Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
16 - 22 September 1999
Issue No. 447
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues


For as long as there has been a Nile there has been a flood and that, as schoolchildren the world over know, is a long time indeed. But with climactic change, a record-breaking flood for the fourth year running, ever-growing demands from a burgeoning population and the steady politicisation of water, the most valuable of commodities, management of the Nile has become an arena for heated controversy. The coming of the flood remains a certainty: who does what with the results looks increasingly less certain. Al-Ahram Weekly celebrates the annual inundation with one of our own -- three pages exploring the implications of current policy, past and possible future scenarios for the management of Egypt's single most important resource, and an examination of their overwhelming influence on the quality of life of those who inhabit the river's banks

Front Page

Stream of consciousness

By Fatemah Farag

Top to bottom:The road leading to the Temple of Kalabsha has been submerged in flood waters transforming the site temporarily into an island; one of the few remaining examples of traditional irrigation -- the shaduf; the Nile and the role it plays in the daily life of many: a convenient car wash; the beast of burden's favourite site for a snack and relaxation ; a cool spot for sport and summer fun not to mention providing the livelihood of many boatmen
Egypt as the gift of the Nile: Herodotus' endlessly repeated cliché retains an element of truth. The waters of two African rivers, the White and the Blue Nile, converge at Khartoum and course through the desert for another 3,200km. They once made sedentary life not only possible, but perfectly pleasurable. Modernisation in all its manifestations, though -- air-conditioned cement houses, reclamation of the desert, transportation and the media -- have alienated us from the Nile. The source of water is now a tap or bottle.

The majestic river has fired the imagination of many explorers. In 1360, for example, John de Mandeville asserted that the Nile, "comes out of Paradise and runs through the desert of India, then it sinks down into the earth and runs under the earth a great distance and comes up again under a mountain called Alloch, the which is betwixt India and Ethiopia... and so all the length of Egypt."

Today's geography is less fanciful: the White Nile rises in Lake Victoria, flows through Lake Albert, down the Murchison Falls and on through 50km of cataracts at Gondokoro. The Blue Nile originates in the highlands of Ethiopia and gains momentum during its 1,200 metre descent over 1,600km. The White Nile is longer (6,680km), but the Blue (1,600km) provides 80 per cent of the combined volume of the flood surge.

The annual Nile inundation always had profound effects on Egyptian life. High-flood years deposited rich silt but also brought the threat of flooding; low-flood years saw Egypt confronted with both starvation and disease. Attempts to understand and manage this source of both prosperity and calamity began early in Egyptian history, and are at the foundation of the resulting civilisation.

King Menes is said to have diverted the river in order to build Memphis, his new capital, in 3000BC. During the Middle Kingdom (2040-1640BC), Menemhet III initiated canal and reservoir construction. In more recent times, Mohamed Ali set up two Nile barrages in 1833, and in 1902 the British built a reservoir at the first cataract, Khazzan Aswan.

"[The level of] Khazzan Aswan was raised twice and when ideas regarding a third increase in height were being discussed, it was felt that it would be better to have a high dam to conserve water from high floods for low-flood years. The result was the High Dam at Aswan which has become Egypt's central water reserve," explained Abdel-Rahman Shalabi, first assistant at the Ministry of Public Works and Water Resources.

Fahmi Tawadros, head of the High Dam Authority, added further explanation. "Khazzan Aswan served at only one point in the year. After the flood it had to be emptied, so it was not possible to save water. This made it difficult to formulate water and agricultural policy. This was overcome with the building of the High Dam."

After contemplating the plans of the dam on the wall, Tawadros continued. "It took 30-40,000 people working around the clock for 11 years to build this dam. Today it takes around 2,000 people to manage it, mostly workers rather than engineers. This is a great responsibility when you consider that there are 87 billion tons of water pushing at its sides, that it is 17 times the size of the Giza Pyramids and weighs 180,000 tons. There are 500 monitoring stations and 13 seismic-activity recorders. We modernise continually and there are new agreements in place to renew equipment."

The dam also created the world's largest artificial lake, Lake Nasser, at the cost of the relocation of 100,000 Nubians. Other adverse effects have been an increase in soil salinity and the ending of the annual renewal of the soil through silt deposits. Demand for artificial fertilizers has risen accordingly.

However, the dam and lake have provided Egypt with abundant electricity and enough water to irrigate more than one crop per year and to reclaim large expanses of desert. Tawadros is keen to point out that despite construction along the fertile Nile banks, agricultural land in Egypt totals eight million feddans -- an increase of two million feddans compared to pre-1952 figures. "Now just add to that the three or four million feddans we plan to reclaim as a result of projects like Toshka, Al-Owienat and the Salam Canal and you can see the benefits of the water policy made possible by the High Dam."

