Egypt and Sudan are utterly dependent on the waters of the Nile River. Over the past century both of these desert countries have built several dams and reservoirs, hoping to limit the ravages of droughts and floods which have so defined their histories. Now Ethiopia, one of eight upriver states and the source of most of the Nile waters, is building the largest dam in Africa. Located on the Blue Nile twenty five miles from the Ethiopian border with Sudan, the Grand Renaissance Dam begins a new chapter in the long, bellicose history of debate on the ownership of the Nile waters, and its effects for the entire region could be profound.
In the fall of 2012 newspapers around the world reported on a Wikileaks document, surreptitiously acquired from Stratfor, the Texas security company, revealing Egyptian and Sudanese plans to build an airstrip for bombing a dam in the Blue Nile River Gorge in Ethiopia. The Egyptian and Sudanese governments denied the reports.
Whether or not there were such plans in 2012, there is a long history of threats and conflicts in the Nile River Basin. Downriver Egypt and Sudan argue that they have historic rights to the water upon which they absolutely depend—and in 1979 Egyptian President Anwar Sadat threatened war on violators of what he saw as his country’s rights to Nile waters. Upriver Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and Tanzania argue that they too need the water that originates on their lands.
Since the twelfth century C.E. Christian Ethiopian kings have warned Muslim Egyptian sultans of their power to divert waters of the Nile, often in response to religious conflicts. But these were hypothetical threats.
Today, however, Ethiopia is building the Grand Renaissance Dam and, with it, Ethiopia will physically control the Blue Nile Gorge—the primary source of most of the Nile waters.
The stakes could not be higher for the new leaders in Egypt and Ethiopia, President Mohamed Morsi and Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, as well as Sudan’s long-time President, Omar El Bashir. The stakes are perhaps even higher for the millions of people who owe their livelihood and very existence to the Nile’s waters.
Egypt and the Nile
The Nile has been essential for civilization in Egypt and Sudan. Without that water, there would have been no food, no people, no state, and no monuments. As Herodutus famously wrote in the 5th century B.C.E., “Egypt is the gift of the Nile.”
For millennia peoples have travelled along the banks of the Nile and its tributaries. Scores of ethnic groups in Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan share architecture and engineering, ideas and traditions of religion and political organization, languages and alphabets, food and agricultural practices.
In 3000 B.C.E., when the first Egyptian dynasty unified the lower and upper parts of the Nile River, there were no states in Eastern or Central Africa to challenge Egypt’s access to Nile waters.
The Nile was a mysterious god: sometimes beneficent, sometimes vengeful. Floods between June and September, the months of peak flow, could wipe out entire villages, drowning thousands of people. Floods also brought the brown silt that nourished the delta, one of the world’s most productive agricultural regions, feeding not only Egypt but many of its neighbors.
The river’s central importance to Egyptian life is captured in A Hymn to the Nile, recorded in Papyrus Sallier II:
Hail to thee, O Nile, that issues from the earth and comes to keep Egypt alive! …
He that waters the meadows which He created …
He that makes to drink the desert …
He who makes barley and brings emmer into being …
He who brings grass into being for the cattle …
He who makes every beloved tree to grow …
O, Nile, verdant art thou, who makes man and cattle to live.
The Nile’s seasonal flooding is a central theme in Egyptian history. The river flow follows regular patterns, increasing between May 17 and July 6, peaking in September, and then receding until the next year. But the river volume is very unpredictable, as documented by nilometers (multi-storied structures built in the river to measure water heights). Successive empires of Pharaohs, Greeks, Romans, Christian Copts, and Muslims celebrated the rising waters of the Nile and dreaded floods or droughts.
Five millennia of Nile history show how years with high water have produced ample food, population growth, and magnificent monuments, as during the first five dynasties from 3050 B.C.E. to 2480 B.C.E. Periods with low water have brought famine and disorder. The Book of Genesis describes seven years of famine that historians associate with the drought of 1740 B.C.E.
From the time of the Pharaohs until 1800 C.E., Egypt’s population rose and fell between 2 to 5 million, due to food availability and epidemics. The irrigation projects of the 19th century Ottoman ruler Mohammad Ali allowed year-around cultivation, causing population growth from 4 to 10 million. Since the opening of the Aswan High Dam in 1971, Egypt’s population has increased from about 30 to 83 million.
The Sources of the Nile
Despite the extraordinary importance of the Nile to people downstream, the origin of the great river was a mystery until the middle twentieth century. Herodotus speculated that the Nile arose between the peaks of Crophi and Mophi, south of the first cataract. In 140 C.E. Ptolemy suggested the source was the Mountains of the Moon, in what are now called the Ruwenzori Mountains in Uganda.
The 11th century Arab geographer al-Bakri postulated West African origins, confusing the Niger River, which empties into the Atlantic Ocean, with the Nile River. In 1770 the Scottish explorer James Bruce claimed his discovery of the source in Ethiopia, while in 1862 John Hanning Speke thought he found it in Lake Victoria and the equatorial lakes.
The river’s limited navigability only increased its mystery. The Blue Nile River descends 4501 feet in 560 miles from Lake Tana in the Ethiopian highlands through a deep gorge with crocodiles, hippopotamuses, and bandits to the Sudan border and the savannah. Despite the efforts of scores of intrepid adventurers, the Blue Nile in Ethiopia was not successfully navigated until 1968 by a team of British and Ethiopian soldiers and civilians equipped by the Royal Military College of Science.
Further south up the White Nile in the lakes and rivers of Burundi, Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, the Egyptian cultural influence is less pronounced, due to the Sudd, a gigantic and impassable swamp which absorbs waters from the equatorial lake tributaries. The Nile River historian Robert O. Collins reports that “no one passed through this primordial bog” until 1841.
Not until the 20th century did it become clear that the Nile is part of a vast river system with dozens of tributaries, streams, and lakes, stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the remote mountains of Burundi, in tropical central Africa, and to the highlands of Ethiopia, in the Horn of Africa.
Spanning more than 4,200 miles, it is the longest river in the world. It has also become clear that the volume of water which flows through the Nile is relatively small—a mere two percent in volume of the Amazon’s and fifteen percent of the Mississippi—and mostly (86%) from Ethiopia.
Ethiopia, Egypt, and the Historical Struggle for the Nile’s Waters
Ethiopia and Egypt have had a long relationship of both harmony and discord, the latter the result of religious issues and access to Nile water, among other factors.
Ethiopia’s first well documented government was in Aksum, a city-state that controlled a large empire from the Ethiopian highlands across the Red Sea to Yemen. From 100 until 800 C.E. Aksumites participated in Mediterranean and Indian Ocean trade.
The cultural relationship between Egypt and Ethiopia was institutionalized when the Aksumite King Ezana converted to Christianity in 330 C.E. For 16 centuries (until 1959) the Egyptian bishop of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church was appointed by the Egyptian patriarch in Alexandria, often under the influence of the Egyptian government.