The Nile is in mortal danger from its source to the sea
Pharaohs worshiped him as a god, bringer of eternal life. But the clock is ticking on the Nile.
Climate change, pollution and human exploitation are putting existential pressures on the world’s second-longest river, on which half a billion people depend for survival.
Alarms are ringing all along its 6,500-kilometer length.
From Egypt to Uganda AFP teams are on the ground to measure the decline of a river that drains a tenth of the African continent.
On the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, Syed Mohammed watches Egypt’s fertile Nile Delta disappear. In Sudan, farmer Mohamed Jomaa fears for his crops, while at its endangered source in Uganda, Christine Nalwadda Kalema gets less and less hydropower to light her mud and mud to fill her house.
“The Nile is the most important thing to us,” said Jomaa, who at 17 is the last generation of his family to work on the river’s rich banks in Alti, Gezira province.
“Of course, we don’t want anything to change,” he said.
But the Nile is no longer the calm river of the myth. In half a century, its flow has dropped from 3,000 cubic meters (10,600 cubic feet) to 2,830 cubic meters per second.
However, it could get much, much worse. With multiple droughts in East Africa, its flow could drop by 70 percent, according to the UN’s most dire projections.
Every year for the past six decades, the Mediterranean Sea has eaten away 35-75 meters (38-82 yards) of the Nile Delta. If sea levels rise by even one metre, a third of this intensely fertile region could disappear, the UN fears, displacing nine million people from their homes.
What used to be the breadbasket has become the third most vulnerable place on the planet to climate change.
Lake Victoria, the Nile’s largest source of water after rainfall, can also dry up due to drought, evaporation and slow tilts of the Earth’s axis.
With such bleak scenarios, governments are scrambling to capture its flow. But experts say the dams are only hastening the coming disaster.
– Land lost to the sea,
Capes Damietta and Rosetta, which once jutted into the Mediterranean Sea in northern Egypt, have disappeared at the mouth of the Nile.
The concrete barriers that were supposed to protect them are half covered by water and sand.
The sea sank three kilometers into the Nile Delta between 1968 and 2009, and the river’s weak current has failed to hold back the Mediterranean Sea, which has risen about 15 centimeters (six inches) over the past century due to climate change.
The silt that formed a barrier to protect the land for millennia no longer reaches the sea.
This rich dark sediment, once washed down the riverbed, has struggled to exit southern Egypt since the Aswan Dam was built in the 1960s to control Nile flooding.
Before it was built, “there was a natural balance,” Ahmed Abdel Kader, head of Egypt’s coast guard authority, told AFP.
“Each flood of the Nile deposits silt on Capes Damietta and Rosetta. But this balance has been disturbed by the barrier,” he said.
If temperatures continue to rise, the Mediterranean Sea will move another 100 meters a year into the Delta, the UN Environment Agency, UNEP, has warned.
– Poisoned by salt –
Fifteen kilometers away, the bustling farming community of Kafr El-Dawar is still far from danger.
But all is not well, says 73-year-old Syed Mohammed, who supports his 14 children and grandchildren by growing rice and corn in the fields between the Nile and a road honking with car horns.
Salt from the Mediterranean has already infiltrated large areas of the soil, killing and weakening plants. Farmers say their vegetables don’t taste the same anymore.
To compensate for the salinization of the soil, they must pump fresher water from the Nile onto it.
Mohammed and his neighbors have used diesel and electric pumps for 40 years. The costs strangled farmers whose incomes were already being eaten away by inflation and the devaluation of the Egyptian pound.
So much so that in some parts the Delta fields were abandoned.
But the old man, who wears a jellaba and traditional woolen hat, has been helped by a new solar-driven irrigation system aimed at boosting farmers’ incomes to stop more people fleeing the land.
Thanks to 400 solar panels funded by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization for Kafr El-Dawar, he can irrigate half a hectare (1.2 acres) of his land.
Solar energy saves “farmers” about 50 percent of pumping costs, Amr al-Daqaq, head of the local irrigation department, told AFP. And they can also sell the excess energy the panels produce to the national grid.
Despite this, none of Muhammad’s descendants want to farm.
Because the Mediterranean Sea could eventually swallow 100,000 hectares of agricultural land in the region, according to UNEP, covering an area almost 10 times the size of Paris.
Which would be a disaster for Egypt, since the Delta is the source of 30-40 percent of the country’s agricultural output.
– Power outages.
All but three percent of Egypt’s 104 million people live on just eight percent of the country’s land along the river. It’s a similar story in neighboring Sudan, where half of its 45 million people live on its banks and the Nile supplies two-thirds of its water.
