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A Diwan of contemporary life (284)
Having occupied Egypt in 1882, the British were quick to realise that full control of the Nile would secure their presence in the country. They did everything to guarantee this control. Outside Egypt they risked a confrontation with France in Sudan and entrenched themselves there. Inside Egypt, they saw to it that the use of Nile waters for irrigation and other purposes was completely under their thumb. Hence their strong presence in the Irrigation Authority of the Ministry of Public Works. There was a tug-of-war over water projects in Egypt and Sudan, and Egyptians suspected on good grounds that Britain favoured Sudan. Dr Yunan Labib Rizk * reviews the 'river war' on the strength of reports and articles published by Al-Ahram
Sir Winston Churchill, the wily politician who steered Great Britain to victory in World War II, was at one time a journalist who covered the expedition to reconquer Sudan in 1898. Churchill then collated and edited some of the reports he wrote during this campaign and published his work under the title, "The River War." The title is apt, epitomising as it does the British awareness, once they decided to remain in Egypt, that to rule the Nile is to rule Egypt.
Certainly control over the Nile was one of the reasons for the campaign to regain Sudan, particularly as Britain had learned that Paris was intending to follow the advice of the French engineer, M Prompt, who had worked for the Egyptian Ministry of Public Works. M. Prompt had told his government that any power that managed to control the narrow straits at a certain area of the White Nile could control the flow of the Nile to Egypt. Great Britain was not about to let the second largest colonial power jeopardise its control over Egypt and dispatched an expedition to the south of Sudan to confront the French at Fashoda. The confrontation would have erupted in open hostilities between France and England, had not the French backed down at the eleventh hour.
The awareness of the imperative of controlling the Nile was also why the British occupation authorities were keen to ensure the ubiquity of British officials in the Irrigation Authority under the Ministry of Public Works. As Prime Minister Nubar Pasha had said, "The Egyptian question is the question of irrigation." It is little wonder, therefore, that the British irrigation inspector, with his distinctive hat, was a familiar sight in the provinces and a tangible manifestation of the British colonial presence. If the British irrigation inspectors were the Lord High Commissioner's primary tool for securing British hegemony, the most famous of these was William Willcocks, the author of "Sixty years in the East." These memoirs contain two chapters on his 15-year experience as irrigation inspector in Egypt (from 1883-1897).
If the confrontation with the French in Fashoda symbolised the British battle to secure control over the Nile outside of Egypt, inside Egypt the occupation authorities fought the battle on several fronts. One of the most frequently cited pretexts the British offered for prolonging their occupation of Egypt was that they sought to deliver and protect the Egyptian fellahin (peasants) from the despotism of the large landholders, most of whom were of Turkish origins. This was the tool the British used to penetrate into strategic positions deep into the countryside. One of the most important ways the British sought to keep this class under control was to organise the system of irrigation patrols in a manner that would ensure the rural landed aristocracy's absolute dependence upon the British irrigation inspectors. That class had little alternative but to seek as good relations as possible with the inspectors. Its displays of obedience sometimes ranged to total submissiveness.
Of course, the British used the same pretext to secure the loyalty of the fellahin. 'We came to Egypt to rescue the blue galabiya wearers -- in reference to the traditional peasant costume -- from corvée labour and the whip' went the familiar British claim. Perhaps the notorious Dinshway incident is the most tangible illustration of the true attitudes of the British authorities towards the Egyptian fellahin.
(In June 1906, a group of British officers killed the wife of a fellah in a "hunting accident", precipitating rioting during which several people were killed and injured. In the trials following the disturbances, several fellahin were sentenced to death, life imprisonment or flogging. The injustice of the ruling of the martial court and the brutality of the punishments provoked a general outcry throughout the country).
In all events, the participation of the fellahin in the uprising of 1919 put paid to the British claim that they were holding the interests of the peasants to heart.
Clockwise from bottom:
police forces arriving at Dinshway; Nubar Pasha; Winston Churchill; the condemned on the scaffold
In fact, it is no coincidence that the turbulent year of the 1919 Revolution was also the year in which the British launched another offensive in their war to control the Nile. The signal of the offensive was a lengthy lecture delivered by Sir William Willcocks to the Egyptian Scientific Academy. The lecture was translated and published in instalments in Al-Ahram in February and March that year. Following the reconquest of Sudan, Willcocks began, "The Ministry of Public Works took upon its shoulders the task of exploring how best to utilise the Nile valley beyond Khartoum in order to create a water reserve for cotton irrigation." The desire to tame the Nile for the purposes of agriculture had a lengthy history. "Among the many means Egypt has used to augment its material wealth, only one has had success as its permanent ally. Whenever the country turned its sights to the shores of the Nile, it was not disappointed. This was as much the case with the Ancient Egyptians who, four thousand years ago under the Pharaohs of the 12th Dynasty, began to monitor the annual floods The situation remains the same today," he said.
