Fact and fiction: Diverting water from the Congo to the Nile
Ahmed El-Sayed Al-Naggar, Thursday 8 May 2014
Talk of diverting water from the Congo River to Egypt is pure fantasy, shifting attention from less costly and more effective strategies for conserving Nile Basin water resources

Some suggest diverting 112 billion cubic metres of water from the River Congo to the Nile, which is utterly ridiculous. How can the course of the Nile, with a revenue of 84 billion cubic metres annually at Aswan, sustain another 112 billion cubic metres?

Others propose digging a new river parallel to the Nile to transfer water from the River Congo to Egypt, which means digging a river or channel that is nearly 35 times longer than the Suez Canal. Some politicians have revisited these ideas as a means to achieve Egypt’s water security from a river that has great water capacity (the Congo), without competing with other Nile Basin countries over Nile water revenues that seem trivial in comparison.

In truth, since this idea was thrust into the arena about three years ago I could not glean any scientific or realistic merit to this argument. This theory is an escape from reality instead of facing a complicated situation in the Nile Basin using a comprehensive water strategy for Nile Basin countries.

Reality also requires detailed plans for applying this strategy and fairly and evenly distributing its burdens and benefits among Nile Basin countries by mutual consent. One that takes into consideration the interests of local communities in all the countries where projects will be installed, so that these communities are protective of these projects regardless of political and security conditions.

In order not to jump the gun in judging the idea of diverting water from the Congo to Egypt via the Nile — or through a new watercourse — it is important to look at the different aspects of the theory to make matters clear and judge according to scientific and realistic grounds.

Basic facts about the Congo River

The River Congo is truly an African water kingdom, known to locals as the Zaire River rooted in the word Nazari in local dialect, meaning river.

The river is 4,370 kilometres long, or two thirds the length of the Nile. Its annual water revenues are nearly 1,293 billion cubic metres or nearly 14 times the revenues of the Nile, according to UNESCO data. This makes it the second largest river (in terms of discharge) in the world after the Amazon, which is the emperor of all rivers at 5,600 billion cubic metres of fresh water annually, or 60 times the volume of the Nile annually.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) receives the majority of Congo river water, some 900 billion cubic metres, while the Republic of the Congo and Angola benefit from the remainder. The DRC consumes 12.8 billion cubic metres only of the fresh water, or 1.4 per cent of all water revenues. This leaves 887.2 billion cubic metres to flow from the DRC alone to the Atlantic Ocean without being used.

The Congo has many tributaries, several emerging from Lake Kivu and its basin. Lake Kivu runs between the DRC and Rwanda and its waters were stained with blood during the terrible civil war in Rwanda that killed millions in ferocious fighting between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes.

It also witnessed deadly conflicts on its Congolese sides by tribes and domestic politics in the DRC. The lake covers an area of 2,370 square kilometres, has an average depth of 240 metres and holds 569 billion cubic metres of water despite its small basin.

There are also several tributaries from the western basin of Lake Tanganyika, the largest of the African lakes and the second largest natural freshwater lake in the world after Russia’s Baikal River. Lake Tanganyika covers an area of 32,900 square kilometres with an average depth of 574 metres, with a capacity of 17,800 billion cubic metres or about 6.5 times the capacity of Lake Victoria, the primary water source for the Nile River at the Equatorial Lakes Plateau.

Lake Tanganyika separates DRC on one side and Burundi and Tanzania on the other, with the border running through the centre of the lake. The southern section of the lake is the border meeting point between Tanzania in the East and DRC in the west and Zambia in the south.

While Lake Victoria is known as the largest natural freshwater lake in the world in terms of size, at 68,500 square kilometres, its average depth is no more than 50 metres, which makes its capacity negligible compared to smaller but deeper lakes. It ranks seventh among world lakes in terms of water capacity, and third in Africa after lakes Tanganyika and Nyasa.

One of the River Congo’s tributaries emerges from Lake Mweru that separates DRC and Zambia, and is a shallow lake — more like a swamp — with an average depth of seven metres, an area of 4,350 square kilometres and a capacity of 32 billion cubic metres. There are other tributaries that originate at the western slopes of the Muhavura mountain range where in the east emerges Kagera, the first tributary to the Nile River.

Other tributaries emerge at the western slopes of the Rwenzori Mountains which locals call the “Moon Mountains” because of their snowy summits despite their location on the Equator. From the eastern slopes of this mountain range emerge the tributaries of the River Semliki, which is a main tributary of the Nile River. There are other minor tributaries of the River Congo that originate in areas adjacent to the border between the DRC and the Republic of Central Africa.

