The Other Nile River

The battle over the waters of the Blue Nile, pitting Ethiopia against Egypt and Sudan, has been all over the news lately. Notably, the debate has focused on the Blue Nile and largely ignored the other Nile, the White Nile. Which is odd because most accounts of the “source of the Nile” and official measures of the river’s length focus on the White Nile. More importantly, any lasting diplomatic solution to the ongoing inter-state contests over Nile waters will necessarily have to include all the Nile basin states — many of which are politically relevant on account of being part of the wider White Nile basin.

Screen Shot 2020-07-28 at 4.14.56 PMThe reason for ignoring the White Nile is simple: less than half of its waters actually reach Sudan and Egypt. An estimated 50% of the White Nile’s waters evaporate in the Sudd (a massive swamp whose full extent is about twice the size of Rwanda). Overall, the river contributes about a fifth of the Nile’s total flow. It therefore makes sense that Egypt and Sudan care more about the Blue Nile and Ethiopia’s ongoing construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

Yet the While Nile has not always been ignored. Multiple times over the last century, the loss of water to evaporation in the Sudd generated debates about how to ensure that more of the rivers’ waters reached Egypt. Potential solutions included damming upstream lakes (Albert, Kyoga, Victoria) to act as reservoirs and reduce water loss to evaporation, dredging parts of the Sudd to increase the rate of flow, and building earth banks to prevent overflow into the wetlands.

However, the one idea that actually got off the ground was the construction of a canal to bypass the Sudd (see image below).

Screen Shot 2020-07-28 at 7.54.30 PMThe first plans to build the Jonglei Canal emerged in the early 1900s under the colonial Anglo-Egyptian condominium in Sudan. After Sudan’s independence in 1956, Egypt convinced Khartoum to build the canal. Construction works started around 1975, with Egypt and Sudan agreeing to jointly shoulder the $300m cost of the project (about $1.44b in 2020 dollars). But then politics and conflict intervened. Following the collapse of the Addis Ababa Agreement and resumption of Sudan’s civil war in 1983, the canal construction sites became easy targets for rebel forces seeking to depose Gaafar Nimeiry’s repressive regime in Khartoum.

At the time, about two thirds of the 360k Jonglei Canal (which is visible on google maps) had already been excavated. The canal was intended to be about 50m wide on average and between 4-8m deep. For comparison, when completed the Jonglei Canal was going to be longer than the Suez (193km) and Panama (80km) canals combined.

Proponents of the project argued that it would provide effective flood control, boost agricultural development, improve riparian navigation between Bor and Malakal, and free up of more water to flow downstream the Nile. Critics of the project have often highlighted the likely reduction in fishing resources, exacerbation of competition for grazing areas among communities that rely on the region’s grasslands, likely aridification of the central South Sudanese region due to reduced rainfall, risk of ecological damage (the Sudd has a rich flora and fauna), and disruption of vital wildlife migration routes.

Various models suggest that the construction of the canal would decrease the size of the Sudd by up to 32%. The figure could be higher (up to 50%), especially as upstream Nile basin counties build their own dams and expand their use of water for irrigation (other scholars have placed likely peak contraction of the Sudd at 16%). While it is possible to regulate the flow into the canal to mitigate extreme aridification of the Sudd wetlands, the fact that such decisions would be at the discretion of politicians pose real environmental risks.

As tensions rose over Ethiopia’s GERD, some commentators suggested that the Jonglei canal may provide a way out of the impasse. But authorities in South Sudan remain opposed to the project. In addition to the hard-to-predict environmental impacts of the canal, Juba is rightfully worried that a piece of international infrastructure of this kind would likely turn South Sudan into a geopolitical pawn. Most reasonable people would agree that Juba is in no position to enter into a fair agreement with its neighbors to the north. That said, it is not inconceivable that as Ethiopia uses ever more of the Blue Nile’s waters, Egypt and Sudan might be forced to give South Sudan a better deal to complete construction of the Jonglei Canal. And it goes without saying that the success of such a deal would be predicated on support from the other Nile basin states.

Egypt vs Ethiopia: Hydropolitics of the Nile Basin

I just finished reading John Waterbury’s The Nile Basin: National Determinants of Collective Action. The book offers a concise introduction to the politics of international water basins as well as the various points of contention among the riparian states in the wider Nile Basin.

Here’s an excerpt:

All upstream riparians in the Nile basin, including the Sudan share varying degrees of suspicion towards Egypt and Egyptian motives in seeking cooperative understandings. It seemingly follows that Ethiopia could mobilize these fears and occasional resentments into an alliance of upper basin riparians. The British in fact tried to do just that from 1959 to 1961, as Egypt and the Soviet Union jointly pursued the Aswan High Dam project at the expense of the upper basin (p. 86).

Why would upper basin riparians care about how Egypt uses water that flows up north?

As Waterbury explains, this is because of the international norm of Master Principle of appropriation — “whoever uses the water first thereby establishes a claim or right to it” (p. 28). Therefore, Egypt has an incentive to use as much of the Nile waters as possible in order to establish a future right to high volumes of downstream flows. Increasing domestic water consumption makes it easy for Cairo to demonstrate “appreciable harm” if any of the upper riparian states were to divert significant volumes of the Nile’s flows.

This is principle is in direct conflict with the principle of equitable use that also underpins riparian regimes (which are legion, apparently. Read the book). And that is where inter-state power politics come in.

Waterbury accurately predicted the current problem bothering Cairo:

The ultimate nightmare for Egypt would be if Ethiopia and the Sudan overcame their domestic obstacles to development and to examine coolly their shared interests in joint development of their shared watershed in the Blue Nile, Atbara, and Sobat basins. Given Ethiopian and Sudanese regional behavior in the 1990s, Egypt need not lose sleep yet (p. 149).

Well, it is time for Egypt to lose sleep. Big time.

A resurgent Ethiopia is damming the Abbay (Blue Nile) and is likely to divert more of its waters in the future for agricultural projects.

What’s puzzling to me is why Egypt is not interested in cutting a deal right now. Given that Ethiopia is only likely to get economically and militarily stronger with time, why wouldn’t Cairo want to cut a deal under conditions of a favorable balance of power?

An obvious explanation is that Egyptian domestic political concerns make it harder for the government to sign a deal that diminishes claims to the Nile (Sisi doesn’t want to be the one that signed away water rights!) But this problem will only get worse for Egyptian elites, assuming that Egypt will get more democratic with time.

I am not surprised that Ethiopia is playing hardball.