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,

Twisted logic

Rather funny self-contradiction by the editor of the Saudi rag Sharq al-Awsat, who wants the Americans to force Malaki out in Iraq because he's undemocratic:

For all the American talk about the democratization of Iraq, and the necessity of the Iraqi people managing their own national issues, this is nothing more than beautiful talk that is a good excuse for the ugly reality, for what is the difference between Saddam and al-Maliki? 

But later, in the same editorial:

Post-Saddam Iraq was not in need of superficial democracy, but rather it was – and continues to be – in need of a strong ruler, from the army, in the ilk of a benevolent autocrat or an Iraqi Ataturk.


1 Comment

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,


Who's firing rockets from Sinai? asks Michael Dunn, and it's a good question. The Egyptians, saying their border with Israel is heavily monitored, first said no but then implied Palestinian groups were in fact launching them from Sinai by launching a sweep. The Jordanians, who are on the receiving end of many of these rockets that appear to aimed at the Israeli port of Eilat, claim to have proof they're coming from Egypt but haven't divulged it. The Israelis blame "the Khamas" and Hamas calls Egypt's allegation that Palestinian groups may be involved "unprofessional" and without evidence. The speculation in the Cairo papers — based on security sources — that a Palestinian group with an indirect affiliation with Hamas may be responsible.

It's all rather confusing, but assuming the rockets were fired from Sinai there is another alternative: that we are seeing the revival of the Palestinian / Bedouin groups that operated in the Sinai over the last decade and are believed to be responsible for the 2004-2006 wave of bombings of tourist destinations in the Peninsula. Or a new radicalization of purely Bedouin groups in the area. Or Palestinian militants going into Sinai from Gaza through the tunnels. That's for the whodunnit. There's also the question of where did they get these rockets from? Are they part of the arsenal allegedly being smuggled into Gaza from Egypt, or smuggled from Gaza into Sinai? No matter where you stand on the question of the anti-smuglling wall, this incident will lend credence to the arguments that having Sinai as a trans-shipment venue for weapons to Gaza adds proliferation risks to Egypt itself.

Also, although it's an outlier, perhaps one should not dismiss the idea that these rockets may not be unrelated to the general unrest among Sinai's Bedouin population, which has seen disgruntled groups block roads and attack tourism sites in the last month. Egypt's Sinai problem has been a slowly brewing mix of problems for a good decade now, and the regional situation only adds to it.

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,

Lebanon and the prospect of war

My new column in Masri al-Youm is out, about Lebanon and the prospects of war there, and outlines the rather twisted road of the past decade to get to the present situation.

But of course this is Lebanon, it's already superseded by the rather dramatic news of the clash between the Lebanese Army and the Israeli one yesterday, which claimed the lives of three Lebanese soldiers, a journalist from al-Akhbar, and a senior Israeli officer. Lebanon appears to have been in the wrong according to the UN, but of course it's all hotly contested.

I recently finished reading David Hirst's Beware of Small States (more about the book and Hirst later this week), one of whose central points is that Lebanon has been where the Arab-Israeli conflict has perdured since the last time an Arab army (rather than guerrilla) fought Israel: 1973. Well yesterday that (almost) 27 year break had ended, with Lebanese uniformed men confronting Israel's.

Read More

(More) Garbage Dreams

Nabil, one of the young protagonists of Garbage Dreams

Issandr has already written about the documentary Garbage Dreams (which we saw in June at Darb 1718's great outdoor movie-viewing space). Now you can read my two cents about the movie--which you can buy online now--over at The National. I've been to the Zabbaleen area many times, but I still learned some new things while researching the community's genesis: 

As far as anyone knows, organised rubbish collection began in Cairo at the turn of the 20th century, when the wahiya, a Bedouin tribe from the Dakhla oasis, contracted with building owners to collect their tenants’ refuse. The wahiya charged the tenants a small fee, and resold the domestic waste – compacted into dry patties – as fuel that heated the city’s public baths and cooked its morning foul medames.

By the 1930s, the residents of Cairo were switching to fuel oil for their heating and cooking needs and the wahiya were looking for new customers to buy the garbage they held the rights to. They found them among poor, pig-breeding Christian immigrants from southern Egypt. The wahiya farmed out garbage collection to the soon-to-become zabbaleen, who fed their pigs the city’s discarded leftovers and learnt to recycle its paper, tin, rags, glass, plastic and bones.

In the 1970s, a group of zabbaleen were evicted from Cairo and forced to resettle in an abandoned quarry at the foot of the Moqattam cliffs. The barren spot had no water or electricity. One in four infants died in the settlement’s early days. But over the years, thanks in large part to various international assistance programmes, conditions have improved. Basic services were introduced. NGOs and schools were established. Once electricity arrived, the zabbaleen started small workshops specialising in recycling plastics, metals and fabrics.

I also asked the director, Mai Iskander, some questions over email, but because of the article deadline wasn't able to include them in the piece. Our interview after the jump.

Read More

Moving back Downtown

A few years back, I studied at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad (CASA), an excellent, intensive Arabic language program funded by the US Department of Education and housed at American University in Cairo (AUC). When I attended, the program was getting ready to move--alongside all of AUC--to the new campus in the eastern suburb of New Cairo. 

But, as I report, the students were so miserable out at the new campus that CASA has moved back Downtown. 

...Says the center's director, Martha Schulte-Nafeh, "From Day 1 the CASA students said: We don't want to be here."

Students complained of the long commutes to and from the campus, which averaged two to three hours a day, round-trip. And they were unhappy that they were socially and geographically isolated on a largely English-speaking campus with a student body who came mainly from the upper classes of Egypt.

The new campus is "surrounded by malls and suburban developments," says Anna Ziajka, who is studying at the center this year. At the international food chains that have outlets on campus, "Even the waiters speak English."

I've written about AUC's new campus before. While I think it may satisfy the needs of the university's undergraduates, and it clearly has many advantages, I'm still shocked by how cavalierly the university seems to have made its decision to cut most ties with central Cairo. There doesn't seem to have been any serious discussion of the draw-backs of the move, or serious thought given to ways to keep certain components of AUC Downtown (I know, there is still the historic building in Tahrir Square, which houses the bookstore and continuing education programs. But that's it). It seems obvious that foreign exchange and Arabic language programs, for example, might be better situated in the heart of the city than in near-deserted suburbs. And I know the CASA program isn't alone in wanting to return Downtown--I hear several schools and departments have been unhappy with the move. 


Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.