Diverting water from the Congo to Egypt: Myths and reality

In all the northern and eastern sources of the River Congo the land gradient is at an angle, or a sharp angle, opposite to the land gradient of Nile water, which makes Nile water and its tributaries flow North towards Egypt and its mouth on the Mediterranean Sea. The gradient of the south and west tributaries of the Congo River, meanwhile, flow towards the Atlantic Ocean and the southern ones flow north and join the course of the Congo flowing west in the direction of the Atlantic Ocean.

Any attempt to divert water from Congo’s basin would be at a water catchment on the main river or its northern tributaries that rapidly flow south and west. This is opposite the Nile’s land gradient, as mentioned earlier.

Thus, diverting water from the basin of the Congo River to the Nile River or even to a parallel course requires lifting a large volume of water at a very high cost to transfer it from the Congolese watercourse to the Nile watercourse, or even a new parallel one. This cost alone would make the diversion absurd because of the price of energy and expected revenues from using diverted water, compared to the cost of transferring water.

Suggestions to divert water from the Congo to the Nile via the Bahr Al-Ghazal basin or directly to the White Nile are also unscientific and absurd, because of topography, direction of slopes of each river, and the capacity of the Nile especially at the White Nile.

The course of the White Nile is shallow and cannot hold any more water without raising the height of its banks. It has a slight sloping gradient and is awash with swamps. It is also quite shallow — about four metres deep in summer, which can increase to six metres in winter. During flood season, it becomes more of a lake when its course increases from 850 metres wide in the northern section to 4,300 metres.

As for projects to develop Nile water revenues by conserving wasted water in the swamps of Kyoga, Bahr Al-Jabal, Mashar and Bahr Al-Ghazal, they require a mega project to raise the banks of the White Nile so it can sustain any increase in Nile revenue. Transferring a large volume of water from the River Congo, even at an impossible impractical high cost, is technically impossible for the White Nile.

Diverting water from the Congo to Egypt through digging a new watercourse parallel to the Nile for a distance of more than 5,000 kilometres and lifting water from the Congo River to this new watercourse is an entertaining reverie that has nothing to do with reality. It is unviable in terms of the cost of digging the watercourse, the time it would take, the cost of lifting the water to it, guaranteeing flow and continuous lifting because of the uneven terrain.

Meanwhile, the fantasy project of diverting water from the Congo to Egypt requires approval from the DRC, the Republic of the Congo, Central Africa, Chad and Sudan, as well as guaranteed political and security stability in these countries so the project and companies working on it and equipment are not sabotaged, destroyed or stolen. That alone is enough reason to end all theories about such a project.

In South Sudan, the Jonglei Canal project was 70 percent complete after spending large funds, but was sabotaged, destroyed and terminated because of political and security turmoil in South Sudan during Sudan’s civil war since the mid-1980s.

This demonstrates that putting the fate of a mega project with multiple phases in several countries — each suffering political and security turmoil — is delusional and a premeditated waste of money. Also, environmental groups around the world will fight against any such project even if it were technically sound and economically feasible, because it is an assault on nature and is certain to result in climate changes in several countries.

It is likely that promoting this whimsical project is an attempt to distract Egypt from its water rights that are being violated by the Ethiopian Grand Renaissance Dam, instead of addressing the issue with various dynamic mechanisms and effective implementation of old agreements that support Egypt’s water rights to the Nile River and its tributaries. Egypt must also take advantage of its international and regional relations to block Ethiopia from unilateral actions that harm Egypt and its Nile water rights.

It also requires Egypt to use its water situation and how all life depends wholly on Nile water — human and non-human — to assert its historic right to defend every drop of Egypt’s Nile water quota.

Promoting this fantasy also attempts to distract Egypt from striving to ration water consumption, developing new water-saving irrigation methods, seeking to develop Nile water revenues through conservation projects of wasted water at the Kagera River basin. This water does not even enter the watercourse because of evaporation, seepage and absorption into the swamps of Kyoga in Uganda, the waters between lakes George and Edward, the swamps of Bahr El-Jabal and Nahr Naam, the swamps of Bahr Al-Ghazal in South Sudan, and swamps of Mashar on the border between South Sudan and Ethiopia.

These are more realistic and feasible projects, and their cost and water revenues would be divided fairly among participating Nile Basin countries. This would be part of a strategic water, agricultural, industrial and services partnership between Egypt and the countries of the Nile Basin, based on cooperation, equal mutual benefits under the umbrella of brotherhood in the Nile River.