Willcocks then proceeded to outline his plan. The value of cultivated land, he said, would increase by LE244 million with the conversion from basin irrigation to perennial irrigation. Egypt needed six billion cubic metres to achieve that target. He wrote, "Wisdom and experience demand that we seek a solution beyond the already available waters of the Nile. In the past, we had cast our sights on Lakes Victoria, Albert and Tana, which lie outside the borders of Egyptian-British territory, in order to extricate ourselves from our predicament. We had forgotten that within the British-Egyptian lands in the Sudan lies the largest natural reservoir throughout the length and breadth of the Nile." Specifically, that part of the Nile which contained the largest natural reservoir, was located in the area of the cataracts of the White Nile. These cataracts "hold back billions of cubic metres of water and, although some 10 billion cubic metres are lost every year, an enormous quantity is retained and replenished. Mighty nature has made a reservoir that no human hand could create."
The solution, according to Willcocks, was to build a dam in the area of these cataracts and to raise the height of the Aswan dam. The project, which he estimated would cost LE11 million, would supply Egypt with its needs for water "forever." If Willcocks' Egyptian audience had not already entertained suspicions up to this point, his next recommendation would be certain to sow doubts. What was also needed was a dam at Al-Subat to secure Sudan's water needs "for generations to come," he suggested.
Egyptians had cause for scepticism. Past experience had taught them only too well that exclusive British domination over the sources of the Nile was not necessarily in Egyptian interests. Nor would one have been fooled by Willcocks' reference to "Egyptian-British" Sudan. The Sudan may have been under joint BritishŠEgyptian administration in name, but it was under British control in practice.
An article, translated and reprinted in Al-Ahram from the English language Sphynx magazine, fed suspicions. Under the headline, "Irrigation in Egypt and the Sudan", the British magazine informed its readers that Sir Murdoch MacDonald, the British adviser to the Egyptian Ministry of Public Works, was about to return from London to Cairo carrying with him "new studies on the projects intended to meet Egypt's and Sudan's needs of water on a more secure basis." Al-Ahram readers would have observed that the bulk of the projects were to be constructed in Sudan. The plans for Egypt proper involved dredging the swamp areas in the Delta and building a barrage at Nagaa Hamadi. The mega-projects -- two dams, one on the White Nile and one on the Blue Nile, connected with a network of irrigation canals -- were planned for Sudan.
The purpose of the dams, according to the magazine article, was "to regulate the waters of the upper reaches of the Nile, particularly in the years of high flooding, so as to furnish water during the summer to those areas in which crops suffer from the lack of water in that season." The second aim was to conduct surplus water from the Blue Nile reservoir to the White Nile via a canal constructed for that purpose. The magazine said that British officials from the Egyptian Ministry of Public Works had visited the Gezira area and found it suitable for the cultivation of winter cotton. "This would be a boon for Sudan, while at the same time, Egypt's water needs for that season would not be effected," the article argued. It continued, "The supervisors of the project have confirmed that, in any year in which the Nile floods are unusually low, the Blue Nile reservoir will be able to supply sufficient water to irrigate more than 300,000 feddans."
Before leaving for Egypt, a panel of senior irrigation officials met in London to review certain questions that had been raised regarding the reservoir projects in Sudan. Sir Murdoch convinced the panel that the criticisms were groundless and he was therefore able to set sail for Egypt, "with his mind at rest, having obtained the approval of the panel for the plans and statistics he had brought from Egypt to submit to it." The Sudan irrigation project was given the official go-ahead.
In Egypt, experts deliberated alternatives to the British designs. M Cazelli, "adviser to the Sultan and chairman of the Royal Political Economy, Statistics and Legislation Society," delivered a lecture on the subject of water shortage to the Egyptian Scientific Academy. Cazelli's recommendation was to adopt the Italian model of establishing agricultural cooperative societies for water distribution. Such societies would eliminate complaints of insufficient water and "resolve a host of disputes that arise from dependency on waterwheels."
Another expert, who "had a considerable length of service with the Irrigation Authority and had close experience with the conduct of irrigation engineers, sentinels and the people," as he described himself, argued that the flaw in water distribution lay with the irrigation sentinels. These guards, he argued, are in a position to tamper with the water levels, particularly at night or at other times when water levels are not being monitored. Their motives were many. Their salaries were low and sometimes they were assigned too large an area to patrol, obliging them "to purchase at their own expense a mount to enable them to fulfil their duties." If the government addressed these issues, he argued, the fellahin would discover that they would no longer have any cause for complaint.
It is doubtful whether British authorities gave any serious consideration to these proposals, intent as they were upon their schemes in Sudan. That the London Times was covering the progress of the project was an indication of the priority the Foreign Office gave it. On 13 March, even as the 1919 revolution was at its height, the Times reported that the designers of the dam at the Blue Nile had modified their plans. The capacity of the dam was to be increased, raising the cost from LE200,000 to LE1,750,000, enabling it to irrigate 180,000 more feddans. The British government had a vision of bringing six million feddans in Gezira under cultivation, a good proportion of it devoted to cotton. As the total land area in Egypt under cultivation at the time was 5,300,000 feddans, one can readily understand why the Times article would rattle Egyptians.
