The Nile: A Tragedy in the Making

In Water by Salma El-Zamel

Throughout my graduate education, whenever there was some uproar over one of Trump’s foolish tweets, or another gruesome violation of human rights, my colleagues and I often joked about how Mother Earth will soon wipe us just like it did to our dinosaur predecessors. The sad thing is, as social scientists, we internally fear the possible truth behind such sarcasm.

In the last five years, we have witnessed the horror of Australia’s wildfires, Indonesia’s tragic Sulawesi earthquake and tsunami, the terror of Hurricane Mathew, the anxiety of the European heatwave, and the growing effects of climate change that is leading to alarming future water shortages. ‘Environmental refugees’ is now a phrase gaining more attention in academic circles and fears of arising wars and conflicts are becoming serious concerns, especially in the continent most stereotyped with scorched dryness—Africa.

Arguably, fostering some of the most fertile soils in the world, Africa embraces the world’s longest river. Often referred to as the “Cradle of Civilization,” the Nile River measures up to 6,700 km. The White Nile and the Blue Nile are the two tributaries of the river, flowing from the Ethiopian highlands, in which both Niles converge at Khartoum, Sudan forming the mainstream river. Ultimately flooding into the Mediterranean Sea forming the Nile Delta at the ends of Egypt.

Since 2011, there has been an increasing interest in the Nile’s water supply mostly due to Ethiopia’s controversial project: the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). The dam has multiple concerning demographic and ecological factors that each riparian state—especially Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan—is preparing for. According to Okbazghi Yohannes, by 2025, the 10 riparian states are expected to face water scarcity. Political scientist, Aaron Tesfaye, speculates that the population surrounding the river’s basin is expected to harbor 336 million individuals by 2030. Thus, questioning whether the Nile water can support the continent’s agricultural and survival needs for water supply. Aside from population increase, the Nile’s growing ecological degradation is as concerning. Yohannes alarms that the Nile basin is one of 17 watersheds in the world that has lost 90 per cent of its forest cover. Global climate change is most likely increasing the frequency of droughts and floods in the Nile basin.

It is also important to understand that the historical colonial distribution of the Nile’s water supply is a significant contributor to the current Nile conflict. Egyptian hydro-hegemony over the Nile has been firmly rooted in colonial “legal” establishments. In 1891, the Anglo-Italian Protocol was signed to guarantee the flow of the Tekeze River in Ethiopia into the British protectorate of Egypt and Sudan at the time. A few years later, in 1906, Britain, France, and Italy signed the Tripartite Agreement which dictates that the Ethiopian territory of the Nile basin lies within British influence, hitherto controlling the flow of water to Egypt. 

In 1929, Britain and Egypt acted on behalf of Sudan and the rest of Eastern African dependencies, signing the 1929 Nile Waters Agreement. The agreement dictated that Egypt has the right to the majority of the Nile’s water (48 billion m3 per year). Britain justified the Nile’s water allocation stating that it acknowledges Egypt’s “natural and historical rights” to the Nile. The question is: why these deliberate historical efforts from the precolonial powers to concentrate the Nile’s water control in Egypt? 

The British prioritization of Anglo-Egyptian water interests in Africa was not only based on maintaining Britain’s economic and political hegemony, but there was, and arguably still is, an inspired orientalist environmental imaginary of what Africa looks like. Historian Diana Davis explains that orientalist European environmental imaginaries, portrayed Africa’s environment most often as outlandish, exotic, and a work of “abnormal” fantasy. Even represented as degrading and “undignified” in some way.

The African environment is viewed as a “strange and defective” environment compared to Europe’s natural and “productive” environment. There was a constant sense of responsibility of the white man’s burden to “improve,” “restore,” “normalize,” or “repair” Africa’s ecology, especially that of Egypt. The reason Egypt’s landscape held such significance to alter and make sense of, is due to its importance in biblical history. The colonial mission in Egypt was heavily influenced by technocratic decisions, many of whom were inspired by strong Christian beliefs and felt a sense of duty towards the modernization of a perceived biblical Egypt, the land of Moses and refuge to many prophets. 

One of those technocrats is William Willcocks, the British irrigation engineer who proposed and built Egypt’s Aswan Dam. Willcocks published book, From the Garden of Eden to the Crossings of the Jordan, positions British colonial ambitions of agriculture and irrigation in Egypt, within the context of biblical histories of Egypt and Mesopotamia (currently Iraq). The colonial efforts in irrigation and supremacist technocratic structure of Egyptian land sought to recapture the colonial longing and historic nostalgia of the biblical epoch. Establishing a false memory of painted orientalist imagery of Egypt as the mother of the Nile as expressed by the Greek historian Herodotus who asserted that “Egypt is the gift of the Nile,” or “Egypt is the Nile and the Nile is Egypt”.

