It is a pleasant end of an autumn day, and Habiba decides to spend the best part of the afternoon sitting on a bench by the Nile near Garden City in Cairo. For this dedicated Egyptian painter, life on the River Nile has always been a favourite choice of subject.
Having spent a good part of her childhood at the house of her grandparents directly looking out over the Nile at nearby Manial, Habiba has long had “a profound affinity to the way the Nile flows. I was always willing to sit quietly and look at that endless flow for an entire afternoon,” she said.
“There is something about the way the Nile flows, the way people move on it and live on little boats, and the way people sit and stroll by the river side. It is both captivating and relaxing.
“I think the smooth and ‘kind’ flow of the water, which is so very different from the way the water of the sea moves with its high waves, gives the Nile its essential quality. It is constant and stable in a way that gives everything on and around it an endless tranquility,” she added.
But Habiba’s view of the constant and stable nature of the Nile has been subject to considerable challenge this year due to the failure of Egypt, the most downstream of all the countries sharing the River Nile, to reach agreement with Sudan, its partner downstream state, and Ethiopia, at the upstream of the Nile, on the filling and operation of the 75 billion cubic metres (bcm) Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) that Addis Ababa is building on the Blue Nile.
The Nile provides Egypt with over 80 per cent of the still-insufficient annual share of 55.5 bcm of water from the Nile, and there are concerns that the GERD could reduce that.
Ethiopia’s decision to carry out the first filling of the reservoir of the dam to around five bcm in July this year and its plans for a second filling of around 15 bcm in July 2021 are raising serious questions about the way the Nile will flow in future through Egypt and the country’s increasingly challenged water security.
For Habiba, “there is no way to imagine how Cairo will look if the level of the water in the Nile were to suffer a severe decrease,” particularly at times of drought. “This would be a nightmare. I don’t want even to think about it,” she said.
For Ahmed Al-Shennawi, a professor of engineering with expertise in dam construction, the nightmare would not just be about Cairo but also about the entire Delta and the country as a whole from Aswan in the south to Damietta in the north where the Nile enters the Mediterranean.
Al-Shennawi was born in Sudan in 1945 to a father who was an irrigation engineer at Jebel Aulia about 40km south of Khartoum where the White Nile meets the Blue Nile on its way to Egypt. In 1949, the family moved to Egypt, where his father was stationed in the Delta city of Tanta.
Father and son would go for long walks by the Nile and its canals while living in Tanta. Later, the family moved back to Sudan where the long walks by the Nile continued.
It was “a childhood closely associated with the Nile”, and this prompted Al-Shennawi to follow the path of his father and to join the Egyptian Ministry of Irrigation in 1969 as soon as he had graduated from the Faculty of Engineering in Cairo.
THE NILE BASIN: Throughout his career, Al-Shennawi had worked on irrigation projects across the Nile Basin countries with an eye on helping to ensure the best-possible management of its water to serve the interest of all the countries overlooking the river.
Of all the Nile Basin countries, now 11 after the splitting of Sudan in 2011, Egypt is the one with the poorest water resources, he said. “We don’t have the heavy rains that they do, and we don’t have the incoming water flow they do. What we get on an annual basis has always been insufficient, and it is getting more insufficient with time and changes in climate conditions,” Al-Shennawi said.
Concerned about the GERD and “the possibility that it might not be the only dam that Ethiopia, or for that matter other Nile Basin countries, are planning to build on the Nile,” he laments the “unfortunate delay” in pursuing joint water projects between Egypt and the Nile Basin countries to maximise the best possible use of the Nile water and to reduce as much as possible any waste.
“There have been many projects put on the table for discussion, but somehow they were never really picked up. Perhaps there was a lack of resources, a lack of political will, or a lack of anticipation of what the future could bring, or all of these reasons together,” he added.
According to government officials who were involved in managed relations with the Nile Basin countries it was around the late1990s and early 2000s that Egypt should have been a lot more alert to the determination of its Nile Basin partners to pursue plans that could undermine the country’s already insufficient water share.
“We should have done more to engage the Nile Basin countries at that time or even earlier in talks over collective plans and collective interests that could have materialised in a collective agreement that everybody could have signed up to,” said one official who asked for his name to be withheld.
Today, several of the Nile Basin countries say they want to turn their backs on agreements signed in the first half of the 20th century on the pretext that these were “colonial” treaties.
