capacity. Others are the US$403M Regional Transmission Interconnection project where an estimated 1500km of 220kV and 110kV transmission lines and associated sub-stations are under construction to facilitate power trade among Burundi, DR Congo, Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda; as well as the soon to be implemented (first quarter of 2015) US$470M Regional Rusumo Falls Hydroelectric project. This project will generate 80MW to benefit Burundi, Rwanda and Tanzania. Given the current power access rates of 10% in Burundi, 16% in Rwanda and 18% in Tanzania, the power generated from Rusumo will increase the access rates by 5.4% (520,000 people), 4 % (467,000 people) and 0.34% (159,000 people) respectively.

Preparation of other interconnectors is advanced with most of the studies completed and resource mobilization on-going. Cases in point are:

  • 220kV Uganda (Nkenda)-DRC (Beni) transmission lines covering 396km.
  • 400kV Kenya-Tanzania interconnection covering 507.5km from Isinya substation in Kenya to Singida in Tanzania via Arusha.
  • 400kV Iringa – Mbeya interconnection covering 352km.
  • 400kV Tanzania-Zambia interconnection covering 321km, which will interconnect the East African Power Pool and the Southern Power Pool.

Efforts to integrate South Sudan into the Nile Equatorial Lakes interconnected grid as well as a Hydropower Expansion and Regional Integration Plan into the Regional Grid is advancing well.

Complex process

Notwithstanding the enormous progress in trans-boundary cooperation on the Nile, the process is indeed a complex one. A number of lessons have been learned from the NBI experience, key among them are the following:

  • While multi-country, multi-level and multi-sectoral consultative processes are complex, lengthy and expensive requiring consistent, predictable and flexible funding, they are key to ensure relevance to country needs and ownership.
  • The inherent slow pace of realising joint investment projects could lead to unilateral actions and eventually affect the spirit of cooperation on the Nile and loss of the win-win benefits.
  • Part of the reason for the slow rate in increasing cooperation on the Nile has been the lack of regional economic integration of Member States and a lack of an overarching regional institutional arrangement under which water cooperation could take place.
  • Effective cooperation requires good relationships among a range of actors: national governments, civil society, communities, the private sector, academia, researchers, scientists and international actors. This allows cross-scale learning, pooling funds and expertise and informing best practices at national, regional and international level.
  • Commitment and ownership of the cooperative process and achievements by the riparian states and citizens of the basin is a key factor to the strength of the regional institution.
  • Separation of the negotiation of the legal and intuitional framework (which focused on preparation of the Cooperative Framework Agreement – CFA) and the ‘development track’ enabled NBI to keep on course with the latter even when the former experienced challenges of reaching consensus on some of the issues.

As NBI continues to foster cooperation on the Nile, it is worth highlighting some issues that need to be urgently addressed. Key among them is the need to mobilise funds and expedite implementation of the jointly prepared investment projects. With the majority of upstream countries embarking on rapid economic growth, delays in implementation implies delays in meeting demands of these countries’ growing economies and populations. This, in turn, could lead to increasing numbers of major water resource investment projects such as dams, power plants, planned and implemented unilaterally by riparian states, ultimately affecting the sustainability of the River Nile itself.

Negotiations over the CFA came to a conclusion in 2010 with the signing of the Agreement by some Member States. To date, three Member States are yet to sign and as a result, there is the potential challenge in finding a common platform for signatory and non-signatory Member States.

All in all, it is clear that Nile cooperation under the auspices of NBI has been a huge success thus far. NBI has built strong institutions; built relationships and partnerships across all Member States; developed analytic tools, accumulated knowledge, formulated high level policies and strategies and prepared a number of investment projects. However, being in its nascent stage, the all-inclusive Nile cooperation still requires even more commitment and momentum from Member States, Nile Basin citizens andDevelopment Partners.

Fourth Nile Basin Development Forum

Stakeholder engagement in NBI is pivotal in generating public ownership, support and acceptance of the Nile Basin cooperation. The Regional Nile Basin Development Forum (NBDF), a high level event held once every two years is one of the platforms through which NBI engages stakeholders. The forum attracts policy makers, researchers, academia, business and local communities to bring forth and exchange ideas, research findings, novel practices and policies on the River Nile.

This year’s forum, the fourth in a series, is scheduled to take place from 28 October to 1st November 2014 in Nairobi, Kenya under the theme: Building Sustainable Trans-boundary Cooperation in a Complex River Basin: Challenges, Lessons & Prospects.

The forum is dedicated to trans-boundary cooperation among the eleven Nile riparian countries in a river basin that is facing growing pressures in the midst of uncertain climate change impacts. The forum shall bring together diverse set of stakeholders for whom the Nile matters most and can make constructive contributions towards ensuring its sustainable management.

Individuals and organisations are welcome to get involved in this year’s forum as a participant, sponsor, exhibitor, or co-convener of a session. More information is available at

Author information

The author is Jane Baitwa, Communications Specialist, Nile Basin Initiative Secretariat