Friday,26 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1333, (23 February - 1 March 2017)
Friday,26 April, 2019
Issue 1333, (23 February - 1 March 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Victoria to the Mediterranean

Proposals to develop the Nile between the Great Lakes Region of Africa and the Mediterranean have left some basic questions unanswered

Victoria to the Mediterranean
Victoria to the Mediterranean

Ever since former minister of irrigation Hossam Maghazi proposed a project to link Lake Victoria with the Mediterranean, specialists in water resources have been exploring its feasibility.

While the Nile is the longest river in the world, it is one of the smallest in terms of the flow of water. It contains precious little water compared to the Amazon, for example, which pours 5,518 billion m3 of water into the Atlantic Ocean every year and which Brazilians call the “River Sea” because it is so wide and deep that ocean vessels can navigate it across Brazil and into Peru. This makes the Amazon an efficient transportation channel for goods from the Brazilian interior to export overseas.  

But as far as the project to link Lake Victoria to the Mediterranean is concerned, neither the former irrigation minister who proposed the project nor his successor, the current minister who approved it, have provided details about how the project is to be implemented.

They have not explained how the project will overcome the many obstacles that obstruct the flow of the river, or how ships will be able to navigate around the dams constructed on it or cross its many waterfalls. There are six of these on the White Nile alone. They have made no mention of the problem of cataracts, the rock-filled parts of the river characterised by rushing, shallow waters which are extremely dangerous for any sailing craft.

In order to discuss the project with any degree of objectivity, it is necessary to review the geography of Lake Victoria and the sources of the Nile in order to develop a clearer perception of its feasibility. Before Egypt spends billions of dollars on it, it is best to assure ourselves that the money is being wisely spent.

The sources of the White Nile are located in six countries, the farthest west of which is the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). This is the largest country in Africa, and therefore the largest of the Nile headwater countries, and it opens onto the Atlantic and the ocean routes to the Mediterranean, Western Europe and North and South America. Its only link to the Nile is the Semliki River that flows into Lake Albert and is therefore not directly connected to Lake Victoria.

Moreover, between the two sits the DRC’s sworn enemy Uganda, which overlooks the lake and shares almost half of Lake Albert with the DRC. The animosity between the two countries intensified following the discovery of oil beneath Lake Albert. Hostilities between them have flared up on numerous occasions, and the Ugandan army has encroached onto and occupied portions of eastern DRC several times on the grounds that the Congolese have incited unrest in Uganda.

The DRC is bordered to the east by two other landlocked countries: Rwanda and Burundi. These are where the uppermost sources of the White Nile originate, but they too do not overlook Lake Victoria. In fact, these countries could be described as doubly landlocked as they have neither seaports nor ports on the headwater Lakes. Their rivers, the largest of which is the Kagera, flow through neighbouring Tanzania before reaching Lake Victoria.

Lake Victoria, one of the African Great Lakes, is the largest lake in Africa by area and the world’s second-largest freshwater lake after Lake Superior, one of the Great Lakes in North America situated along the border between the US and Canada. With a surface area of around 69,000km2, Lake Victoria stretches 412km from north to south and 355km from east to west. It is 1,134 metres above sea level, its depth ranges from an average of 40 to a maximum of 80 metres, and it holds 2,760 billion m3 of water.

Some 49 per cent of the lake is situated in Tanzania, 45 per cent in Uganda, and only six per cent in Kenya. However, Lake Tanganyika, located to the southwest of the lakes that form the headwaters of the Nile, is the deepest and the largest African Great Lake by volume. It is bordered by Burundi, Tanzania and the DRC. Two of the three countries overlooking Lake Victoria are not landlocked. Tanzania overlooks the Indian Ocean through its port of Dar es Salam, while Kenya is also linked to maritime routes through its ports of Mombasa, Malindi and Lamu.

The Great Lakes states are thus linked to international maritime routes, either through the Indian Ocean ports of Tanzania and Kenya that connect to the countries of Asia and through the Red Sea and Suez Canal ports to Southern Europe, or through the Atlantic port of the DRC and from there to the Americas and Western Europe.

There remains landlocked South Sudan which for the purposes of maritime trade has to choose between Port Sudan located in its northern neighbour and long-time enemy from which it recently seceded or the ports of Kenya, Tanzania or the DRC.

QUESTIONS OF DISTANCE: Clearly, the distances between the landlocked Great Lakes countries to maritime ports and petroleum terminals in Tanzania and Kenya to the east or the Congo to the west are much shorter than the distance between them and Egypt’s Mediterranean ports way to the north.

We also need to bear in mind other considerations before deciding whether or not to allocate billions of dollars to the project to link Lake Victoria to the Mediterranean or to engage a consultancy firm to perform the necessary feasibility studies.  

From Egypt along the White Nile to Lake Victoria there are six cataracts and five dams: the Aswan High Dam in Egypt, the Merowe and Jebel Aulia Dams in Sudan, and the Owen Falls Dam and Kiira Dam in Uganda. The latter is at the point where the River Nile emerges out of Lake Victoria. How are these obstructions to be navigated, whether through systems of locks or alternative river courses?

After emerging from Lake Victoria, the Nile flows into Lake Kyoga. Ranging in depth from an average of four to a maximum of only eight metres, this lake is filled with waterlilies, papyri and other types of vegetation which slow the flow and cause large quantities of water to be lost through evaporation.

