Does Egypt Own The Nile? A Battle Over Precious Water

A dispute between Egypt and upstream African nations has brought to the fore a long-standing controversy over who has rights to the waters of the Nile. The outcome could have profound consequences for the ecological health of the river and for one of the world’s largest tropical wetlands.

A simmering dispute over who owns the waters of the River Nile is heating up. From its headwaters in Ethiopia and the central African highlands to the downstream regional superpower Egypt, the Nile flows through 10 nations. But by a quirk of British colonial history, only Egypt and its neighbor Sudan have any rights to its water.

That is something the upstream African nations say they can no longer accept. Yet as the nations of the Nile bicker over its future, nobody is speaking up for the river itself — for the ecosystems that depend on it, or for the physical processes on which its future as a life-giving resource in the world’s largest desert depends. The danger is that efforts to stave off water wars may lead to engineers trying to squeeze yet more water from the river — and doing the Nile still more harm. What is at risk here is not only the Nile, but also the largest wetland in Africa and one of the largest tropical wetlands in the world — the wildlife-rich Sudd.

High Aswan Dam
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Built in the 1960s, the High Aswan dam allows Egypt to control the flow of the Nile.

In May, five upstream Nile nations — Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda — signed a treaty declaring their rights to a share of the river’s flow. They said they would no longer be bound by a treaty drawn up by the British in 1959. That treaty had given Egypt 55.5 cubic kilometers of the river’s flow and Sudan 18.5 cubic kilometers, but no formal entitlements for any nation upstream.

In essence the five nations were calling Egypt’s bluff. Egypt entirely controls the river’s flow from the moment it crosses the border from Sudan and is captured by the High Aswan dam, built by Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser with Russian help in the 1960s. But Egypt’s control depends on what comes downstream, over which it has no control. In the past, Egypt has frequently said any attempt by upstream nations to take what it regarded as Egyptian water would result in war.

Egypt’s concern is understandable. Some 75 million of Egypt’s 80 million inhabitants live on the river’s delta and narrow river valley. The Nile is the lifeblood of Egypt. It irrigates the nation’s food and cash crops and generates its energy, and the river’s fish provide much of Egyptians’ protein.

Egypt has threatened legal action if its current water ‘rights’ are not upheld.

Egypt’s leaders are prepared to countenance their neighbors building hydroelectric dams that hold back water, provided that water ultimately returns to the river to flow on downstream. But they are not prepared to allow countries to take water out of the river for consumptive uses like agriculture. Egypt’s biggest concern is Ethiopia, whose Lake Tana is the source of the largest of the river’s two main tributaries, the Blue Nile, and whose own 80 million inhabitants have heavy unmet water needs, especially for irrigation.

So, after the breakaway group of upstream nation declared their own water rights, Egypt reacted earlier this month by going on a high-level diplomatic offensive with offers of aid, backed up by threats of legal action if its current water “rights” are not upheld.

Thanks to the Nile, Egypt still has much more water per capita than many of its neighbors in the Middle East. Much of its farming is wasteful of water. But existing entitlements are a “red line” that the nation cannot allow to be crossed, says Egyptian foreign minister Ahmed Abul Gheit.

That’s the hydro-politics. But all current negotiations begin from the assumption that the river is a pipe carrying water to the sea — and that the only deal that needs to be done is who can take what from the pipe. Rivers are a bit more complicated than that, and yet nobody is talking about setting aside any of the Nile’s precious flow for nature.

The Nile, by some measures the world’s longest river, is also among its most beleaguered. Its entire annual flood is captured behind the High Aswan dam, shimmering in the Sahara Desert at the border between Egypt and Sudan. The water is then fed downstream to meet the needs of Egyptian farmers. Most years virtually no water reaches the sea.

The Nile River delta is eroding — in some places by 10 meters a year.

These changes are already having damaging effects. While the dam releases the water, it does not release the river’s heavy silt loads — mostly the product of erosion of the friable hills of Ethiopia. Once, the silt maintained the fertility of Egyptian fields and prevented the river’s delta from being washed away by the waves of the Mediterranean. But now the silt stays behind the dam, gradually accumulating. Egyptian soils are kept fertile with artificial fertilizer (manufactured using energy generated by the dam’s turbines), while the delta, which contains two-thirds of Egypt’s farmland, is eroding — in some places by tens of meters per year. Once-thriving farming villages like Borg-el Borellos now lie submerged out to sea.

