Thumbnail Image - Blue Nile Countries on a Map (Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia)

This article is the second installment of the series Water Diplomacy: Issues of Complexity Science and Negotiation Theory

Water disputes are difficult to resolve because they are complex. These disputes occur in open and changing systems with numerous stakeholders, interactions, and interdependencies that make it difficult to anticipate or manage complex systems. One aspect of complexity has to do with uncertainty in how the networks and systems involved are likely to respond to stresses, such as rapid changes in flow, changing needs, new development priorities, and growing population. In the Nile River basin, Ethiopia’s construction of a dam has introduced new uncertainty to the already complex scenario of managing the Nile’s resources among riparian states and competing stakeholder priorities. In this insight piece, we describe how different types of uncertainty, as well as unpredictable feedback among actors, processes, and institutions, help us diagnose the nature and source of complexity in the Nile. By working to understand the contingent, contextual factors at play in the case, this analysis allows us to begin to identify potential points of intervention that could enable resolution of conflict in the basin to move forward.

Facing Uncertainty and Acknowledging Interconnections in the Nile Basin

The Nile Systems flows are highly seasonal and geographically variable. (image from the 2012 State of the Nile Report)

The Nile Systems flows are highly seasonal and geographically variable. (image from the 2012 State of the Nile Report)

Our knowledge of real world systems is uncertain; we have imperfect information and face a range of unknowns. Uncertainty manifests in complex water disputes partly because the problem space of the conflict is open. In complex water systems, it is difficult to plan for possible outcomes when there is no way to forecast the impacts and interactions of changing water supply, water quality, and various aspects of human and institutional behaviors. For example, in a study modeling the impacts of climate change on the Nile that was reviewed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, forecasted future flows ranged from a 78% decrease to a 30% increase. If future flows can’t reliably be predicted, it is not possible to anticipate and plan for other dependent factors that impact water security and water sharing in the Nile.

Uncertainty also comes from the unpredictable interactions of natural and human systems. In our globalized world, multiple foreign interests are invested in the resources of riparian countries on the Nile. For example, some developed countries have pushed to acquire more land in the Nile basin to ensure that they can feed their growing populations back home. “While these deals are typically described as land acquisitions, they are also, in effect, water acquisitions.” These deals widen the range of stakeholders and interests included in the problem space and therefore introduce more variables that increase uncertainty in efforts to manage shared water.

Different Faces of Uncertainty

At its simplest: uncertainty describes something that we don’t know or know only in an inadequate and imprecise way. However, how uncertainty is defined or approached varies between disciplines: some uncertainty can be identified and quantified, some can be reduced through gathering more information, some can be qualitatively described, and some cannot be identified or reduced through any practical means.

Definitions of types of uncertainty range from classification of the source and how it may be reduced, to how uncertainty impacts potential actions or outcomes from an event or decision, to how perception of uncertainty shapes the decision making process (see: van der Sluijs 2005; Webster and Curry 2011; Islam and Susskind 2012).

this features an excerpt from this poster from the 2012 Fall AGU meeting: An excerpt from Islam S. and L. Susskind (2012) Dealing with Uncertainty in Water Management. Abstract #H31I-1252. presented at 2012 Fall Meeting, AGU, San Francisco, Calif., 3-7 Dec. Click image for larger view.

This connection to a globalized world demonstrates how interdependencies among global food price fluctuations, economic variability, differences in development doctrine and levels of international aid, and other diplomatic and political factors all contribute to uncertainty in attempts to manage shared resources in the basin. When attempting to make predictions in this system, we need to acknowledge the types and range of potential sources of uncertainty from each of these sub-contexts. When planning for these “known unknowns,” even if we don’t know precisely what their impacts will be, we can use modeling tools to bracket their potential effects with some confidence. The “unknown unknowns”, though, are much harder to deal with. These are events and contexts that are entirely unforeseen, and not predictable using our current understanding and best available tools.

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam

Ethiopia’s construction, beginning in April 2011, of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) has introduced many new “unknowns” into attempts to broker agreement on transboundary water management of the Nile. The dam is situated on the Blue Nile, the Nile’s largest tributary, near the border with Sudan. Siting and feasibility studies were originally conducted by the United States Bureau of Reclamation between 1956 and 1964. After decades of waiting, the dam has become a point of pride for Ethiopians. It has also become a national project: the substantial cost of constructing the dam has been funded without reliance on foreign financing, and is being shouldered by the Ethiopian government, which has borrowed the maximum amount from state banks, and by Ethiopians domestically and abroad. Government employees have been encouraged to use a month’s salary yearly to buy bonds in the project.

Ethiopia initially encountered very strong opposition from Egypt regarding the construction of the dam. “Violating Egypt’s quota of Nile water is a genocidal war against 80 million people,” wrote Egyptian commentator Hazem el-Beblawi in 2010. He perhaps was speaking hyperbolically, but his statement conveyed the urgent sense of identity that Egyptians attach to the Nile. Egypt saw Ethiopia’s effort to build a massive dam on the Blue Nile as a threat to Egypt’s historical, legal, and cultural rights to the Nile. In 2013, Egyptian politicians discussed military action  against Ethiopia to deter it from building the dam. Then-President Morsi stated that “all options are open” and that if the Nile’s flow “diminishes by one drop, then [Egyptian] blood is the alternative.”