This sentiment was repeated by Shalabi. "I want to assure the Egyptian people that after the High Dam even if there are successive high floods, the Nile remains subject to our will. We have become managers of the inundation and of water."

This year's inundation is a case in point. "The storage capacity of the area behind the High Dam is at the 183 mark above the water table, although I prefer that the level never exceed 182. Storage is divided into three zones: a dead zone at the very bottom with a capacity of 31 billion cubic metres -- we expect this zone to be filled with silt over the next 500 years and eventually something will have to be done about that; the live zone with a capacity of 90 billion cubic metres from which Egypt and Sudan draw their respective quotas; and the emergency zone with a capacity of 41 billion cubic metres," elaborated Tawadros.

"If I have a full live zone and expect a higher than average flood I get ready by emptying it. That's the first thing we did this year. There has been a detailed programme, down to the day, to release water."

Forecasting has been essential in planning for this crucial time. "In the old days the methods used were very primitive. We had to wait till the water arrived at the Ethiopian-Sudanese border before taking depth-measurements. This was done by going into the water. On the basis of previous years' statistics, an estimate could be made regarding the flood," said Shalabi.

"Today, with the development of satellite imaging and mathematical modelling we can predict the amount of rain that will fall, for example, over the Equatorial Plateau. This way we can forecast the amount of water expected," he explained.

The advanced forecast system is the pride of the ministry. "In cooperation with USAID and the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN we opened this centre in the mid-1980s and since then it has developed in line with the latest technology. A satellite dish at the ministry receives images every hour," added Shalabi.

The Equatorial Plateau which covers Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, Zaire and Uganda, the Bahr Al-Ghazal Plateau in west Sudan and the Ethiopian Plateau are all kept under the eye in the sky.

The High Dam Authority coordinates its plan of action on the basis of this information and input from the Egyptian stations down the Nile. "After Khazzan Aswan was built in 1902, monitoring points were set up down the Nile. We get regular readings from Dongola, Atbara, and Malakal. The closest to the dam is Dongola and it takes ten to 15 days for the surge to reach Aswan from that point," said Tawadros.

The development of the Toshka spillway is another key element in the strategy of the Ministry of Public Works and Water Resources to make use of the flood water.

"We already have an emergency spillway and five teams on alert during the flood season. However, after the experience of last year's high inundation we decided to increase the capacity of the Toshka spillway. Today there is a partition which is 'broken' when the water exceeds the preferred limits in Lake Nasser -- around 182 above the water table. There is also a three-phase project over three years to increase the capacity of the spillway and to install sluice-gates to control inflow."

Tawadros finally took the decision to "break" the dam last Saturday after daily deliberations, and the Nile's waters entered the Toshka spillway.

The utility and efficiency of all these measures have always been contingent on developing and modernising Egypt's irrigation system. "At the time the dam was being built, I had just started work. It was on a project to introduce irrigation canals into Upper Egypt. The two developments go hand in hand."

Egypt's water quota is 55.5 billion cubic metres per year but it consumes 70 billion cubic metres. The additional demand is met by underground water reserves and recycling. Agriculture, the largest water using activity, is a major target of government policy to increase efficiency.

"We need another 20 billion cubic metres and how are we going to get them? By optimising usage. So instead of giving agriculture, let's say 50 billion, the same production can be achieved from 40 billion. Irrigation is highly efficient -- I would say up to 70 per cent," said Shalabi at the Ministry of Public Works and Water Resources. "Yet we still lose about 12 billion cubic metres per annum through drainage. Our target is not to exceed 5 billion and increase irrigation efficiency to 80 per cent."

In accordance with this vision the ministry has initiated a national plan to develop irrigation. This stipulates that all reclaimed land is to employ new methods. Failure to do so is likely to have very serious consequences, well-illustrated by experiences of the village of Zagalona in the Radissiya Valley in Aswan.

In June 1998 Al-Ahram Weekly reported that a village in Upper Egypt was slowly starving to death for lack of irrigation water. The village was part of an Institute for Rural Development project to relocate the inhabitants of four villages in Wadi Halfa due to be submerged by Lake Nasser. The 1966 plan for Radissiya Sharq intended to reclaim harsh terrain to provide land for them.

To make agriculture possible a water station was built, designed to irrigate 10,500 feddans. The irrigation quotas, drawn up in the 1960s, were based on crops that only require 40 cubic metres of water per day per feddan. Government sector industrialisation in the form of two large sugar companies in Kom Ombo and Edfu prompted farmers to grow more lucrative sugar cane which requires three times as much water than the crops originally planned. By 1985 one third of the land was devoted to sugar cane.

