When the Nile runs dry…. ( The Grain )
Few countries in Africa have received more foreign interest in their farmland than those served by the Nile River.
Africa’s longest river, the Nile is a lifeline especially for Egypt, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Sudan and Uganda and is already a source of significant geopolitical tensions aggravated by the numerous large-scale irrigation projects in the region. In 1959, Great Britain brokered a colonial deal that divided the water rights between Sudan and Egypt. Egypt gained more than Sudan while other countries were excluded completely. Egypt was allocated three quarters of the average annual flow while Sudan was allocated a quarter. Massive irrigation schemes were built in both countries to grow cotton for export to the UK.
In the 1960s, Egypt built the mighty Aswan dam to regulate the flow of the Nile in Egypt, and increase opportunities for irrigation. The dam achieved those goals, but also stopped the flow of nutrients and minerals that fertilised the soil of Egypt’s farmers downstream.
A canal diverts water for irrigation outside of Abu Simbel, near Egypt’s border with Sudan. (Photo: New York Times)
In Sudan, the Gulf States financed a further increase of irrigation infrastructure along the Nile in the 1960-70s in an effort to turn Sudan into the ‘breadbasket of the Arab world’. This was unsuccessful and half of Sudan’s irrigation infrastructure currently lies abandoned or underused. Both Sudan and Egypt produce most of their food from irrigated agriculture, but both also face serious problems with soil degradation, salinisaton, water logging and pollution induced by the irrigation schemes. As a result of all these interventions, the Nile barely delivers water to the Mediterranean any longer – instead now, salty seawater backs into the Nile delta, undermining agricultural production.
The economically, ecologically and politically fragile Nile basin is now the target of a new wave of large-scale agriculture projects. Three of the main countries in the basin – Ethiopia, South Sudan and Sudan – have together already leased out millions of hectares in the basin, and are putting more on offer. To bring this land into production, all of it will need to be irrigated. The first question that should be asked is whether there is enough water to do this. But none of those involved in the land deals, be it the land grabbers or those offering lands to grab, seem to have given the question much thought. The assumption is that there is plenty of water and the newcomers can withdraw as much as they need.
Ethiopia is the source of some 80% of the Nile water. In its Gambela region on the border with South Sudan, corporations such as Karaturi Global and Saudi Star are already building big irrigation channels that will increase Ethiopia’s withdrawal of water from the Nile enormously. These are only two of the actors involved. One calculation suggests that if all the land that the country has leased out is brought under production and irrigation, it will increase the country’s use of freshwater resources for agriculture by a factor of nine.
Further downstream, in South Sudan and Sudan, some 4.9 million hectares of land has been leased out to foreign corporations since 2006. That is an area greater than the entire Netherlands. To the north, Egypt is also leasing out land and implementing its own new irrigation projects. It remains to be seen how much of all this will actually be brought into production and put under irrigation, but it is difficult to imagine that the Nile can handle this onslaught.
Reliable figures on how much irrigation is actually possible and sustainable are difficult to find. The FAO, in various publications and in its Aquastat database, gives figures on ‘irrigation potential’ and actual irrigation by country and river basin. The table below presents the figures for the major countries in the Nile basin, and compares them with the amount of land already leased out.