Egypt, the Nile and the revolution

The fate of Egypt across the centuries is indissolubly linked to the river which gives it life. Today, a range of problems - environmental, political, economic - threaten the provision and the quality of the Nile waters. They present another challenge for the young post-Mubarak order, says Vicken Cheterian 

On the seaside corniche of Alexandria, the main city of northern Egypt, banners welcome Amr Mousa, the head of the Arab League and an unofficial candidate for the Egyptian presidency. “The population of Alexandria welcome Amr Mousa, the son of the Nile” one says. And next to it: “Egypt is the gift of the Nile”. The Greek historian Herodotus first coined this pithy phrase, conveying a belief that has lasted across 2,500 years: the Nile waters make Egypt, without them the land will be a barren desert.

Throughout this history, Egyptians have feared for the Nile waters. They were afraid that the gift would not be enough and that the country would suffer from hunger; or, by contrast, that the Nile waters would flow in such abundance as to flood their lands and homes. Most of their dread was rooted in lack of knowledge: many thought that the Nile came directly from the sky, or from the “moon mountains”.

The great legacy

It is indeed difficult to imagine Egypt without the Nile. Of the rest of the country, 94% is barren desert, and rainfall insignificant. Both Egypt’s water and fertile soil is pushed down by the Nile, creating sediments that make the river valley and the delta one of Africa’s most productive regions.

Egyptians have long worried that upstream countries could divert the waters of the Nile, causing drought and hunger. This fear was especially focused on Ethiopia, a mountainous country where the Blue Nile is formed and which collects over 80% of the Nile waters that flow to Sudan and Egypt (the rest comes from the Great Lake regions); these flow north until they enter the marshes of the al-Sudd region of southern Sudan, where most evaporates.

In former, the upstream countries did not have the means to divert the Nile waters in any significant way. Today, they can. In 1929, under British colonial rule, an agreement between Egypt and Sudan divided the rights to access the Nile waters between the two countries; this was modified in 1959, giving Egypt 55.5 billion cubic meters (bcm) and Sudan the remaining 18.5 bcm. In recent years, upstream countries have contested this agreement and asked for their share of the Nile, i.e. the water that is collected on their own territory before flowing to the north.

African countries need the Nile mainly for hydropower generation; the rainfall over their lands means their irrigation needs are less acute. In 1999, the Nile Basin Initiative - funded by the World Bank - brought together the nine countries of the Nile with the aim of reaching a convention to share the Nile waters. But after more than a decade it was still to produce what the donors were hoping for, a framework agreement on Nile basin management.

The regional politics

The sources of the Nile have long been charted, and since the construction of the high dam at Aswan in 1970 the flow northwards is regulated to keep Egypt safe from both droughts and floods. Yet Egyptians continue to fret over their Nile. A typical newspaper headline asks: “Who is responsible for losing the Nile?” The answer given, as with the country’s many other problems, is unanimous: the corrupt Hosni Mubarak regime.

The many accusers of the Mubarak regime say that Egypt under his rule (1981-2011) paid too little attention to African countries, both diplomatically and economically. In a region of strategic importance to Egypt, other countries have come to fill the void: Israel with its agricultural projects in Ethiopia, China or Saudi Arabia with their renting of agricultural lands in Sudan.

“The problem of Egypt is that its water sources derive from outside its borders”, says Omar Elbadawy, a water-management specialist at the Centre for Environment and Development for the Arab Region and Europe (Cedare) in Cairo. “Before the revolution a conflict was brewing between Egypt and a number of Nile basin countries, but now we hope that a new approach will be adopted” he adds.

The disputes reached a turning-point in May 2010, when four countries - committed to revising the 1959 agreement, and angered that Cairo was continuously playing a negative role and blocking both projects - initiated the Nile River Basin Initiative, which sought to make it possible for upstream countries such as Ethiopia, Uganda or Kenya to develop projects on the Nile waters.

