Managing the Nile River

By Rupert Watson
Photos © Alison M Jones

Born in England, Rupert Watson has lived in Kenya for over 40 years as a lawyer, mediator, naturalist and writer. Mediation has taken him to many different parts of Africa. NWNL first met Rupert as the lawyer helpful in establishing the Mara Conservancy Bylaws in 2000. Rupert takes every opportunity to indulge in his lifelong fascination for birds, authoring innumerable articles on natural history. His first two books covered the lives of salmon and trout, and he wrote The African Baobab. After researching a 1946 murder by a young Kenyan Maasai man, he published that story in his book titled Culture Clash. Now, with binoculars in hand, he spends as much time as possible watching Africa’s birds.

The Nile lends itself to statistics. It’s the longest river in the world, about 4,258 miles  (6,853 km). Part or all of 11 African countries contribute land to this basin, thus draining 12% of Africa. Yet, after traversing 35 degrees of latitude (covering rainforest, savannah, mountain and desert), the volume of water reaching Egypt’s Aswan High Dam is only about 6% of the Congo’s flow. At 341 miles long (550 km), Lake Nasser, behind the Aswan Dam, is the second largest man-made lake in Africa, after Lake Kariba on the Zambesi River  

Two other figures however underlie the recent rise in the Nile Basin’s hydro-political temperature. Both indicate potential discord far downstream, reflecting Lake Victoria’s one-time dropping water levels and Uganda’s demands for more power some years back. First, over 95% of Egypt’s water comes down the Nile, from sources outside its borders and over which it has no direct control. Second, 80% of Nile water reaching Egypt is contributed by the Blue Nile and Atbara Rivers, both dropping out of the Ethiopian Highlands and merging just downstream of the White Nile and Blue Nile Rivers’ confluence at Khartoum, Sudan.

Navigating the complexities of coordinated conservation along the river Nile – Scientific Figure on ResearchGate. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/figure/The-Nile-River-basin-including-its-11-countries-capital-cities-major-lakes-dams-and_fig1_332203535 [accessed 13 Jan, 2020]

Co-operative Management

The Nile probably takes its name from “nahal,” meaning “valley” in Semitic. It was “Neilos” to the Greek and “Nilus” to the Romans. Early Egyptians revered it as the god Hapi, a water and fertility god. With almost no experience of heavy rains in their own country, Egyptians watched the river rise and fall, inundating the surrounding lands in midsummer with fertile black silt, as if some mystical hand was turning an upstream tap. Now, explanations for changing river levels are more prosaic. A better understanding of hydrologic cause and effect enables pointing the fingers of blame.

Since 1999, an ad hoc group of Nile Basin country representatives comprising the Nile Basin Initiative have held a vision of achieving “sustainable socio-economic development through the equitable utilization of, and benefit from, common Nile Basin water resources.” Realizing the need for more proactive management, the members tried to convert the Initiative into a binding Co-operative Framework Agreement designed to redress historic inequities. However, Egypt and Sudan view the Agreement as an erosion of their legal rights. Egypt in particular clings to its claims to “user rights” established by colonial treaties.

Historically, regulating the use of Nile waters was largely driven by Britain’s overarching demand for cotton to keep its mills spinning. Britain controlled the entire White Nile, from Lake Victoria to Alexandria. Sudan and Egypt were the British Empire’s principal cotton producers. Thus, the Nile Waters Agreement of 1929 was concluded between Britain and Egypt alone, despite the fact it bound Sudan to accepting Egypt’s approval of new irrigation projects. Only in 1959, when Egypt contemplated constructing the Aswan High Dam( that would consequently flood a large area of northern Sudan) was the 1929 Agreement amended.

The 1959 revision recognised Sudanese entitlement to Nile waters, but still allowed no other country to have rights to these waters – not even Ethiopia, whose highlands supplied most of the water. Unsurprisingly, none of the other Nile River Basin nations have felt bound by these treaties, considering themselves, at least legally, if not morally, free to use Nile waters as they unilaterally determine. Each riparian country has different interests in the river, as well as different abilities to develop them. Thus, until a comprehensive water-sharing agreement is in place, the river is likely to remain more of a source of confrontation rather than co-operation.

