Networking on the Nile

Lake Nasser, the Red Sea and part of the Nile seen from space.

The Nile River is the longest in the world. Since South Sudan gained independence in July 2011, the Nile has been shared by 11 countries. It is one of the most complex and sensitive systems in the world, not only hydrologically speaking but also in terms of the diversity of the countries it crosses, with their mosaic of cultural, linguistic, religious and historical backgrounds. It is no wonder that cooperation among Nile Basin countries has tended to be laborious. After many abortive attempts, a breakthrough came in 1999 when the riparian countries agreed to form a transitional mechanism for cooperation, the Nile Basin Initiative.

This coincided with a parallel process to boost professional cooperation from the bottom up, which culminated in the launch of the Nile Basin Capacity Building Network in 2002. The process was guided by the UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education in Delft (Netherlands), with the Dutch government’s financial support. Ten years down the road, the network has attracted more than 1100 water professionals from the Nile Basin.

Last year, the Nile Basin Initiative signed a Memorandum of understanding with the network after a decade of working in parallel. This latest agreement not only acknowledges the complementarity of the twin mechanisms; it also underscores the need for both formal and informal avenues of cooperation to improve knowledge of the Nile Basin.

Nile Basin Capacity Building Network

The Nile River is shared by Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda. Even today, the source of the river remains a mystery, with Rwanda and Burundi being the two contenders for its origin. For 6 500 km, the river snakes from Lake Victoria to the Mediterranean Sea. The first of its two major tributaries, the Blue Nile, originates in Ethiopia’s Lake Tana, whereas the much longer White Nile stems from the Great Lakes region of central Africa.

Despite the basin’s rich cultural history, disputes and conflicts linked to the control and use of Nile waters have been longstanding obstacles to development and security throughout the basin. Today, the Nile Basin Initiative is still in a transitional phase. Moreover, more than a decade later after its partial adoption, the Cooperative Framework Agreement has still only been signed by six of the 11 riparian countries.

The need for water cooperation

If one thing has become very clear in recent years, it is the need for a regional approach to tackle the principal problems, most of which cross political boundaries: food insecurity, environmental degradation, adaptation to climate change, wetland and ecosystem management, water quality management, flood and drought management, etc. The population in the Nile Basin is expected to double to more than 300 million by 2040. All countries are struggling to provide their burgeoning populations with access to safe drinking water, adequate sanitation, electricity and other services. The recent heated debate in the subregion on Ethiopia’s large hydropower plant project, which will have an impact on both Egypt and Sudan, illustrates the urgent need for a dispassionate political dialogue based on scientific fact rather than assumptions and presuppositions.

The Roseires Dam on the Blue Nile in Sudan is currently being heightened.

Most of the riparian countries are burdened by a weak human and institutional capacity to manage water resources in an integrated manner. This applies to both transboundary and national waters. Within each riparian country, water management along the Nile River remains fragmented between sectors, with little coordination among the various national bodies. Institutional capacity also varies considerably from one country to another.

To compound matters, six of the 11 riparian countries have experienced civil strife or conflict that has resulted in a vast backlog of water-related investment, inadequate infrastructure management and a need for institutional and human resource development. Until recently, the lack of cooperation among riparian countries had hampered the exchange of information and experience across the region, penalizing research and development (R&D). Consequently, foreign experts tended to do the bulk of research in these countries. Not only are they more expensive than local experts but they also lack local knowledge.

By connecting isolated water professionals from the Nile Basin and enabling them to tackle urgent national and regional issues, the Nile Basin Capacity Building Network creates an environment conducive to the exchange of ideas and best practices. It also nurtures international interdisciplinary research and the involvement of water professionals in market-driven research by encouraging its members to apply for research grants proposed by the African Union, European Union and other bodies.

The origins of an informal support network

© UNEP/Sudan Environmental Database
In Sudan, farmers look on helplessly as their date palms are swept away by the Nile, along with part of the riverbank.

The Nile Basin Capacity Building Network complements the Nile Basin Initiative by providing an informal support network for water professionals from the region. The idea for such a network germinated during a Dutch financed programme run by the UNESCO-IHE to improve the capacity of the Hydraulics Research Institute in Cairo (Egypt) to train professionals. Between 1995 and 2000, more than 150 participants from various Nile Basin countries spent three months in Egypt on a Diploma Course in River Engineering. Often, young professionals on the course developed close friendships with others from countries with a very different political background and culture.

They discovered that they spoke the same professional language and, perhaps more importantly, began trusting each other. In the jargon, we call this forming a community of practice. This mutual trust became one of the network’s fundamental building blocks.

The network was officially established during a workshop which culminated in the adoption of the Cairo Declaration on 15 January 2002. The 48 signatories included representatives of government, water authorities and research institutions from all the riparian countries, UNESCO, the World Bank and the Nile Basin Initiative.

As geographically distributed knowledge networking was quite new to the academic world at the time, the network was considered a pilot. The scope of research was thus initially restricted to river engineering.

Thirteen research groups work in six clusters: hydropower; environmental aspects; geographical information systems (GIS) and modelling; river morphology; flood management and river structures. Each group is assigned a scientific advisor from the UNESCO-IHE and its partner, the Faculty of Geo-Information Science and Earth Observation at the University of Twente (Netherlands). In 2007, the network launched the Nile Water Science and Engineering Journal to help members disseminate their research findings.

In all, 24 research projects were presented to the network’s conference in 2010, focusing on a variety of subjects including the potential for small-scale hydropower, climate change, flood control and water quality. These projects were implemented either locally or regionally by scientists with common interests. The experience of working together has built trust and created a platform for senior scientists from the region to share their skills and knowledge with one other and with younger compatriotes.

Read the full article (pdf) to find out more about these research projects!


Excerpt from an article by Amel Azab, Carel Keuls and Jan Luijendijk, published in A World of Science, volume 11, number 3, July-September 2013.

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