top of page


The Nile Basin's Most Valuable Commodity

Ewan McGregor brandishes his machine gun at the Air France captain, ordering him to fix the Entebbe Airport toilet pipe.

“I’m a revolutionary” he says. “Dignity is all people want, dignity comes when you’re free.”

“No” answers the captain as he withdraws his wrench, unleashing a flood of water from the pipe. “Running water makes you free. Toilet…makes you free. One plumber is worth 10 revolutionaries.”

I didn’t think 7 Days in Entebbe was a particularly good movie. That being said, this scene made an impression on me. Running water makes you free. When we discuss geopolitics we often blame ideological divisions for conflicts such as the Sunni-Shia rift or Christian and Muslim divisions in Africa, however I wonder just how many of these conflicts are actually driven by the much deeper need to secure the essential resource that is water.

To investigate this question, I went to the magnficent New York Public Library to pull out Arnon Soffer’s Rivers Of Fire. The book started off as a report for the Israeli government on the issue of water management’s effect on conflict in Africa and the Middle East. The book was informationally dense, so I hope this article serves as a more digestible summary of what I learnt reading it.

Sudan is of particular interest in the issue of water and conflict. The country has been in a state of civil war practically since its independence and the livelihood of many of its people depends on its access to the longest river in the world: the Nile. The nation’s capital, Khartoum, sits at the point where the Nile’s two largest tributaries, the Blue Nile and the White Nile, meet.

The Blue Nile’s source lies high in the Ethiopian mountains at Lake Tana, where from June to October the rainy season massively increases the Nile’s overall supply of water, often leading to flooding further downstream for the Nile’s largest consumers, Egypt and Sudan. On the other hand, the lack of rainfall during winter and spring can cause drought. Indeed, Sudan and Egypt’s agricultures are totally dependent on the weather patterns in the Ethiopian mountains.

Further west, the White Nile’s water flow is far more stable because its source, Lake Victoria, lies close to the equator, where rainfall is constant all year. Downstream the White Nile runs into the almost impassable Sudd Swamps. In Arabic “Sudd” means barrier and for much of history that’s exactly what it was, until British hydrologists burst through it with dynamite.

From 1899 to 1956 Britain and Egypt ruled the Sudan. Even then, the British understood that the Nile’s water flow needed to be firstly stabilised and secondly increased in order to provide for greater agriculture in Egypt. It was for this exact reason that the Sudd Swamps interested Harold Edwin Hurst, an advisor to the Egyptian government.

Sudan Nile.png

Hurst knew that the Sudd swamps stopped the White Nile in its tracks and due to the intense heat, about 55% of the water which enters these marshes evaporates. Perhaps if the Nile could be diverted away from the Sudd that water could be saved and made available for consumption downstream. This diversion would be achieved by the Jonglei canal. He suggested this along with several dam projects in a proposal known as the Century Storage Plan because he calculated it would take a century to complete. However, the British Empire didn’t have a century left and as its Nile Basin possessions fragmented into independent states, lack of trust between them meant that much of Hurst’s proposals never got realised. However, it should be noted that the Century Storage Plan was primarily self-serving. Increased irrigation in Egypt and Sudan would allow for cheap cotton production which could be sent to England for manufacturing.

Nevertheless, the Jonglei Canal became one of the stated causes of the 1983 Sudan Civil War. Although the canal would certainly have benefitted agriculture in northern Sudan and Egypt, the local cattle herders in the Sudd would have had their swamp drained along with their livelihood. In order to secure the support of the Sudd’s tribes, the South Sudan Popular Liberation Army demanded the cancellation of the canal. Of course, this canal was not the only cause of war: Southerners were wary of power being concentrated in Khartoum and, of course, there is the Muslim-Christian division between North and South. It is perhaps not a coincidence that civil war started during the droughts of the eighties. When resources are abundant, groups can coexist but when they are scarce divisions can be exploited, mobilising vulnerable tribes.