Then, on 24 July, Egyptians awoke to a disturbing news item in Al-Ahram. The arena of the battle for control of the Nile had shifted from the lecture halls of scientific academies to the House of Commons. The government had asked the House to approve a treasury guarantee of a six million pound loan to the government of Sudan. The ensuing debate in the House confirmed Egyptian suspicions. One member of parliament said that the irrigation project would raise the British Empire's cotton resources in Sudan by 500 to 600 per cent. While many MPs favoured the project, one MP, an army captain who had served for a while in Egypt, cautioned the House that Egyptian public opinion should be taken into account. "Egypt and Sudan, in this issue, should be treated as a single entity and the Government should take note of the effect of this project, not only in Sudan, but in Aswan, so as to ensure that the project does not deplete the reservoir there."
Egyptian anxieties were reflected in the lead article of Al-Ahram of 13 September 1919. Under the headline, "Irrigation in Sudan and international trade in cotton -- where is Egypt's right?" The article reviewed the latest developments in the British government's battle to control the Nile. One development had occurred earlier that summer, with the appointment of Colonel Cooper as the director-general of the Sudan irrigation projects. Cooper had been the director-general of the Blue Nile irrigation department before joining the British war effort in World War I. The article objected to the fact that work on the British projects was to go ahead, even though the Legislative Assembly was still on holiday.
"The war has ended and growth is steady. However, the nation's representatives know no more than what they read in the newspapers. When all is said and done, are we to be told: why do you complain now?" Egyptians, the article continued, have a right to know what is being done with the Nile. "It is their Nile and their lifeline. Because of its large population and small fertile land area, Egypt has a greater right to the waters of the Nile." The article did not deny that Sudan had a right to a fair quota, but that quota should reflect the disparity between the two countries' populations. For Egyptians, the Nile was "our blood and our flesh."
Al-Ahram was not alone in its advocacy of Egyptian rights. Other national newspapers also campaigned against the British colonial designs. In order to appease public opinion, Minister of Public Works Ismail Sirri Pasha met with "a group of irrigation engineers and delivered a statement about the irrigation projects in Sudan. The communiqué was intended to refute the criticisms levelled against the projects and to lay to rest fears that they would be detrimental to Egypt."
While Al-Ahram was pleased that the government had taken this step, it nevertheless believed that "public opinion has a greater right to hear the statement which is why we ask his excellency permission to publish it in the newspaper. The issue is not one that concerns engineers alone. Rather it is a question of life or death for an entire nation. This nation conquered the Sudan with the blood and money of its people. Under no circumstances should Sudan take more than its current needs of water and deprive the Egyptian nation of one of its most fundamental rights." The commentary concluded, "The venerable minister should clarify all this in his statement so as to lay the nation's mind to rest. It is a necessary step for the anxiety stirred by the Sudan irrigation projects had obsessed everyone."
The minister had delivered his statement on Saturday 6 December 1919. After discussing the history of irrigation in Egypt he said, "There are 1,600,000 feddans of land in the Delta that can be reclaimed for cultivation. There is no escaping the fact that Upper Egypt should convert from basin to perennial irrigation, thereby increasing arable land in Egypt to 7,100,000 feddans, which is the total amount of land that can be brought under cultivation in Egypt." In an attempt to allay Egyptian anxieties, he said that the land reclamation project in Sudan would require no more than 6 billion cubic metres of water, while Egypt will obtain 50 billion cubic metres.
Egyptians were fortunate to be able to exploit the dispute that had erupted between two senior British officials: Willcocks and MacDonald. According to Willcocks, MacDonald had presented erroneous figures for the Sudan reservoir project in order to obtain British government backing. Al-Ahram lauded Willcocks "on behalf of the Egyptian nation" for "bringing to the fore this vital question, which indeed is a matter of life and death for the Egyptian people."
The Egyptian public was perfectly sensitive to this reality and numerous readers continued to write to Al-Ahram to warn of the potential dangers posed by the British irrigation plans. Ragheb Iskander, a lawyer, complained that Egyptians have never before been so victimised by an excess of projects causing the squandering of precious waters of the Nile. "The British now intend to make the bad worse with their new projects in Sudan, regardless of the enormous danger this poses to Egypt. Sir Willcocks made this perfectly clear when he said, 'The Nile is Egypt and Egypt is the Nile. To tamper with the Nile is to tamper with Egypt.'"
Another reader, from Port Said this time, complained that the Egyptian people had not devoted sufficient attention to the issue. "If the Sudan irrigation project had been presented in any other nation, it would have stirred the minds of the entire populace, from the lowliest worker to the highest prince. That is because the project touches upon the very backbone of society." The reader asked that the nation be given more time to study the project. He urged that municipal councils should be charged with conveying the opinions of the people to the government and that rural notables and farmers form delegations to petition the Ministry of Public Works to defer the project until it had been brought before the national legislative assembly.
Later events would prove that the British authorities had no intention of heeding Egyptian public opinion. Jumping several years ahead, on 22 November 1924, Lord Allenby announced that "the Government of Sudan will increase the land under cultivation in the vicinity of the Blue Nile reservoir by an unspecified amount". Egyptian suspicions had not been groundless.
* The author is a professor of history
and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.