Considering Nile River Basin Dams

Dams lie at the heart of downstream national concerns over any upstream interference with river flows. Dams are built for three main reasons – to control flow, generate hydro-electrical power, and/or collect water for irrigation. With the first two types, reliant on a steady, even passage of water, the only water lost is that which evaporates from the dam’s reservoir. More water loss comes from irrigation dams that divert water to agricultural projects, with very little of that water returning directly to the river. As well, all three types of dams risk seriously flow disruptions as their reservoirs are being filled. The degree of that disruption depends on the length of time allotted to filling them.  

Ugandan and Ethiopian Dams

Uganda has been desperately short of power, prejudicing Uganda toward inward investment in cheap, clean and sustainable hydro-power, also a beneficial source of domestic electricity. Few can deny that country’s rationale in damming the Bujagali Falls, below Jinja, to add a further 250 megawatts to its national grid, notwithstanding the submersion of fruit bat roosts and loss of spectacular rapids.

Ethiopia is topographically well-suited to hydropower generation, the steep drops on the Blue Nile down from Lake Tana and the highlands ensuring maximum potential for power production. And now the ongoing construction of its Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam [GERD] has brought the Nile once again into the international political arena.

Ethiopia’s Tissiat Falls, source of the Blue Nile River, are now reduced by an upstream dam.

Egypt’s Aswan Dam

Despite Egypt’s present protestations, it should be remembered that Egypt itself wasted no time in harnessing the waters of the Nile for its own use. It created the largest dam on the river by far: the Aswan High Dam. It was done against a background of increasing nationalism; a disastrous 1956 Anglo-French invasion after Nasser’s took over the Suez Canal to fund the Aswan Dam; and a refusal by the West to fund its construction costs. The first foundations for this dam were laid in 1960, using both Soviet money and Soviet expertise. The dam stabilized river flows, saving crops from too much or too little water, and enabled extensive irrigation.

The Aswan High Dam was also intended to generate 2,000 megawatts of hydroelectric power. Described as “the wrong dam in the wrong damn place” – since two meters of water annually evaporate from its Lake Nasser reservoir – the Aswan Dam has generally succeeded in its objectives. Proving a satisfying snub to the West, the dam’s Soviet-enabled construction created an illusion of hydrological independence, greatly enhancing President Nasser’s standing amongst his fellow Egyptians.

Downsides of the Aswan Dam

All dams have environmental and social downsides as they submerge rivers systems and force out human communities. Almost 100,000 Nubians were displaced by the rising waters of Lake Nasser, as were ancient temples and tombs. Much of the 1959 Agreement concerned compensation for Nubians and Sudanese land flooded by Egypt’s dam.

Dams also capture silt, thus Lake Nasser’s capacity is gradually being reduced by the retention of sediment which once fertilised lower Nile flood plains and bulked up river banks. The loss of flood sediments going to the Nile Delta creates erosion and seawater incursions that contaminate the Delta’s freshwater aquifers used for farmland irrigation. Now artificial fertilisers are needed to compensate for loss of the annual flooding of natural upstream nutrients flooding and nourishing deltaic fields. Increasing use of these harmful chemicals leach into the soil and the Mediterranean Sea.

Building the Jonglei Canal

As seen in Egypt, flow regulation can provide certain benefits to downstream communities. Yet, many communities within the Nile River’s system suffer without annual floods that inundate and enrich floodplains, wetlands and deltaic lands. In addition to affecting sustenance in Egypt’s Lower Nile and  Delta, the loss of flooding spells doom for pastoralists’ grazing cycles in South Sudan’s seasonal grasslands and impenetrable wetlands, known as The Sudd.

The Sudd’s swamps, covering 7,413,161 acres (30,000 sq kms), comprise the largest freshwater wetland in Africa. The Jonglei Canal, begun in 1980 by Egypt and Sudan, but only partially completed, may or may not have threatened the actual swamps. However, this hydro-construction project in floodplains surrounding The Sudd could have had a devastating effect on human and animal life. South Sudan, only formed as a country in 2011, was never a party to, or in favor of, this hydro-construction project.

