Banking the Nile

Dan Morrison, writing for the National Geographic blog, considers Egypt's dispute with upstream Nile states and argues for Uganda or Ethiopia to become Cairo'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.

In a sense Egypt is already pursuing that policy. It had invested in farmland in Uganda and southern Sudan, recently even pledging a record $300m in projects there. Part of this is political: Egypt, like everyone else, is anxious about the coming partition of Sudan (and possibly, renewed civil war) and wants to make sure the new state is friendly towards Cairo. But this type of thinking — "importing" water as food after investing in mega-farms — does not fully address the issue, either.

Dan is right to point out the waste of growing certain crops in Egypt:

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).

But the virtual water theory that underpins importing food sidesteps some of the important shifts that are necessary: in the Egyptian context, moving away from cotton (an export commodity for which the Egypt name is a premium brand), moving away from rice (a local diet staple — and an unusually high quality round grain, too), or even moving away from the admittedly silly principle of food autarchy (part of the political lexicon since Nasser at least) are political and socially costly. Also, to be able to import large quantities of food (which Egypt already does — it's the world's biggest wheat importer and even imports a majority of the quintessential Egyptian staple, the fuul bean) it helps to run a trade surplus, which is certainly not the case right now. And you might also want to protect yourself from the vagaries of international food prices, too. 

But the other — and perhaps initial shift needed in Egypt — is that the hysteria over the Nile that is prevalent in the media is largely supported by the government and by the commentariat, which is ready to pounce at any surrendering of the historic water claim of the last century. Does it have an actual basis in science, or has the government trapped itself into a nonsensical discourse over the river because of its sheer stubbornness about changing an international agreement that clearly benefits it? After all, new irrigation projects in which runoff water presumably runs back into the Nile won't change things that much, and nor will hydroelectric dams in Ethiopia won't stop the Nile flowing. It's not like they are planning to divert the river into the Indian Ocean.  

If anyone out there has good material on the actual impact of some of the projects the upstream countries are interested in doing, do leave a comment — I find it hard to find this stuff.

Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.