In 1990, to make matters worse, the Ministry of Agriculture established the Upper Egyptian Agricultural Company to sell land beyond the original development. The contracts of sale included a clause relinquishing responsibility for the supply of water. In total 40,000 feddans were sold, 21,000 of which were designated for reclamation. The more affluent new landowners started pumping water out of the canals for their land. This caused a water shortage for the original inhabitants.

In Zagalona, after a futile attempt to petition against violations of their water quota and as starvation set in, people borrowed money to buy pumps for ground water. This proved futile as the water was not usable and many were forced to work as day labourers for the people who, in their eyes, had stolen their water. One year later, and despite promises to install new pumps the people of Zagalona continue to starve.

A group of Zagalona villagers are seated on a rickety bench. "Watch how you sit," one comments sarcastically. "That couch is now the bank's." The man took out a LE5,000 loan in a vain search for water. Today the bank is asking him to pay a total sum of LE9,000. "I guess I will have to sell the land," he comments with a vacant stare.

The case of Zagalona highlights the complexity of water policy in the face of conflicts of interest over which crops to grow where, inadequate coordination between the agencies responsible for land reclamation, and the inability of current law (Law 12/1984) to deal effectively with irrigation violations.

An official from the Irrigation Bureau at Edfu Sharq explained: "This is capital we are talking about. Money has been paid and a profit must be made. The law says I can fine people but the fines do not compare to the losses they would make if they stopped taking the water. Sometimes things develop so fast in the field that official coordination cannot keep up."

The Irrigation Bureau has been overseeing a plan to install a new water station in Radissiya to take the place of two older ones. "The new capacity will be 7.5 cubic metres per second, enough to service 14,500 square km of land which makes future expansion possible."

The new Radissiya plant is a small building with four main pipes only one of which is working. "There are some electrical complications," mutters the official. The pipe that is working provides the valley with 2.5 cubic metres per second. "We distribute this alternately to the lower and upper part of the valley, one week here and one week there. It has eased the problem."

The canal in Zagalona is little more than a trickle. "The water they send lasts three to four days maximum and is enough to irrigate only five to six feddans. We need to irrigate 300," explained a villager, Hussein.

When the water arrives desperation seems to set in. "Maybe it would have been better if they had not sent it at all," exclaimed a young woman from the village. "The day it comes is like a battle, everyone trying to get their land irrigated. Could it possibly be worse?"

Just last week, the water pump which supplied the village with drinking water was shut off. "Officials from I don't know where came and said they wanted to install drinking water in the houses instead of one pump for the village. Then they told us we would have to pay for the service. They want between LE300 to LE400! What can I say? In the meantime they have shut off the water and we have to walk 6km to get drinking water from a nearby village," added Hussein.

According to Mohamed Kishk, a professor at Minya University, Zagalona is only one case among many. He sees the basic problems as a general lack of information, of research and development studies and a lack of coordination. "It's a recurrent situation: complaints, requests [for more water] and solutions -- but the farmers do not know whether they are getting their share of water, or other people's share."

There are further efforts taking place in the Radissiya area. "A comprehensive irrigation development programme is under way in Wadi Abadi at a saving of 40 per cent of the water needed to irrigate this valley. One cubic metre per second has been saved to go to places like Radissiya."

The project took two years to be completed because "the network of new canals in the fields takes time". It was funded by a USAID grant. "It is expensive but the Abadi Valley is a model of what should happen everywhere else." concluded the official in Edfu.

Officials on the ground feel the need for stronger legislation. "I need tools to help me deal with violations immediately. I agree totally with the policy of increasing awareness but that takes time and we are talking about people's daily bread," said the Edfu official. "You have to understand that with the increase in population people are being compelled to go to the desert. All of these pressures are difficult to deal with in reality."

For his part Shalabi asserts that, "The old law may need amendments... but in my view awareness of the importance of water and the importance of this infrastructure is more important than strong legal codes."

Tawadros believes the High Dam has made some people too comfortable. "People used to abide by the rules as though they were sacred. Now they violate them because they think they can afford to. Well they cannot afford to," he pointed out.

Officials seem certain that at least until the year 2017, Egypt has sufficient water and the right policy to meet its needs. "From today until 2017 we are the prudent housewife who knows how to make ends meet. Eventually there must be a master plan to organise the water resources of the Nile Basin. We are a poor country in water because we have no rain and our water is imported from sources outside our borders. Hence, it is our good luck that we have rights to the Nile. This is important for everybody to know," concluded Shalabi.

Additional sources:
Insight Guides, The Nile (APA Publications, 1992) Mohamed Kishk, Land and Water in Egypt: A Study in the Use and Management of Resources in Egyptian Agriculture (Minya University Press, 1994)

(photos: Sherif Sonbol)

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