" is doubtful that these two tribes would fight each other if there was abundant water for both."

This is perhaps most apparent during the Darfur crisis in 2004. During the beginning of the 21st century a tentative peace had been emerging between South and North Sudan, which provoked tribes in the West of Sudan to fight for their own autonomy in an attempt to emulate the South’s success. Due to the Sahara Desert’s relentless advance, the scarce grasslands there are demanded by both the cattle herders and farmers of Darfour, a division exploited by the government in Khartoum who, led by Omar Al Bashir, armed the Janjaweed horsemen with Chinese supplied weapons. This left 400,000 dead in what Colin Powell called a genocide. Today it looks as if Omar Al Bashir will answer for his crimes: the new Sudanese government have agreed to hand him over to the ICC. Omar. Al Bashir’s decisions made the situation much worse but the tribal divisions in Darfur may not have been exploitable were it not for the desertification of the region and dwindling water supplies.

In 2011 South Sudan held its independence referendum and decisively voted to secede from North Sudan. A separate referendum was also held in the contested and volatile region of Abyei, a region rich in oil so contested by North and South Sudan lay claim to it. The region is volatile because of a war over water. The Christian Dinka tribesmen are farmers who permanently live in the region. However during the winter and spring the predominantly muslim Misariya cattle herders head south so that their cattle can drink from Abyei’s more abundant sources of water. The Dinka accuse the Misariya of raiding their villages with the support of the northern army. Once again it is true that there is an ethnic division between the two tribes, and external interest in the area because of its oil wealth. However it is doubtful that these two tribes would fight each other if there was abundant water for both.

Sudan is not alone in the Nile Basin to have endured such war and strife. During the 1970s and 80s rainfall decreased and the Nile’s annual wateflow reduced from an average of 84 billion m³ to only 57. This, married with a civil war, led to a famine which killed 1.2 million in Ethiopia and Eritrea. So why did life carry on as normal downstream in Egypt? In 1955 President Nasser had heard Hurst’s proposals but, wary of having a dam built in another country which he couldn’t control, had the Aswan High Dam constructed within Egypt’s frontiers and when faced with the droughts in question , Egypt calmly withdrew water from its reservoir at Lake Nasser. So if water scarcity is a root cause of so much conflict, surely each country should simply follow the Egyptian lead and build dams to manage their water supplies. There are 2 problems with this approach:

Firstly, the cost of the Aswan High Dam has ended up being far greater than its $1b price tag. The river’s silt which is used to fertilise Egyptian farms is now stuck at the bottom of the dammed lake Nasser and Egypt has had to buy artificial fertiliser to help its farmers. This fertiliser runs off into the Nile, poisoning the ecosystem and reducing the sardine population. The silt was also used to soften the force of the Nile; now the unchecked river causes greater erosion which means the government to have to invest in more coastal defences. In a world where we as a planet need to start considering our impact on the environment, any geoengineering project must be much more carefully planned.

"Governments will certainly fight for oil, but everyone will fight for water."

Secondly, countries who live along the same river do not live independently from one another. One’s water storage project directly affect the others. Today Ethiopia is close to completing its own water storage project, the Grand Renaissance Dam. This is a matter of life and death for Egypt; their dam only just saved them during the last drought and if a new drought occurs, and Ethiopia decided to restrict the Blue Nile’s flow, then Egypt will be forced to go to war over it. Today the balance of power has shifted; in the past Egypt could enforce a favourable water sharing agreement on its upstream neighbours because it was by far the most powerful military and economic force in the basin but, unless it is willing to negotiate a more equitable water sharing arrangement, war is increasingly likely. As populations rise and temperatures too, such an agreement will be more difficult to reach.

The Nile Basin, like most parts of the world is full of peoples with different religions, ideologies and ways of life. These differences may spark conflicts but are not the underlying cause of them. Governments will certainly fight for oil, but everyone will fight for water. If the temperatures continue to rise we can surely expect conflict to magnify in the Nile Basin.

bottom of page