Satoshi Ikeuchi, Professor, Religion and Global Security, University of Tokyo

The Nile River question is a typical situation of the “tragedy of the commons” in the social science. If large number of actors have access to a common resource and anyone can gobble it up, each individual actor’s rational and selfish actions of maximal utilization would jeopardize sustainability of the entire resource.

The water of the Blue and White Niles are common and vital resources for the eleven riparian countries including Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Egypt and if any one of them block large part of it and utilize at its will, the whole region of the Nile River Basin is dried up.

The huge Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam or GERD threatens such a tragedy. What is optimal for Ethiopia in the short run is, if pushed unilaterally, upset the entire situation of the Nile Valley in the long run. 

There are frameworks of consultation and nascent agreements which are promising in principle but not applied in specifics. The Nile Basin Initiative originally launched in 1999 encompasses all the concerned countries, but there are sharp divisions and differences between the upper stream and downstream countries.

The 2015 joint declaration of principles by Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia announced good intentions of the leading actors but lacks concrete arrangement of how they control the utilization of waters of the Nile.

Egypt and Sudan are increasingly joining hands and being united with one voice in addressing this issue, trying to internationalize this issue asking for mediation of the international bodies, such as the United Nations Security Council. For Egypt and Sudan, the Nile River issue is of existential importance and firmly related to their security policy.

Egypt recent achievement in its active diplomacy in East Africa and Central Africa, including the Red Sea and Horn of Africa region, added pressure on Ethiopia.

Ethiopia, however, keeps its position of taking this issue as purely economic and thus in the realm of internal politics, not international one.

The world is carefully watching whether that question evolves into a larger conflict.

The social science theory of the tragedy of the commons teaches us the necessity of agreeing on the basic structure of rules and regimes and introducing coercive regulatory institutional arrangements to implement it if the realization of tragedy is to be avoided.