The Nile River is the life of Egypt. The two main tributaries, The Blue and The White Niles, meet at Khartoum. The Blue, which is the shorter of the two tributaries, flows out of Ethiopian’s lake Tana into Sudan and carries over eighty percent of the total water. The White Nile, which technically starts at Lake Victoria and flows through South Sudan before entering Sudan.
Because water is so precious to Egypt, Cairo has long tried to assure its access to the Nile’s flow. As a boy on my way to Ethiopia, I crossed the Jonglei Canal at Poktap, Duk Payuel in 1986. That canal was the work of the Egyptian government and was intended to draw the water of the White Nile for use in Sudan and Egypt at the expense of the Sudd wetlands. Had the SPLA not interrupted the work in 1984, this precious resource of South Sudan would have been used to serve Khartoum and Cairo.
The flow of the White Nile is important enough to both those capitals to motivate their continued cooperation and negotiations with the government in Juba.
The importance of the White Nile has been increased by recent actions in Ethiopia. In 2011 Addis Ababa began work on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Intended to meet not only Ethiopia’s needs for electricity but to also provide energy to export, the dam on the Blue Nile will be among the largest in the world. However, it will also give Addis Ababa a great deal of control over the flow of water downstream, especially during times of drought. While negotiations between Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt continue, it is growing clear that Addis Ababa intends to fill the dam regardless of whether an agreement is reached or not. Therefore, Sudan and Egypt are all the more concerned about maintaining good relations with Juba.
Given this situation, what should Juba’s position be? First, it is unlikely that damming the White Nile would be possible. Indeed, the flooding that would result from such an attempt would merely harm farmers and flood valuable crop lands. At best, small water wheels might be used to provide local electricity and grain-milling energy. However, sale of the water and its transmission through a canal such as the one I saw under construction many years ago might tie Cairo more firmly to South Sudan even if that canal had to also be dug through Sudan. With a canal, the river’s water might be used more wisely and better assure Juba of support from those two neighbors to the north. Such a connection, especially with Egypt, might help secure our nation’s interests when dealing with Ethiopia and force Sudan to accept the right of South Sudanese to follow the religious practices they wish without attempts to push Islam on our nation.
Also, the building of a canal would facilitate diversion of the water within our country both the drier farm areas and to those areas with minerals which might be better accessed were there sufficient water. Presumably, the desire to dig a canal to carry the White Nile’s water either farther downstream or directly to Egypt’s Aswan Dam would motivate investors in Cairo to help pay for those diversionary canals which could benefit South Sudan.
Obviously, we do not want to have the Sudd destroyed by the greed for water of other nations, but it should be equally obvious that the White Nile and the great Sudd wetlands are national resources which should be part of a plan for our country’s development. What better time for Juba to initiate negotiations for a better Jonglei Canal plan than now while the waters of the Blue Nile are under dispute?
By: Deng Mayik Atem
Publisher of Ramciel Magazine