“What is done cannot be undone: we need to be thinking of today and of tomorrow rather than get too immersed in thinking about the past. We now need to come up with new initiatives and new ideas not just for the situation of the GERD but for all the Nile Basin countries,” the government official said.
“We need to stop taking the Nile for granted.”
This year, the government has been working hard to find ways of reaching out to the Nile Basin countries. In addition to official visits, Egypt has acted to facilitate the association of students from the Nile Basin countries with Egyptian universities, particularly Al-Azhar, and it has increased the number of teachers and preachers it has been sending out to serve them.
Other Islamic religious institutions have also been opening their doors to the training of students from the Nile Basin countries and have been reaching out with preachers and training centres.
Egypt has also worked hard to help Tanzania with the construction of its Julius Nyerere Hydropower Plant on the Nile. It will also be helping Tanzania with other mega-projects, according to official statements made in Cairo.
Egypt is also working on feasibility studies to make the Congo River navigable in low-lying areas between Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo and the city of Boma.
According to Amany Al-Tawil, an African affairs expert at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, “there has been some good work done, and there is room for a lot more work to be done, not just in relation to water projects, but also in relation to infrastructure, cultural cooperation, and education and health services.”
“The people of the Nile Basin countries need to know that there is so much that connects them with Egypt, and that Egypt is not just the downstream country at the end of the Nile,” Al-Tawil said.
BLESS THE NILE: The Nile is the longest river in the world. It runs for 6,656km, passing through around 10 per cent of the overall area of the African continent.
Throughout history, Egyptians have considered the Nile to be sacred, even though they never knew where it started until the mid-19th century during the rule of Mohamed Ali, who acted to give Egypt the maximum possible from the Nile in terms of water, irrigation, and navigation.
“I think it is unfortunate that for the most part people don’t know enough about the Nile. People know that Herodotus [the ancient Greek historian] said that Egypt is the gift of the Nile, but they don’t know much more about the history of the Nile or what it has meant to Egypt in agricultural or cultural terms,” said Ibrahim Shalabi, the author of Aziza, the first volume of a “Memory of a Land and a River” series published in 2013.
Aziza is the name the author gives to a guava fruit, making it tell the story of the Nile from upstream to downstream in this children and young adults’ book.
“Aziza is a typical Egyptian name, and the guavas that we now take for granted as a typical Egyptian fruit were in fact first introduced to Egypt under Mohamed Ali. So, my purpose was to inform people about this great source of water that they take for granted and what it has been bringing them as it flows,” Shalabi said.
“The Nile is an essential source of water, but it is also a source of civilisation. It is important for us to realise that while it brings water, it also connects civilisations,” he added.
One of the things that Shalabi dedicates a good part of his book to is explaining this relationship that has often connected the people of Egypt to the peoples of other nations that live on the banks of the Nile. His book takes readers on a long journey along the Blue and White Niles to introduce them to the names of cities and diverse ethnicities.
“I think it is important for young people to learn about the lives people live along the Nile,” Shalabi said.
Ethiopia gets significant attention in the book. “Ethiopia is where the Blue Nile comes from and where Egypt gets some 85 per cent of its share of the Nile water from,” he said. Ethiopia is also connected with Egypt through the bond of the Coptic Orthodox Church.
Sinout Shenouda, a senior researcher in Coptic history, agrees that the link between Egypt and Ethiopia has historically been about the Nile as much as about the Coptic Orthodox Church.
It was in the first century CE that Christianity found its way to what is today Ethiopia, shortly after it arrived in Egypt. The Coptic Church of Egypt early on was in charge of the ordination of bishops in the Abyssinian Church.
Over the centuries that followed, Shenouda added, the association was close between the two Churches on the Nile. “Priests moved between the two countries, and so did people,” he said. “It was this relationship that kept up the association between the Church of Abyssinia and the Orthodox world, despite attempts to associate it with the Roman Catholic Church in Rome, especially in the 15th and 16th centuries,” he added.
In the early decades of the 20th century, Shenouda said, a political dispute prompted a disconnect between the two churches of Egypt and Ethiopia. “In 1948, the two churches split officially, but they continued to be in dialogue, and Ethiopian students continued to come to study at the Coptic Clerical and Theological College in Egypt,” he said.
According to Atef Naguib, a professor of Coptic Studies at Cairo University, the history of Christianity worldwide cannot be disassociated from the River Nile. “There is the iconic image of the Virgin Mary travelling across Egypt from Maadi to Assiut in a little boat on the Nile, for example,” he said.
