This post is part of a special National Geographic news series on global water issues.
I was standing inside a colonial-era circuit house in a sprawling, malarial city called Malakal in southern Sudan. I had come to see a man about a river, but the man, an Egyptian hydrologist, wasn’t talking.
“It is forbidden,” he said solemnly, “to speak of the Nile.”
I pointed towards the window. “But it’s right there,” I said. This was, after all, a measuring station of the Egyptian water ministry, one of several it maintained in Sudan and Uganda to track the volume of the world’s longest river.
The hydrologist didn’t need to look out the window. He knew where the Nile was–he’d devoted his life to its study. But there was nothing he could say to a stranger about something so important to his nation’s survival. I might have had better luck inquiring about Tehran’s nuclear program.
The sensitivity I encountered a few years ago in Malakal has rocketed in recent months as, for the first time in history, a credible challenge has risen to Egypt’s 5,000-year reign over the Nile river.
Photo of the Nile in Sudan, south of Bor, by Dan Morrison
An African revolt
In May, a group of upstream states in eastern and central Africa signed an agreement that seeks to break Egypt’s (and, to a much lesser degree, Sudan’s) monopoly on the Nile waters–a legacy of colonial-era treaties imposed by Britain on its possessions and clients in the Nile valley. The 1929 and 1959 treaties gave Egypt a veto over its neighbors’ irrigation projects and guaranteed it the vast majority of the Nile’s flow.
Now, with growing populations, ever-more-frequent drought, and a new sense of confidence, the Africans are finally claiming their share of the Nile. So far five upstream countries–Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and Rwanda–have signed a new, monopoly-busting, water-sharing framework, and they’ve set a one-year deadline for Egypt, Sudan, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo to get on board.
Cairo’s press has responded with vitriol, sensing an attempt by inferior states to tap the jugular of Egyptian civilization. “This,” goes the sentiment, “means war.” And, once upon a time, it might have.
Photo of a boat on Lake Kyoga in central Uganda by Dan Morrison
Sabre-rattling, then and now
In 1978, when Ethiopia began studying the feasibility of using the Blue Nile for crop irrigation, the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat responded that “Any action that would endanger the waters of the Blue Nile will be faced with a firm reaction…even if that action should lead to war.”
From antiquity, Egypt has lived with the fear that Ethiopia, its longtime rival, could somehow stop the Nile’s flow. In 1706, during a nasty diplomatic tiff, the Emperor Tekla Haymanot I wrote to Cairo that “The Nile might be made the instrument of our vengeance, God having placed in our hands its fountain, its passage, and its increase, and put it in our power to make it do good or harm.” The emperor was of course bluffing.
Similarly, in the 1990s, when Sudan began preparations for a large hydroelectric dam at Merowe, the first instinct of some in the Egyptian military was to bomb the site. (Cooler heads prevailed; Egypt and Sudan have since reconciled.)
Today, Egypt’s clout on the international stage is diminished, while states like Ethiopia and Uganda have emerged from decades of conflict and famine eager to secure their futures.
Shortage? What shortage?
At first glance, Egypt’s near-hysteria is understandable. The most populous country in the Middle East gets 95 percent of its water from the Nile. Eighty million Egyptians survive at the river’s sufferance, while the upstream states receive plenty of rain. The East Africans should more effectively manage their groundwater resources, Egypt says, and leave the Nile to its traditional master.
The problem with this argument is that Egypt doesn’t behave like it’s about to die of thirst. More than 40 percent of Egypt’s drinking water is lost to unrepaired leaks and illegal connections. The water that isn’t lost is, for all intents and purposes, supplied free of charge to consumers and farmers alike, meaning there’s not much incentive to conserve.
Water-intensive cash crops like cotton and rice are irrigated using inefficient methods that haven’t changed since the days of King Tut. At a time when Egypt has become a net importer of food, it is exporting a great deal of its water in the form of cotton (100,000 tons a year) and rice (600,000 tons).
Ready to rumble
Egypt is taking the Nile threat seriously. Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit has described the Nile waters as an inviolable “red line,” while Omar Suleiman, Cairo’s legendary intelligence chief, recently took over the Nile waters portfolio. And, while Egypt has recently taken a more conciliatory line, we can reasonably expect its diplomats will be ramping up their pressure on donor states to deny funding to irrigation projects in the rebelling countries.
There is a sense in this drama of the East African states making a further break from both their former colonial overlords, who wanted to guarantee the uninterrupted supply of Egyptian cotton to British mills, and from Egypt itself which, for a time in the 19th Century, sought to stake its own imperial claim over Equatorial Africa. (At Britain’s request, Ethiopia’s government signed on to an earlier version of the 1929 treaty. Ethiopia wasn’t a party to the 1959 agreement.)
“We are not begging Egypt and Sudan to give us our fair share of the Nile,” Ethiopia’s water minister, Asfaw Dingamo, said on June 24. “No soldier on the Nile will prevent us from using the waters as long as we are not causing any significant harm to each other.”
Dusk in the Sudd marshland in southern Sudan (photo by Dan Morrison)
Banking the Nile
There’s no easy way out of this impasse. But one possible option would be for Uganda and even Ethiopia to act as Egypt’s “water bankers.”
Lake Nasser, the 340-mile-long reservoir behind the Aswan High Dam, holds a whopping 157 billion cubic meters of water. But an estimated 10 billion cubic meters–nine percent of the water that reaches Lake Nasser each year–never makes it to a faucet or an irrigation ditch; it evaporates into the cloudless desert skies of southern Egypt. That’s enough drinking water for 20 million Egyptians–a quarter of the population.
Evaporation isn’t much of a problem in equatorial Africa, where the White Nile begins, and there’s a lot of fertile land as well. Egypt should invest some of its water there, rather than lose it to evaporation in the Sahara.
Looking south for security
Why couldn’t northern Uganda, which is returning to life after a two-decade reign of terror by the Lord’s Resistance Army, become an important supplier of food to Egypt? The same goes for the southern region of Sudan, which is almost entirely undeveloped and is also staggeringly fertile. Southern Sudan is already the object of an agricultural land grab by foreign investors. Egypt should be pushing to the front of the line.
The mighty Blue Nile begins in the Ethiopian highlands and supplies 59 percent of the Nile’s volume. Ethiopia currently leases 300,000 hectares of farmland to an Indian agribusiness, part of an effort to put 3 million hectares under foreign plows by 2013. There is no practical reason Egypt couldn’t partner with its ancient adversary to their mutual benefit.
All the Nile basin states need to use their water more efficiently. But the more water that is put to use near the sources of the Blue Nile, in Ethiopia, and the White Nile, in Uganda, the more water there will be for everyone.
Dan Morrison is the author of The Black Nile, which will be published August 12. He writes at danmorrison.net, and tweets at @dmsouthasia and @theblacknile.
The video below is about his new book:
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