The river then emerges from Lake Kyoga and resumes a sluggish course westwards towards Lake Albert in the far west of Uganda.

Known at this point as the Victoria Nile, the river is very shallow. In Lake Albert it converges with water from the Semliki River that flows into the southern end of the lake from the DRC. This confluence produces the Albert Nile that flows out of the northern end of the lake and eventually heads into South Sudan at Nimule on the border with Uganda.  

The river then disappears into the vast expanses of wetlands known as the Sudd, the largest freshwater swamp in the world. The question will thus be how to dig a new river course in the middle of all these marshes.

In fact, this is precisely what the Jonglei Canal Project tried to do in the 1980s. Proposed during the period in office of former president Anwar Al-Sadat, the idea of this was to divert the water from the swamps, which lose around 30 billion m3 of water a year due to evaporation and transpiration, and channel it into the White Nile. According to the plan, the project would provide four billion m3 of additional water in its first phase, seven billion in its second phase, and perhaps 17 billion in its third phase, if the objections of the South Sudanese could be overcome.  

But the project also entailed constructing a deep and wide canal or river course in the midst of a 57,000 square km swamp. It is far from easy to dig a canal in the midst of all those marshy reeds and all that mud and water. In the 1980s, Egypt used a huge machine called a “bucket wheel” for this purpose. It cost about $1 million at the time. Today, it would cost much more, and the work would take years.

Moreover, were Egypt to undertake such hydraulic work in Uganda, South Sudan and Sudan it would need to obtain explicit approval from their governments. The decision may even have to pass through their parliaments.

After Egypt began work on the Jonglei Project, the tribes in South Sudan turned against it, destroyed the expensive German-made dredging machine and accused Cairo of depriving them of water and the natural wealth it brings. They feared that the project would jeopardise the thousands of tons of fish they have access to yearly and the thousands of acres of natural pasturage in the Sudd area.

They naturally wondered what they would obtain in return for having their wetlands drained and their water conveyed northwards to Egypt.

Given how vital that area and its resources are to the people of South Sudan, it would be very difficult to negotiate with Juba today, which has seceded from the north of Sudan since the time of the original project, in order to recommence not just the Jonglei Project but also a much bigger and deeper channel to allow the passage of ships laden with freight.

QUESTIONS OF SIZE: Indeed, we need to ask how big the envisioned river course is to be.

Is it to be broad and deep enough to allow the passage of large seafaring vessels that can pass directly from the river to the Mediterranean and beyond? Or is it to be relatively small, permitting only the passage of ordinary River Nile craft? Where would sufficient water come from in order to fill a channel bed to the breadth and depth needed for the passage of large ships?

The White Nile provides only 15 per cent of the Nile’s 84 billion m3 of water. The other 85 per cent comes from Ethiopia and the Blue Nile which only converges with the White Nile in Khartoum. Even if it were possible to add the approximately 30 billion m3 of water lost due to evaporation in the Sudd, this would only come to 42 billion m3 of water a year, which would yield an average daily flow of 115 million m3.

This is far from being enough to fill a bed wide and deep enough for large ship traffic or even the larger Nile barges. The Nile is the longest river in the world, but it is a far stretch from the Amazon in volume.

What goods might be transported down the Nile from landlocked Uganda and South Sudan to Egypt’s Mediterranean ports or vice versa? Fruit and vegetables? Oil? Manufactured goods and electrical equipment? Oil can be ruled out because it is transported through pipelines and oil tankers. As far as other goods are concerned, would it not be cheaper for South Sudan and Uganda to turn to the Kenyan and Tanzanian ports to the east, which offer access to the ocean routes to Asia and the Red Sea and Suez Canal, or to the DRC’s ports to the west and the many sea lanes of the Atlantic?

Are we looking at a form of swaggering or bravado, such as when the former irrigation minister signed a document stating that Egypt had enough subterranean water to irrigate 1.5 million acres of desert land for several years at least? This boast was subsequently denied by the next minister, who said that the subterranean reserves would only be enough to irrigate 26 per cent of that amount of land.  

Surely that minister did quite enough by getting us to the point in negotiations with Ethiopia that the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is now on the verge of becoming a reality without obtaining a written pledge from Ethiopia to ensure that Egypt’s quota of Nile waters will be met?

Would rail not be a quicker and cheaper alternative for linking Egypt to Lake Victoria and the landlocked countries of the Upper Nile (Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and South Sudan)? Who is to meet the $22 billion estimated cost of the project, which will most likely at least double in the course of implementation? Will Egypt foot the bill alone, or will the costs somehow be shared with other countries?

There has also been a proposal to link the Congo River with the Nile. The cost of that had been estimated at $20 billion, and its advantage is that the Congo would supply enough water for the required width and depth of large river traffic and send about 100 billion m3 of water to Egypt and Sudan.

The current minister of irrigation should hold a press conference to explain the Lake Victoria-Mediterranean Project and answer questions such as those above. Perhaps this would avert the trouble of hiring a consultancy firm to perform the necessary studies, which would probably only then conclude that the project would not be economically feasible because the Nile does not have enough water and because it is too shallow.

In its current economic straits, Egypt cannot afford to risk billions on a project that is far from economically feasible.

The writer is professor of soil and water sciences at Cairo University’s Faculty of Agriculture.

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