The modern history of the Nile conflict began with the 20th century. The English were quick to realize the importance the river would have for their colonies. Over the centuries, in the swamps of the Sudd, strong winds and the force of the river had created natural dams made up of plants and soil, similar to those made by beavers. These dams had made all navigation up the Nile past a certain point completely impossible. Soon after Sudan was reconquered in 1898, the English began to free the Nile of the vegetation which was obstructing the passage of ships. By the time enough blockages had been removed to clear a path through the Sudd in 1904, the English had already begun drawing up massive alternative drainage plans in order to ameliorate the flow of the Nile. However, the British did not control the Ethiopian portions of the Nile, from which over 80% of the Nile’s waters come. Therefore, they had to sign an agreement with the Ethiopians in 1902 in order to assure themselves that the Nile would not be interfered with. They also had to assert a significant amount of pressure on the Italians and the French so that they would not interfere with the french dominance of the Nile basin (Collins, 67-100). This approach worked well with the Italians, but a little less well with the French. The Egyptians caused the most problems for the English as planned developments on the Nile became a disputed matter between the two governments. In 1929, Great Britain sponsored the Nile Water Agreement, which regulated the flow of the Nile and apportioned it use (Glassman, 150).

After World War II, the British government commissioned a complete hydrological study to be made of the Nile Basin as a whole. Unfortunately, the study was not able to include the Ethiopian portions of the Nile due to political problems. The rest of the Nile valley was included. The study was finally released in 1958 as the Report on the Nile Valley Plan. It was the culmination of 50 years of study. The report suggested various ways to increase the amount of water which reached Egypt. The most important of these suggestions was the construction of the Jonglei canal, which would divert the flow of the Nile in southern Sudan (in the Sudd) to avoid the enormous evaporation losses which occur there. The report, however, treated the entire Nile Basin as a single unity, which was unacceptable to the newly independent African states, especially since it was published just two years after the Suez Canal incident (Ohlsson, 31-34)

Furthermore, the Egyptians had already planned a major construction which would significantly improve the flow of the Nile in their territories. They had decided to build the High Aswan Dam in order to control the yearly floods of the Nile and in order to harvest the hydroelectric power of the river. However, this project was to have major repercussions on the lands of northern Sudan. Building this dam would mean that whole sections of northern Sudan would be inundated by what was to be Lake Nasser. There were also severe environmental concerns as to how the dam would change life on the banks of the Nile. To deal with this problem, the two nation signed an agreement on the “full utilization of the Nile waters” in 1959. This agreement stipulated that Sudan’s yearly water allotment would rise from the 4 billion cubic meters stipulated in the 1929 agreement to 18.5 billion cubic meters. The Sudan would also be allowed to undertake a series of Nile development projects, such as the Rosieres Dam and the Jonglei Canal. In exchange, Egypt would be allowed to build a huge dam near the Sudanese border which would regulate the flow of the river into Egypt and provide water during droughts. The result of this dam, however, would be the inundation of over 6,500 square kilometers of land. The treaty also formed a joint committee which would be in charge of supervising and directing all development projects which affected the flow of the river (Ohlosson, 35-40).

This agreement was only bilateral and did no include any of the other riparian countries of the Nile despite the fact that it portioned out all of the Nile’s water. Ethiopia, from which 80% of the water comes from was not even consulted and no water was even allotted for future usage by any upstream country except Sudan. All of the Nile’s average water flow is divided between the two most downstream countries. Nevertheless, this 1959 agreement is still the most comprehensive agreement ever signed on the use of the Nile’s waters.

Apparently, the residents of northern Sudan and southern Egypt were not consulted on the treaty either. In the 1960’s, over 100,000 Nubians lost their homes due to development projects stemming from that treaty.(Pearce, 29) Some of these same people had to be moved again in the 1990’s in order to build another dam, this time near the border with Ethiopia.