The Nile is one of the world's largest rivers and runs through East Africa, from the tributaries Blue and White Nile. From time immemorial, people have relied on its life-giving waters, but today the river is also at the centre of a protracted conflict, with elements of nationalist saber-rattling and fears of war.

A dispute that begs the question: who really owns a river?

Important springboard

The Blue Nile flows from Lake Tana in northern Ethiopia, but before the border with Sudan, the river now passes the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Ethiopia wants the giant construction, Africa's largest hydroelectric power plant, to be a springboard towards a modernized economy.

"For Ethiopia, it is very important to have the electricity. Trust me: the fact that over 60 percent of the population lacks it is a disaster, says Mammo Muchie, Ethiopian professor of innovation research, to SVT.

Egyptian agony

Muchie points out that the hydropower plant will also benefit countries downstream, but not everyone is convinced. Reports this week that the dam is filling have fuelled discontent.

Egypt in particular is concerned and demands binding agreements and guarantees for future water flows.

"We are talking about 100 million Egyptians and their livelihood. I hope it can be solved – it must be solved, says Hani Sewilam, Egyptian professor of sustainable development to SVT.

"It's not an option to wait for someone to open or close the floodgates.

Delicate balancing act

This kind of disagreement is nothing new. So says Ashok Swain, professor of peace and conflict research at Uppsala University.

According to him, both Ethiopia and Egypt are partly right. Ethiopia is right to say that a power station does not consume water in itself, and the electricity generated can be very useful. On the other hand, it is understandable that Egyptians worry about the flow, as the two countries may disagree on when water is needed most.

"The question is how to match the needs of the two countries and balance them against each other," Swain said.

Swain believes a diplomatic solution is needed, but regardless of the outcome of the negotiations, the dispute puts its finger on one thing:

That water can not only give rise to life, but also be a source of both cooperation and conflict. Not least in an increasingly warm world.