The prospect of a new dam, the largest in Africa, that might threaten Egypt’s access to water, rocked already unstable relationships among stakeholder countries that depend on the river. Despite rising tensions however, over the past few years, and especially after the election of Egyptian President al-Sisi in May 2014 (Zaerpoor 2015) the bombastic rhetoric has faded and diplomatic means have prevailed regarding the GERD, among three of the 11 riparian countries of the Nile. Egypt and Ethiopia, with Sudan acting both as a participant and an intermediary, have brokered a preliminary agreement to address the impacts of the dam on each of the three countries’ use of water from the river.

The agreement was signed in March 2015. Without specifically addressing many of the issues the construction of the dam poses for the region, including inter-dam coordination, dam safety, the rate at which the dam will be filled, and how electricity generated by the dam will be brought to customer countries, among other concerns, the Declaration of Principles outlines a framework of concepts and promises to guide further negotiations among the three countries. It also calls for the creation of a tripartite technical committee to develop proposals to address technical and operational questions. However, since May 2015, when these technical experts were convened, disagreements over their management have derailed that process.

Though a preliminary accord has been reached on the GERD, agreement on how the full set of riparian states will share the Nile’s waters broadly remains out of reach, at least for the moment. Additionally, the fact that many of the impacts of the dam are still not well understood poses an obstacle to reaching a more comprehensive agreement to manage its effects on the basin. Its construction is likely to have quite a few far-reaching repercussions, some direct and some quite indirect. For example, proponents of the dam have emphasized that the GERD will only affect the supply of water in downstream Egypt (the dam’s strongest opponent) during the period it is being filled. After that, the dam will release water downstream steadily—rather than only during concentrated periods, as it does now during the rainy season. This will allow Sudan to remove much more water from the river than it does now. Sudan’s current infrastructure limits its storage capacity, but a steady flow will allow year-round irrigation.

A photo from the March 23rd signing event. (photo source)

Signing of the accord on the GERD. (photo source)

This advantage to Sudan threatens, from the standpoint of some analysts, Egypt’s likely water allotment. Egypt currently uses some water that Sudan is entitled to, in addition to its own, since Sudan does not have the capacity to store all of the water it is allotted. Additionally, the local scale impacts of the dam on the people of Ethiopia and Sudan have not been fully considered in the negotiations on the dam up to this point. The GERD’s ramifications for water management in the region are an example of how, in a complex system, “…the lack of proportionality between inputs and outputs means that the dynamics of change are highly context-specific” (Ramalingam et al. 2008, 26). 

Identifying Feedback and Enabling Conditions in Efforts to Cooperate on the Nile

Feedback could provide a partial explanation for the shifting tenor of negotiations among Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan. In 2013, Egyptian politicians’ threatened war, but in 2014, the Egyptian foreign minister called a state visit to Addis Ababa “a new phase of our relationship based on mutual understanding, mutual respect and a recognition that the Nile binds us”, and in March 2015, a framework agreement—though only a first step—was negotiated. Some change in the interactions between parties and influences on their perspectives allowed for greater cooperation to begin, increasing the opportunities for further collaboration and trust-building. This trend led to “confidence building” becoming one of the principles of agreement in the accord on the GERD among the three countries.

Defining Feedback for a Complex System

Feedback processes are embedded in complex systems and influence system behavior. ‘Feedback’ describes how a “change in an element or relationship often alters others, which in turn affect the original one” (Jervis 1998). Feedback loops in complex systems can be positive – with an increase in some variable amplifying a change in the system. An example from agriculture would be how a decrease in vegetation can increase erosion, leading to poor soil quality, contributing to further vegetative loss, erosion, and worsening soil quality. A human systems example of positive feedback is the rate of increase in a viral social media post – as more people see and share the item, it becomes more popular until it reaches its peak. Feedback loops can also be negative, in which the system resists the changes imposed by the input. Supply and demand economics uses a negative feedback loop.

The principle of feedback also applies in complex systems’ sensitivity to initial conditions. Egypt’s historical right to the majority of the Nile’s water—and its adamance that it will hold this advantage in future agreements—is an example of how initial patterns or relationships may be especially influential to the development or resolution of a conflict (akin to the idea of path dependence.) Egypt’s expectation that it will maintain its current rights to water is not entirely without reason, since the Nile is essentially the only source of water  in its nearly entirely desert terrain.

