Problems on hold
Egypt’s current engrossment with elections for the upcoming parliament has not overshadowed public interest in issues concerning the country’s water security; the Renaissance Dam Ethiopia is building on the Blue Nile tops the list. The River Nile is about Egypt’s sole source of water, therefore rightly viewed by Egyptians as their lifeblood. The new dam, even though direly needed for development purposes in Ethiopia, threatens Egypt’s water supply and is thus potentially detrimental. Egypt and Ethiopia, together with Sudan which is the third riparian country to be affected by the Renaissance Dam, are engaged in negotiations to ultimately secure the best interest of all three nations in sharing the Nile waters. It is to be hoped that the good relations Egypt has been nurturing with Sudan and Ethiopia would bear fruit and pave the way for Ethiopia to attain the development and power production targeted by the dam, while preserving the water interests of Egypt and Sudan. In this context, I hope our government realises the importance of keeping both the media and public updated on this vital topic to avoid the rumours that thrive in the absence of transparency.
The issue of Egypt’s water needs calls to attention another topic closely related to security in water and agricultural production. This topic, for many years placed on hold, concerns the Aswan High Dam. The rockfill dam was built in the 1960s and went into operation in 1971. Ever since, it has served to control the waters of the annual Nile flood that pours down from the Abyssinian Plateau in Ethiopia. The dam saved Egypt from the hazards of low floods that brought on draught, and high floods that threatened lives and homes—such hazards are today history. It also helped Egypt generate generous amounts of electric power. The dark side of the High Dam, however, is that it has deprived Egypt of the rich silt of natural nutrients and minerals carried by the annual flood waters as they make their way down from Africa. The silt settled down on Egypt’s Nile valley and Delta and enriched the land with a renewable layer of fertile soil that made it ideal for agriculture.
It is now some 45 years that Egypt’s land has been deprived of the silt that has been piling up in Lake Nasser south of the dam, unable to cross northwards with the waters to enrich the land. Nothing has been done in these many years to address the issue of the lost silt. The 5th century Greek historian Herodotus once said that “Egypt is the gift of the Nile”, meaning that without the life-giving waters and the silt they carried there would have been no agricultural Egypt and no spectacular civilisation on her Nile banks.
Today the Nile water has lost its characteristic silt-laden dark brown colour, and has acquired a beautiful bluish colour instead. But this scenic blue only reflects a catastrophe that will sooner or later take place—even if in a hundred years or more—and that bears witness to man’s tampering with nature without reconciling with its elements. Furthermore, the steady upsurge of the silt-less water flow has resulted in harsh erosion of both sides of the river and its bridges, and has made its once calm waters hazardous. Whereas Egyptians from time immemorial enjoyed swimming in the Nile, they no longer can because of the sweeping currents.
Egypt has lost the Nile silt, and our agricultural land has lost its vitality. The silt upstream the dam represents a problem that needs to be addressed boldly and with serious scientific research. Even if regaining this silt is long-term and costly, it is indispensable for Egypt’s future as an agricultural nation, and is as such a historic responsibility we cannot turn our back to.
Silt deposits are slowly but surely building up in the dam’s reservoir, gradually eating up its storage capacity. For the past four decades officials have tried to play down the matter, claiming it would take hundreds of years for ‘the High Dam problems’ to surge. The horrifying truth is that this means our children or grandchildren will have to bear the consequences of our senselessness.
I fear a future catastrophe if we persist in sidelining the problem. Addressing it requires rallying all our skills at planning, administration, research, finance, and execution; all of which constitute the makings of a national project. Only if we embark on it will the Aswan High Dam become a blessing not a curse.
1 November 2015