With the colonial focus on modernizing Egypt, innumerable imperial projects were justified: building irrigation systems, replantation activities, bombing and massacring of “unruly” nomadic tribes, sedentarization of nomads as a measure to prevent “overgrazing” as other means of their elimination. The justifications of the orientalist environment imaginaries of Egypt tingled the British and the French intense interest in “normal and proper” hydraulic management, as the rest of Africa continues to be portrayed as an empty desert with no greenery, “beauty,” or a natural life to offer, but only full of poverty and despair. This established a disdain of tribalism as backward, despite witnessing forms of neo-tribalism in modern-day life. It also contributed to the perception of North Africa as more modernized and less nomadic, in comparison to the rest of Africa.

Colonial imagination created a false binary between nature in Africa, and images of nature in Africa. This forceful necessity to modernize has altered the deeply rooted respect for African’s ecosystem the Indigenous Africans had for the environment and its resources, especially water. Water became a commodity—a national project that needs to be controlled and profited from. The current Nile conflict is another fight over water as a product for profit, rather than  a natural resource in need of protection, as the long-held beliefs of its sacredness in Africa dictated. 

Water and the environment were held as sacred and a source of the commons for many African tribes and Muslims per their Islamic beliefs. Arguably, not strongly held so anymore. I must clarify that revisiting African Indigenous knowledge and the Islamic tradition in water preservation is not an attempt to romanticize the so often perceived environmental friendliness of Indigenous traditions. Rather, it is a deeper look at the fundamental shift in worldviews from the agricultural spiritually oriented ecological belief systems of the predecessors to the industrial secularly oriented lifestyle of modernism.

Renowned philosopher John Mbiti argued that a generalized African worldview includes five entities: God, spirits, humans, animals, and non-biological life. Islamic and various tribal African Indigenous traditional practices, such as the Shona people of Zimbabwe and the Bedouins of the Sahara, have interacted with water and nature as sacred gifts from the Creator. Morality is at the core of this interaction. Ultimately, there is credence that the world functions in intrinsic justice – a karmic reality of whatever befalls the universe out of human disregard will eventually retribute humanity. 

Nature is a moral agent; an entity created for both human benefit and human punishment. To justly interact with nature, the Shona people have created a system that regards the spirit of the village in relation to the ward and their chiefdom. Such a relationship is structured to safeguard the ecological balance of nature-human interaction. To harm water, which is seen as the sacred body that nurtures animals associated with spirits, is to bring harm to an entire village, and the opportunity to use water for healing practices and traditional medicine. 

Likewise, Muslim Bediouns of the Sahara saw water as a significant part of their ecological survival. Geographer Alan Woolf explains there is a division in Islamic law as to what is “God given” water—water from a natural surface or groundwater source—and what is provided by man—water found though human labour which creates a reservoir or a canal system. “God-given” water is not permitted to be a sales commodity that is bought or sold, and its consumption has to be distributed equally. 

Native tribes and Bedouins of the Sahara who adhere to the Islamic faith, have traditionally had conflicts not over the water itself, but rather over tensions arising when large numbers of people and animals congregate over a shared well for instance. In the case of water collected through human labour, it is not permitted to have a price over the water itself, but the delivery, treatment, and storage of water can be charged. 

Wolf explains that Bediouns solved this conflict by allocating water by time, not quantity. Including prioritizing its use to those who will be most affected by its shortage, and they do so by protecting downstream rights. Water allocation happens between villages, lineages of large extended family units, or individuals such as neighbors, or farmers. In this context, allocations usually happen by setting days of the week for each individualistic party. There are records that within Indigenous diplomacy, tribes were also permitted to divert water to reach a certain stream under certain periods of time as long as the water can be reverted for the other party to use.  

Technological modernization of water management is not only seen as a threat to water access, but also a threat to the ecological values of the tribes and families. For example, in some villages, cement is not allowed to be used, to prevent canal leakage. Only traditional methods of piled rocks can be used. The perceived “inefficiency” of such traditional methods was meant for the tribes to guarantee that a substantial portion of the stream can reach downstream villages, despite future possible indifference. They fear that modern technology can undeniably prevent water rights if a mistake is done or if negotiations go wrong. Technology is seen as a threat to the power of the word and the trust the tribes build for one another when sealing agreements verbally. 

That is not to say that technological advancement cannot help in water sustainability. In fact, it could be needed now more than ever, but that requires looking at the Nile conflict as not only a state problem. It is an African environmental crisis that will have international manifestations if not justly addressed. Many of Africa’s Indigenous and agricultural framers will face serious damage not only to their means of survival, but also to their human ecosystems, to their spiritual beliefs, and to their core means of identity. The reason everyone needs to pay attention to the Nile conflict is that it is a sign of the many possible major future conflicts over water. Africa now has an opportunity to showcase a just model for future water conflicts. If it does not get it right, it will not only have lost its chance to lead in water sustainability, but it could also lead to weary internal conflicts between its highly diverse Indigenous tribes, Bedouins, and non-industrial groups.

And as Tayeb Salih, the famous Sudanese writer once said, “Everyone starts at the beginning of the road, and the world is an endless state of childhood.”