“The Christian concept of baptism was embedded in Egyptian culture during the years when Egypt was a majority Christian country to the extent that after the advent of Islam the Nubians, both in Egypt and Sudan, continued to get their children washed in the Nile on the 40th day after their birth in pursuit of blessings,” Naguib said.
He added that the prayers of the Coptic Church for the Nile to be blessed occur three times, first during the Holy Week of the Coptic calendar that leads to Easter, then from mid-June to mid-September during the months of the flood, and lastly on 21 November when the winter crops are seeded.
NO WASTE: On 21 November, Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation Mohamed Abdel-Atti held a meeting with aides to follow up on plans to make 2037 the target date for optimal efficiency in the use of the Nile for irrigation purposes.
The plans are part of a wider scheme executed in cooperation with the Ministry of Agriculture to rework Egypt’s agriculture in line with constraints on water resources. Working with the Ministry of Housing, the plans also foresee developing the domestic water and sewage systems to cut off all possible waste.
Other elements of the strategy that targets 2050 as the date to redress many of Egypt’s present water problems include plans to build desalination facilities in the coastal cities to help to make up for limited resources from the Nile and to build water-recycling facilities to reduce the use of potable water for agricultural purposes and to introduce more modern methods.
In addition to its 55.5 bcm annual share of the Nile’s water, Egypt receives around 1.5 bcm of rainwater on an annual basis and around two bcm of underground water. But the total is far below the 75 bcm of water that Egypt uses annually, 85 per cent of which goes for agricultural purposes. The recycling and desalination units that have been going into service since 2004 have provided the difference.
But there is still a considerable gap, and work continues to make up for water shortages. One part of this gap relates to access to potable water and sewerage. There is also the fact that the growing Egyptian population, estimated today at over 100 million, means a growing demand for food.
Egypt has a little under nine million feddans of agricultural land, and these do not provide it with total food security, not just in terms of quantity, but also in terms of diversity given that many of the most essential crops, including wheat, require large amounts of water.
This leaves Egypt dependent on exports to cover for shortages in some food essentials, including wheat, rice, and fava beans, all essential for the typical Egyptian diet.
The government is working on adding around three million feddans to the area of agricultural land within the next five years to help to increase crops production, even if this will not cover high-water crops.
Due to its high cost, desalinated water is not an option for irrigation purposes. Expanding the use of recycled water for irrigation, expanding the application of modern irrigation techniques, and minimising the waste that comes from flood irrigation are essential elements that the government is counting on to secure an increase in agricultural produce.
Hassan, a farmer from Beni Sweif in Upper Egypt, is not convinced by these ideas. Hassan’s total property is only one feddan that he inherited from his father who had left five other feddans to five other brothers.
Like his brothers, throughout the year Hassan rotates growing oregano, mint, oranges, lemons, and chamomile on his plot of land. He is not willing to consider changing the crops he is used to cultivating or to abandon his traditional agriculture irrigation methods in favour of new techniques.
“If we don’t flood the land, the level of salination becomes too high, and this affects the quality of the crops,” he said. According to Hassan, who likes to refer to himself as “a farmer and the son of farmers”, the irrigation by the “dropping” method that the government promotes is “good perhaps for reclaimed land, but not for the good old dark land of the Delta that has always been watered by the Nile.”
Hassan is unhappy about the changes that have been introduced to the crops in many governorates to reduce the use of water for irrigation. He is not convinced that this is about modernisation alone. “It is all happening because the Nile is going to have less water as Ethiopia builds its dam on the Nile,” he said.
“We don’t have to change our crops or change our farming methods. We just have to keep the Nile coming to us,” he said. “It is our right. We have lived on the banks of the Nile for thousands of years. We should not lose what we have,” Hassan added.
According to official statements, even if Egypt were to keep its full 55.5 bcm share of water from the Nile, it would still need at least 20 bcm more to cover irrigation of the current nine million feddans.
This is why the ministries of agriculture and irrigation are jointly working on a 10-year plan to overcome such shortages over the next 10 years. The plan started this year, and according to Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli it should be completed by 2030.
But Egyptian officials have been very firm that Egypt will continue to negotiate as hard as possible to secure its share of the Nile’s water and to convince Ethiopia that the filling of the GERD should be done in a way that does not cause Egypt significant harm.
The Egyptian authorities are aware that when it comes to farmers across the Delta, the Nile is a matter of life or death, since over 90 per cent of the inhabited land in Egypt is on the banks of the Nile.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly