Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 26 August 2019

The Nile: Why the river is a source of life and rivalry in Egypt

It has been immortalised in works of literature and music, and now the river back in the news these days - for the wrong reasons

Civilisations rose on the banks of the Nile. AFP
Civilisations rose on the banks of the Nile. AFP

There’s perhaps no country in the world that is as closely bound to a river as Egypt. The mighty Nile has inspired a wide-ranging and diverse body of literature, music and folkloric rituals that have endured from the days the Pharaohs ruled the country.

Egyptians and Sudanese fondly call each other “children of the Nile” the late Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum sang about it in her beloved tunes, and 20th-century poet laureate Ahmed Shawki was nicknamed the “Poet of the Nile”.

Also read: 'My search for the source of the Nile': One man follows in his explorer ancestor's footsteps

But perhaps more importantly, the river has literally been the source of life in arid Egypt, satisfying almost all of its water needs. Prior to the construction in the 1960s of the Aswan High Dam in the south of the country, the river’s annual flood brought Egyptians a precious gift in the form of silt that revitalised the farmlands on its banks.

epa06701479 A general view shows 15th May Bridge crossing over the Nile River in Cairo, Egypt, 29 April 2018. EPA/KHALED ELFIQI
The waterway has been immortalised in works of literature and popular songs. EPA

The dam not only stopped the silt which helped create the abundant and high-quality of crops, but it also dispersed one of the world’s most ancient communities – the ethnic African Nubians who had lived on the river banks on both sides of the Egyptian-Sudanese border – when the diversion of the river’s course led to their eviction and resettlement by the Cairo and Khartoum governments.

The predicament of the Nubians was chronicled by many songs and literary works in which the Nile took centre stage, but their plight is best immortalised by one heart-rending song about a Nubian who took a river boat ride south with the hope of seeing the village he once called home only to find it submerged under the Nile’s waters. “Why the river is everything here? In the south, north, west and east,” goes the hit song by Al Balabel, a band made up of three Sudanese Nubian women.

The Nile is back in the news these days, again for the wrong reasons, with its life-giving water at the centre of a potentially damaging dispute between downstream Egypt and upstream Ethiopia, the two most populous Nile basin nations, which have a combined population of 200 million.

Ethiopia, which controls the main source of Nile waters flowing to Sudan and Egypt, is about to complete a massive hydroelectric dam that Addis Ababa says is key to the development of the landlocked country. However, Egypt is concerned that the dam, and particularly the process of filling a large water reservoir behind it, would impact its share of the Nile waters and devastate its vital agricultural sector. Egypt’s concern is compounded by its rapid population growth – about two million people a year – the steady salination of the Nile Delta and its lack of agricultural technology.

Egypt has put its economy on the path of recovery by devaluing the pound and undertaking significant economic reforms as part of a $12 billion IMF-backed loan package. AP Photo
The river is the source of an ongoing dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia. AP

At the heart of the dispute is the timeline for filling the planned 74 billion cubic metre reservoir behind Ethiopia’s $4 billion (Dh14.69bn) dam, which is likely to be completed in the next couple of years. Egypt wants it to be filled over a decade or longer to minimise the impact, but Ethiopia is eager for it to be filled faster.

When all is said and done, Egypt may have little or no choice but to go along with whatever Ethiopia decides to do, meanwhile seeking a meaningful role in the management of the dam and involvement in upstream projects elsewhere.

This is one of the reasons why Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah El Sisi, has been travelling through Africa since taking office nearly five years ago, building ties with countries that Cairo had long ignored as the country looked both westward and northward for friendships, trade deals and cooperation in security.

In the meantime, Egypt has set about preparing itself for the day when it will get less water from the Nile, with measures such as a ban on growing water-intensive crops like rice in some provinces, as well as the expansion of water recycling and rationalising its river-based irrigation.

Updated: March 16, 2019 12:43 PM

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