As discussions on water issues continue in Egypt, we should give pause to President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s recent and successful visit to Germany.
German friends and colleagues who occupy prominent positions there have spoken highly of this visit and commended Al-Sisi’s determination to safeguard the interests of the African peoples, raising hopes of an Egyptian-African-German initiative to help preserve the Nile River whose water serves 12 nations and benefits Central Africa.
The Nile provides water and life to people, animals and agriculture. It helps keep famine, poverty, desertification and drought at bay.
Protecting this river merits global attention, and the above-mentioned Egyptian-African-German initiative would help preserve the enormous quantities of Nile water that are lost at the river’s sources.
The Equatorial Lakes in Eastern Africa could be the most abundant sources of the Nile, but at present vast amounts of water are lost from them due to evaporation and other causes.
An estimated 110 km3 of rainfall feeds Lake Victoria, but only about 30 km3 of water emerges from the lake into the Nile and only about 33 km3 of water makes its way to the Sudd marshland in South Sudan, a vast area which stretches 700 km from Mongalla to Malakal and is connected with the 160 km Bahr Al-Ghazal.
Although the Bahr Al-Ghazal basin collects about 500 km3 of rainfall, only six per cent of this reaches the river’s mouth.
The Sudd marshes are also connected to another large tributary of the Nile, the Bahr Al-Arab, whose tributaries and basin extend westward to the borders with Chad and the Central African Republic.
The yield from this river is also small, and of the total amount of water that enters the Sudd, only 15 km3 a year flows northward into the White Nile.
In short, of the vast quantities of water available at the equatorial sources of the Nile only a small proportion ends up travelling north.
The need to prevent the loss of this water is a pressing concern and one that calls for close inter-African cooperation.
Fortunately, there are precedents for this, one of the most successful being the Owen Falls Dam near Jinja in Uganda where the White Nile leaves Lake Victoria. This major hydraulic project furnishes Uganda with hydroelectric power and has also made it possible to augment downriver water resources.
Another cooperative endeavour of this type started in 1967 in a partnership between Egypt, Sudan, Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania with the support of the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) called the Hydro-Meteorological Survey of the Equatorial Lakes (Hydromet).
It was joined by Ethiopia in 1971 and Rwanda and Burundi in 1972, extending the scope of the programme to the upper sources of the Nile. In 1974, it was joined by Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), extending the scope to the Semliki River basin.
The results of this Survey, which have considerably increased our knowledge of the hydrology of the equatorial plateau, have been published in numerous journals.
However, the Jonglei Canal Project, which aimed to divert some of the water from the Sudd marshland into the White Nile at Malakal, was one cooperative endeavour that was interrupted.
Egypt and Sudan began the project in the late 1970s, but the outbreak of political turmoil and civil war in the region brought it to a halt. With the renewed cooperation between the Nile Basin countries, this project could now be resumed or other water preservation and augmentation projects could be set into motion in collaboration with donor countries.
Countries tend to fall into one of two categories on the question of the Nile. On the one side are those that seem determined to exploit it politically for unfair ends, including by withholding its water from downriver countries.
On the other are those that are eager to preserve and develop its resources and that are sincere in their concern for all the peoples of Africa.
Germany is one of the latter countries, and it has shown itself to be eager to work with Egypt in water resource and wastewater management.
The German ambassador to Cairo recently made a speech on German Unity Day on the water crisis in the region and the proper management of the Nile.
The initiative that we now propose seeks to prevent the loss of Nile water at its source in order to protect this great river, augment its supply of water, and promote the prosperity of the peoples of Africa.
Modern science and technology make this possible, and there is much potential here for taking cooperation between Germany, Egypt and the African countries further in protecting the resources of the Nile at their source.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 15 November, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: An initiative on the Nile