By 2050, the population of both countries will double and it will be two to three degrees warmer.
The UN’s panel of climate experts, the IPCC, says the impact on the Nile will be catastrophic. They predict that by the end of the century it will lose 70 percent of its flow, and the water supply available to each person along it will drop to a third of what it is now.
Floods and other violent storms that could hit East Africa as the climate warms will account for only 15 to 25 percent of the water lost, the IPCC has warned.
Which would leave 10 countries that rely on the Nile for their crops and power.
More than half of Sudan’s energy comes from hydroelectricity, and 80 percent of Uganda’s energy comes from the river.
It is thanks to the Nile that Christine Nalvadda Kalema, a 42-year-old single mother, can light up her humble shop and home in the impoverished part of Namiyagi village near Lake Victoria.
– The source threatened.
But the electricity that radically changed his life in 2016 may not last, says Revokatus Twinomuhangi of the Center for Climate Change at Makerere University in Kampala.
“If we have a reduction in precipitation, it will translate into a reduction in the potential of hydropower plants,” he said.
Already, “in the last five to 10 years, we’ve seen an increase in the frequency and intensity of drought, intense rainfall and flooding, and the intensity of heat, so it’s getting hotter and hotter.”
Indeed, Lake Victoria could disappear entirely within the next 500 years, according to a study by British and American scientists based on geological data from the last 100,000 years.
But for Kalema, who grows bananas, cassava and coffee in her small garden to feed her family, such statistics remain abstract.
He is concerned about more and more frequent power outages.
“Because of the cuts, my son struggles with his homework. He has to read until night,” she said, dressed in a colorful local “kiteng” cloth. “Candles are very expensive for me as a single mother on a limited income.”
– Mega Dams –
More than half of Ethiopia’s 110 million people have no choice but to live without electricity, even though the country has one of the fastest growing rates in Africa.
Addis Ababa hopes its GERD mega-dam project on the Nile will eliminate that, and is prepared to burn bridges with its neighbors if necessary.
Begun in 2011, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile, which joins Sudan’s White Nile to form the Nile, is already at nearly a third of its 74 billion cubic meter capacity.
Addis Ababa claims it is the largest hydroelectric project in Africa.
“The Nile is God’s gift, given to us so that Ethiopians can use it,” Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed claimed in August.
But it is a major headache for Cairo, which is questioning a 1959 deal with Sudan that gave 66 percent of the Nile’s annual flow to Egypt and 22 percent to Khartoum.
Although Ethiopia was not part of the deal, advisers to former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi publicly bombarded the dam as early as 2013 to protect Cairo’s vital interests.
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s Egypt still fears a sharp drop in the Nile’s flow due to the GERD dams.
Just how much water Egypt is losing has sparked heated debate in the scientific community, with some Egyptian researchers downplaying the impacts accused of “betraying” their country.
– Disappearing sludge –
But already seeing how the Aswan Dam has reduced the flow of silt, farmers worry about losing this precious natural fertilizer.
Over the years, Sudanese farmer Omar Abdelhai has struggled to grow cucumbers, eggplants and potatoes in his lush green fields, watered by the brown Nile water that runs past his mud-walled home.
Eight years ago, when this 35-year-old father started cultivating his family’s land, “there was good silt” to tend to his crops, he told AFP.
But little by little, as dam construction increased, “the water has become more purified, even if the water level rises” during floods, it “comes without silt,” he added.
Stuck in political and economic decline and with ongoing protests against its military leaders, Sudan is struggling to manage its water resources.
– Pursued by hunger.
Every year, the country is hit by rains that this summer killed 150 people and washed away entire villages. However, the floods do not help his agriculture because there is no system to collect and recycle rainwater.
Hunger now threatens a third of its population, even though Sudan has long been a major player in world markets for peanuts, cotton and gum arabic.
Modest irrigation canals built during the colonial era mean that even a small stream is enough to water its fertile soil. But the development of this system through the Gezira Scheme has been delayed for a long time.
Under the corrupt command economy of dictator Omar al-Bashir, who was ousted in 2019, vast tracts of farmland have fallen to the ground, and instead families are growing peppers and cucumbers on small plots of land.
Sudan, like other countries along the Nile and many other East African states, ranks at the bottom of the University of Notre Dame’s GAIN ranking, which measures resilience to climate change.
For Caliste Tindimugaya of Uganda’s Ministry of Water and Environment, rising temperatures will not only affect the country’s ability to feed itself, but also to generate electricity for homes and industry.
“Short heavy rains can cause flash floods. Long dry periods will lead to water loss… And you can’t survive without water,” he said.
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