Map of The Sudd wetlands on ResearchGate. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Location-map-of-the-Sudd-wetland-left-and-evaporation-map-showing-mean-annual_fig1_263727147 [accessed 13 Jan, 2020]

Impassable by boats,  which is usual in swamps’ shifting channels, The Sudd at least buffers the White Nile River’s flow. This ensures a relatively even contribution to the Lower Nile River as it flows north into Sudan and Egypt, unlike Ethiopia’s contribution of  highly-seasonal sudden discharges. A slow flow gives water time to evaporate; and at least half the water entering the Sudd disappears into the air, rather than flowing downriver and out the other end. A canal accelerating flow through the swamps would benefit both Sudan and Egypt by vastly increasing the amount of water available – at least several generations of engineers have so thought.

If the Jonglei Canal is completed…

Clearing blockages to ease navigation through the Sudd began in the early 1900’s; but not until much later was the feasibility of a creating a waterway seriously studied. Excavation of the sodden “black cotton” soil began in June 1978, using “Sarah,” the largest earth-mover in the world, fresh from digging canals in Pakistan. By 1984 the Jonglei Canal was 161 miles (260 kms) long; but rebel activity related to the North-South Sudanese War stopped the digging. Only 62 miles (100 kms) were left to dig – and so it remains today.

Negative impacts of such a canal also remain. The wetlands are home to spectacular numbers of white-eared kob, Uganda kob, Nile lechwe and tiang (aka, topi), all of which rely on aquatic habitat to varying degrees. The canal would undoubtedly create a barrier to their migrations. Shrinking the wetlands would also reduce areas available to migrating birds, as well as important resident species like shoebills and black-crowned cranes.

A small family of white-eared kob in Uganda’s Murchison Falls National Park.

As well, it is inconceivable that today the pastoral interests of The Sudd’s Nuer and Dinka people would be ignored, as they were in the 1970’s. This at least shows how much things have changed for the better since then; but when peace eventually returns to the region, will these species’ interests really dominate Egypt’s unquenchable thirst?

The Nile’s Future: Is Transboundary Cooperation Possible?

Conventional water management used to involve merely partitioning available resources between users, as if slicing up a cake. Now, there is an increasing accounting of Nature’s interests as well as national interests – that some water must be left for the river itself, as all the plants and animals that depend on it. However, one of the holy grails of river management is to increase available water supply for human communities.

In Nile terms, this means squeezing more out of the Sudd to increase water flows to Egypt and Sudan, the main contributors to the Jonglei Canal Project. Completion of the canal might ease consciences of upstream users whose withdrawals, at least to some extent, would be matched by increased downstream supplies. Additionally, while local populations of plants, birds or animals might be drained to extinction, no species as a whole would be remotely threatened by the canal’s construction.

Meanwhile, Ethiopia remains a byword for poverty and starvation. No matter how one calculates per capita income, the average Egyptian has about five or six times the income of the average Ethiopian. No one can fault Ethiopia for wanting to lift itself out of being in the poorest 10% of the world’s countries. While supplying most of the Nile’s water, Ethiopia consumes very little.

Near Lalibela’s rock-hewn churches, an Ethiopian girl fetches water on a daily basis from the Blue Nile.

With so little of its own water, Egypt understandably experiences near paranoia at any hint of interference with the water supply for its population of 80 million (the 2nd-largest in Africa after Nigeria). Citizens in Cairo, Alexandria, and elsewhere along the Nile may have a far higher per-capita water use than those in most other Arab countries; but Egypt’s concerns will dominate Nile hydro-politics for the foreseeable future. [Watch for this author’s next NWNL blog discussion on Egypt’s concerns over the almost-completed Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam now being completed on the Blue Nile.]

Signing on to a Nile Basin Co-operative Framework Agreement would be a good first step to successful transboundary watershed management. Just a start towards more comprehensive management of the Nile River Basin would at least build an appreciation of the 3,728-mile link (6,000 km) between the health of Egypt’s Nile Delta and the upstream restoration of Kenya’s Mau Forest. This badly-deforested headwaters for the distant Mara River tributary of the Nile sends Kenyan waters into Lake Victoria, which drains into Uganda’s White Nile, South Sudan, Sudan, Egypt and finally the Mediterranean.

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