event 28 Feb 2020

Publication // Water-Energy-Food Nexus Sustainability in the Upper Blue Nile (UBN) Basin

By Allam, M. M., & Eltahir, E. A. (2019). This paper presents a framework for optimal allocation of land and water resources in the upper Blue Nile (UBN) basin. This framework consists of two optimization models that aim to: (a) allocate land and water resources optimally to rain-fed and irrigated agriculture, and (b) allocate water to agriculture and hydropower production while maximizing the total net benefits.


The Nile basin ecosystem is under stress due to rapid population growth, inefficient utilization of resources, climate change, and persistent conflicts among riparian countries. The Blue Nile contributes about 60% of the total Nile River flow at Aswan and is shared by the three countries: Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan. In 2011, Ethiopia announced the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance dam (GERD) at the outlet of the UBN basin, right at the border between Ethiopia and Sudan. The GERD construction was announced suddenly and without prior consultation with neighboring countries (Hammond, 2013; Sanyanga, 2014; Salman, 2016). The dam, currently under construction, is relatively large compared to the border dam and the millennium dam which were previously proposed and designed at the same location (USBR, 1964; IPOE, 2013). The GERD has been a source of controversy between Ethiopia and Egypt. On one hand, Egypt fears the risks of reducing its Nile water flows and the potential loss of its fertile lands and hydropower production from the High Aswan Dam. On the other hand, the Ethiopian government is expecting the GERD to help meet its increasing domestic electricity demands, export electricity to neighboring countries, and fishery development (Pottinger, 2013). However, uniform flows downstream the GERD will provide some benefits for Sudan which include: protection from high floods, providing an opportunity for agricultural expansion, reducing reservoirs’ siltation, and enhancing hydropower output from the existinghydropower plants (Whittington et al., 2014).

The objective of this paper is to provide an integrated approach to optimally allocate water and land resources between rain-fed and irrigated agriculture and hydropower to address the water-food-energy nexus in the UBN basin and find winwin opportunities to resolve the ongoing Nile water conflict. However, we would like to acknowledge that although this modeling exercise provides great insight to aid political decision makers, cooperation among riparian countries sharing an international river basin is usually very rare. This study will show how cooperation among the riparian countries can yield higher benefits for the river basin system as a whole which is often hindered by domestic politics, uncertainty of future supply and demand and the corresponding transaction costs.

Key messages

This paper presents a framework for optimal allocation of a river basin’s land and water resources between rain-fed and irrigated agriculture and hydropower. This framework is applied on the UBN basin as a case study of a waterscarce transboundary basin with escalated conflicts between the stakeholder countries sharing its waters to help find win-win opportunities. The land-water allocation model finds significant potential for expanding rain-fed agriculture covering up to half of the basin area by adding soil enhancements. This agricultural expansion is expected to reduce the annual flow of the Blue Nile river by about 7.55 cubic kilometers. The model also finds that only three of the 11 irrigation schemes proposed in Ethiopia’s master plan make economic sense and grow mostly sugarcane in these irrigated areas. The optimal operation for the GERD involves regulating the monthly releases through the turbines to be about three to four cubic kilometers, and fluctuating the storage to be slightly reduced before the rainy season and filled up during the rainy season. There is a clear trade-off between expanding the rainfed agriculture potential in the UBN basin and saving the water for hydropower production at the GERD. This trade-off can offer an opportunity for a win-win solution for the Nile conflict if the countries decide to cooperate in investing in an efficient rain-fed agricultural expansion in the basin and sharing the benefits and costs.


January 2019


© Frontiers in Environmental Science


Allam, M. M., & Eltahir, E. A. (2019). Water-Energy-Food Nexus Sustainability in the Upper Blue Nile (UBN) Basin.

Stay up to date!

We inform you about current projects, events, actions, publications and news!