Sudan and Egypt’s Hydro-Politics in the Nile River Basin

Discussion Papers


by Housam Darwisheh

March 2021


Using material, ideational, and geopolitical power Egypt used to control the conduct of its southern neighbors, particularly Sudan, in the utilization of the Nile River waters. Recent regional and domestic transformations in the Middle East and Horn of Africa, particularly after the ‘Arab Uprisings’ of 2011, have undermined Egypt’s influence and reshaped the hydro political landscape in the Nile basin. As a result, Sudan and Ethiopia are now influential actors in the Nile basin who play central roles in the Middle East-Horn of Africa relations. The academic literature and news coverage of the water dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia overlook the Sudan’s strategic position as a midstream state that has accelerated the basin’s hydro political shift in Ethiopia’s favor. The paper argues that Egypt’s loss of Sudan’s unconditional and explicit support for its “water rights,” recognized by the 1929 and 1959 water agreements, has changed the former’s long-standing hegemonic position in the Nile basin in favor of upstream states. The paper contends that Sudan’s changing position over the Nile hydro politics has been the result of three main major developments. First, the decline of Egypt’s material and ideational power in the Middle East and Africa. Second, Egypt’s foreign policy goals have been constrained due to its massive economic dependence on the Gulf oil-rich states that seek to improve their food security and regional interests through increasing their physical, political and economic presence in Sudan and Ethiopia. And third, Egypt’s former hydrological veto power over construction projects on the Nile has ended as new power relations between upstream, downstream, and non-riparian states reconfigured the regional order of the Nile basin in favor of upstream riparian states.

Keywords: Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Hydro-politics

JEL classification: N57, N55, O19, Q25

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