In the long run, current abuse of the river is not sustainable. But still politicians want to extract more from the river, not less. Since all the water is now taken most years, the most obvious option is to reduce nature’s own “wastage” of water through evaporation.

One place to do this stands out. A century ago, British imperial engineers first eyed the Sudd. This is a huge wetland in southern Sudan, stretching for more than 40,000 square kilometers. Its shimmering desert waters are fed by the Nile’s second tributary, the White Nile, which moves very slowly, its water dawdling for up to a year as it makes its way through the myriad channels of the Sudd. This water sustains a major ecosystem in the desert, with thick beds of floating papyrus, thousands of hippos and crocodiles, large herds of elephants, and millions of migratory birds, while also sustaining pastures for the cattle herds of tribes like the Dinka, who live on the fringes of the Sudd. But hydrologists estimate that the White Nile loses half its flow in the process — largely to evaporation.

If a proposed canal is built, at least a quarter of the huge Sudd wetland would be lost.

Engineers developed a plan to a cut a canal to allow the White Nile to bypass the Sudd. Back in 1978, a 2,300-ton canal-digging machine from Pakistan, known as a Bucketwheel, was dismantled and dragged by truck, train, steamer and camel to southern Sudan, where it began cutting the Jonglei canal. Egypt, the sponsor of the project, said that by reducing evaporation in the Sudd, it would deliver an extra 5 cubic kilometers of water downstream — water that it agreed to share with Sudan.

The machine had dug 260 of the planned 360 kilometers of canal by 1984, when the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army, fighting for southern independence from the Muslim north, raided the canal camp and took foreign hostages. War intensified, and no work has been done since. The canal remains a dead end, and the Bucketwheel sits abandoned in the desert.

But peace broke out in southern Sudan in 2005, after the region gained partial autonomy. The president of southern Sudan, Salva Kiir, has held talks with Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak about the prospects of resuming work on the canal, as part of a range of reconstruction projects that Kiir hopes Egypt will undertake in his fledgling country. The final hurdle may be a referendum on full independence for South Sudan, which is due in January.

For politicians, the Jonglei canal is the perfect deal. It will allow more water to be taken from the Nile upstream without reducing how much crosses the border into Egypt. In return for being allowed to dig the canal, Egypt will offer development aid for a new nation.

Lake Nasser, Egypt’s water bank, is the biggest source of water loss on the river.

But the canal would, of course, do huge damage to the Sudd, one of the jewels of African wildlife. The canal would not completely dry up the wetland, according to a study last year by Erwin Lamberts of the University of Twente in the Netherlands. Some water would continue to flow into the swamps in the wet season, and rains would maintain other areas. But at least a quarter of the Sudd and much of its floodplains would be lost. (The wetland is also threatened by oil prospecting. The French company Total is expected to resume drilling in the Sudd this month.)

There is another option — one that has not yet surfaced in political discussions and one that requires a real regional settlement on the future of the Nile.

Engineers have been so concerned about evaporation from the Sudd that they have forgotten about another major loss of water caused by the heat of the desert sun. Behind the High Aswan dam on the Egypt-Sudan border sits the huge Lake Nasser, Egypt’s water bank. But it is an amazingly inefficient bank. Each year, between 10 and 16 cubic kilometers of water evaporates from its surface. That is more than a quarter of the river’s entire flow some years — and around three times what the Jonglei canal might “save.”

The very structure that Egypt uses to control the Nile is also the biggest source of water loss on the river. This is not a new discovery. British imperial engineers always opposed building a giant dam at Aswan precisely for this reason. They wanted a series of dams in the mountains way upstream, probably in the deep ravines of the Blue Nile in Ethiopia, where reservoirs would have a smaller surface area and the evaporative power of the sun would be less fierce.

President Nasser, the father of modern Egypt, could never have countenanced that. He wanted an Egyptian dam on Egyptian soil to capture Egypt’s water. But that grand vision is now breaking down as his upstream neighbors call Egypt’s bluff on the Nile.

It would be expensive, and a major concession for Egypt to allow the main faucet on the river to move to another country — particularly its regional rival, Ethiopia. But the fact is that it would massively add to the amount of water flowing down the Nile.

So, just possibly, a grand settlement of the long dispute over who owns the Nile might create a more sensible solution, with common control of a single regulating dam in a place that makes the most hydrological sense. The shimmering edifice of the High Aswan — monument to hydrological folly — could be dismantled. And then there might be enough water left for nature, as well as for the people of the Nile.