The shadow on the waters

“In most of the Nile basin, the problem is not lack of water, but lack of energy”, says environmental expert Ihab Shaalan. He acknowledges that “Africa needs energy for its development”, but insists that “the Egyptian fear over the Nile is justified. We lack information and knowledge about a number of issues such as water cycles, climate variations, and therefore we fear the unknown.”

Ethiopia has launched a project to build a huge dam over the Blue Nile, in the Benishangul-Gumuz region not far from the Sudanese border. The project is expected to cost $4.7 billion and produce 5,250 megawatts of electricity, enough to close the energy gap of the country and export for much-needed currency. Ethiopia says that Sudan and Egypt will not be affected in any negative way from the dam except during the period of filling the reservoir. “The problem with the dam project is that it gives Ethiopia the possibility to put pressure on Sudan and Egypt” says Shaalan.

Another source of uncertainty is Africa’s youngest state, South Sudan. How will this influence the sharing of the Nile waters, and will it have impact on Egypt? No freshwater from the Nile spills into the Mediterranean, only water already used in irrigation flows into the sea. This means that Egypt is currently using all of the water that it receives annually from behind the High Dam. “Egypt is close to water-scarcity levels”, says Tarek Genena, an environmental consultant in Cairo, “Even now with the 55.5 bcm of water, there are regions in the delta with not enough water to irrigate. People know there is water scarcity and they are suffering from it. They are also afraid.”

Egypt’s problem with the Nile is not limited to the quantities of its waters. “There is no trans-boundary quality problem in the Nile; as we go north the quality gets worse and it becomes problematic from Cairo on, in the delta region”, says Tarek Genena. Lake Maryout directly to the south of Alexandria, is heavily polluted from the petrochemical industry situated around the lake.

Mohammad Ismail Ibrahim, the dean of the faculty of science of Alexandria University, says that pollution and degradation of land quality is damaging agricultural productivity, leading peasants to abandon their land. But a more menacing threat is a “population explosion, leading to fragmentation of land to a degree that makes it unsustainable to keep a family, and which causes prices of real estate to rise, thus encouraging peasants to sell their agricultural lands for construction.” Already 11% of the fertile lands of the delta have been built on. “The tempo of urbanisation has accelerated since the revolution”, says Ismail.

Any further encroachment will mean further falls in agricultural productivity, in a sector that occupies 33% of the workforce. Moreover, Egypt’s population is increasing by 1.7 million (2% of the whole) each year. Egypt had a population of 3 million-5 million in the era of the pharaohs, and 20 million at the start of the 20th century; today it is over 80 million. How many more times can the population of Egypt double, on the same land and the same water?

The old-new struggle


But Egypt’s revolutionary young people are at least producing ideas that were considered utopian only a few months ago. A delegation of forty-seven Egyptians went to Addis Ababa in a “public diplomacy” mission and met among others the prime minister, Meles Zenawi. Such voices call for creative solutions, that (for example) Egypt needs to move away from fearful opposition to every single development project of upstream Nile countries.

“Egypt loses 10 bcm of water to evaporation at Lake Nasser”, says Lama El Hatow, who is preparing a doctoral thesis on the Nile’s environmental security. “The floods bring water in November, but Egypt uses it for irrigation only in August-September. By reserving this water in Ethiopia there will be less evaporation in Lake Nasser and Egypt will in fact receive 6% more water”, she concludes.

For such ideas and enthusiasm to open new possibilities for the countries of Nile basin, they will have to overcome both centuries-old fears and modern commercial and political interests. The fate of the Nile waters depend on the outcome of this struggle.

About the author

Vicken Cheterian is a journalist and political analyst. He teaches at Webster Geneva's faculty of media communications, and is a research associate at SOAS's department of development studies. His next book is Open Wounds: Armenians, Turks, and a Century of Genocide (C Hurst, January 2015). His other books include From Perestroika to Rainbow Revolutions: Reform and Revolution after Communism (C Hurst, 2013) and War and Peace in the Caucasus: Russia’s Troubled Frontier (C Hurst, 2009; Columbia University Press, 2009)