Egypt has relied on the Nile since the dawn of civilization. For over 5000 years, the Nile has pushed nutrient-rich silt through its 6600-km waterway from the wellsprings of Lake Tana in Ethiopia (Blue Nile) and Lake Victoria in Uganda (White Nile), on its way through Cairo, where it eventually runs across the delta and drains into the Mediterranean.
Just as the Nile shaped the landscape, it also shaped a society that believed in the Nile’s magical properties. Ancient Egyptians believed that gods controlled the Nile. They venerated Sobek, the crocodile god who created the Nile,
and prayed to Khnum–lord of the water–who fertilized the river banks, thus enabling Hapi, the goddess of ‘Annual Flooding’ to enrich and irrigate Egyptian crops.
Pharaohs used the Nile as a transit zone for long-hauling building supplies between coastal cities, and establishing monuments to the gods and themselves along the way, like the temple of Kalabsha in Nubia.
Even Aga Khan thought the bank of the Nile was a good idea for a Fatimid mausoleum.
Yet the river that once placed Egypt at the center of the civilized world for 3 millennia is now on life support, and poses a serious threat to the welfare of Egypt’s agriculture, aquaculture, and transportation sectors.
Unfortunately, the matter has been complicated by issues that stem from Egypt’s internal struggles, while the nation also battles other problems originating from south of the border.
For one, Egypt’s population already exceeds 110M, and is projected to swell to 121M in 2030, 160M in 2050, and 225M in 2100.
Egypt’s alarming growth rate over the past millennium has placed the country in economic jeopardy for the foreseeable future. Presently, nearly one-third of the country lives in poverty.
Additionally, with 97% of a dependent population living along the banks of the Nile and its delta, the existential threat to the river Nile has heightened significantly.
Intervention by Egypt over time has resulted in benefits and new challenges…
By partnering with the Soviets between 1960 and 1970,
Egypt constructed the Aswan High Dam–an immense embankment dam–upriver from the original Aswan Dam completed by the British in 1902.
It’s purpose: to control flooding;
provide increased water storage for irrigation;
and encourage tourism–all seen as pivotal to Egypt’s industrialization.
Yet, there have been unintended environmental consequences to damming the Nile:
- The dam restricts passage of rich volcanic sediment that once swept along the entire riverbed, but now struggles to reach the Mediterranean.
- The Nile Delta has lost a substantial amount of arable land due to the Nile’s inability to provide an unabated flow rate to defeat a rising sea.
- A 15 cm rise in the Mediterranean’s sea-level over the past century is expected to double over the next 30 years from climate change.
- To compensate for the salination of the soil, farmers must pump more fresh water from the Nile onto their crops, causing additional pollution from synthetic fertilizer runoff.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the U.N.’s group of climate scientists predict the impact on the Nile will be catastrophic. They say it will lose 70% of its flow by the end of the century, with the water supply plummeting to a third of its present capacity.
Good for camels, but not for human survival.
Egyptian officials have also been wrangling over water rights and diplomacy with Ethiopian counterparts, arguing that their water security has been irreparably compromised.
However, more than half of Ethiopia’s 110 million people currently live in the dark. Their leadership is hopeful that the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile (begun in 2011) will help to electrify the country and generate power for export.
Consequently, the Renaissance Reservoir will cause a 25% loss of hydropower generated by the Aswan High Dam, a reduction in Lake Nasser’s water retention, and a reduction to Egypt’s flow rate by as much as 25%.
With anticipated droughts in East Africa, a 2oC rise in temperature across the region, and a population crisis that begets increased poverty, it’s imperative that competing countries begin cooperating with each other to protect their citizens and their mutual interests.