However, upper riparian states on the Nile challenge Egypt’s monopoly on water, arguing that it perpetuates inequitable distribution of water and is out of line with modern international water law. They have attempted to negotiate a basin-wide agreement to share water through the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), but Egypt has been reluctant to participate in negotiations that might jeopardize its historical advantage. Egypt holds power and influence in the region; before the GERD project began, then-Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi asserted that Egypt had blocked foreign financing of the GERD. Thus far, Egypt has been unwilling to entertain signing the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA), the product of the NBI’s efforts to negotiate a replacement for the colonial-era Nile Waters Agreements. It argues that any infringement on “current uses and rights of any other Nile Basin State” would be unacceptable. Looking at the Nile Basin as a whole, Egypt’s reluctance to negotiate in the context of the NBI, combined with its position of leverage and power vis-à-vis other parties, is an obstacle to reaching agreement on sharing the river’s resources among riparian states.

In this complex system, it is a challenge to identify the particular mechanisms or tipping points either catalyzing or obstructing the process. The analytical tools discussed above provide some insights, but many variables—political, technological, ecological, and others—interact in a context of already high uncertainty, making potential interventions a moving target. As we account for the dynamic relationships and events involved in the Nile system, we might ask what conditions could enable (though not necessarily be sufficient to cause) the parties to negotiate a durable agreement.

Identifying Opportunities for Intervention in a Complex System

What are potential points where intervention in the Nile system could make space for more cooperation? Cause-and-effect is not a practical way to analyze a complex system, but we might consider instead what conditions are needed to make cooperation possible. Examining enabling conditions can clarify the factors that may act as tipping points to characterize a problem or move it toward a solution. Active recognition of interdependence among all parties is considered a key enabling condition to allow for effective negotiation and resolution of a transboundary water problem (Choudhury and Islam 2015). Preliminary cooperation over the GERD could therefore be a promising sign for the Nile: The Nile basin countries are becoming increasingly interdependent. Construction of the GERD increases lower riparians’—especially Egypt’s—dependence on Ethiopia and other upstream countries for their own water supply, whether or not the current rights to water are preserved. Egypt’s coming to the table to discuss the GERD with Ethiopia and Sudan is the first explicit evidence of its recognition of interdependence with other riparian states, and thus potential willingness to cooperate.


In complex scenarios such as the Nile case, high levels of uncertainty make fixed or optimized solutions impractical. “…[T]he option of optimal design is not available to mere mortals. The number of combinations of specific rules that are used to create action situations is far larger than any set that analysts could ever analyze even with space-age computer assistance” (Ostrom 2005, 31). Additionally, addressing questions about how much and what quality of water is needed—and how it should be distributed among the parties—is necessarily subjective, and changes with time. Achieving water security for the riparian countries of the Nile involves making judgments and tradeoffs among competing values while keeping equity and sustainability as guiding normative anchors. Actionable answers to these questions are not fixed, and will require analysis and process to arrive at contingent resolutions.

Planning in this context must grow out of a mutual recognition of interdependence. The construction of the GERD has highlighted riparian countries’ sovereign interests, but it also has created opportunities to expand the pie, for example by offering priority to downstream countries to purchase surplus electricity generated from the dam.

Efforts to reach a resolution to the conflict must also be based on a shared understanding of the facts of the case. Efforts to establish joint fact-finding so far around the GERD and for basin-wide planning generally have been contentious, with stakeholders taking widely varying conclusions and leaving unanswered questions from a preliminary joint assessment of the dam’s impacts in 2013.

Ultimately, a durable agreement will need to be flexible and contingent:

  • It should include jointly undertaken monitoring and fact-finding regarding the resources and needs in the region.
  • It should include a forum in which new decisions can be negotiated and recurring issues can be revisited and renegotiated as necessary. This should include a conflict resolution mechanism or plan to help the parties resolve disputes that arise.
  • Its application should be adaptable, so that if a strategy for implementation is no longer appropriate for the problem it can be altered, or even reversed, efficiently.


Choudhury, Enamul, and Shafiqul Islam. 2015. “Nature of Transboundary Water Conflicts: Issues of Complexity and the Enabling Conditions for Negotiated Cooperation.” Journal of Contemporary Water Research & Education 155 (1): 43–52.

Jervis, Robert. 1998. System Effects. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Ostrom, Elinor. 2005. Understanding Institutional Diversity. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Ramalingam, Ben, Harry Jones, Toussaint Reba, and John Young. 2008. Exploring the Science of Complexity Ideas and Implications for Development and Humanitarian Efforts. London: Overseas Development Institute.

Zaerpoor, Yasmin. 2015. “When Efficiency and Feasibility Are Not Enough: A Scalar Comparison of Transboundary Water Management Approaches in the Nile Basin.” Unpublished paper. MIT.

Elizabeth Cooper

Elizabeth Cooper is a master’s student in Conflict Resolution, focusing on environmental policy negotiation, in the Department of Conflict Resolution, Human Security, and Global Governance at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

Shafiqul Islam

Shafiqul Islam is a Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Water Diplomacy, and the Director of the Water Diplomacy Initiative at Tufts University. Follow on Twitter: @ShafikIslam

Larry Susskind

Larry Susskind is the founder of CBI and Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Vice-Chair for Instruction at the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School