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Thirsty Egypt clings tight to the Nile

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The Nile River and Egypt have nearly always belonged in the same breath.

The classic phrase, “He who has drunk from the Nile must return” is Egyptian -- not Ugandan, or Ethiopian, or from any other people touched by the river.

Egyptians say that two colonial-era agreements forever guarantee them most of the Nile’s flow. But other countries in the Nile River basin want more access to the water.

The Nile follows an unusual course, flowing northward from the interior of Africa to the Mediterranean Sea. For as long as anyone can remember, Egypt has dominated the basin from its position at the end of the line.

But being at the end of any line has its worries. There’s always a chance that the supply will run out before it gets to you. No nation is more keenly aware of that risk than Egypt.

Ayman Habou Hadid, who runs a research center at Egypt’s Agriculture Ministry, says desert people have only one fixation: “Water availability. That’s it.”

“But it is a challenge to improve the awareness of our people that we have to use the water at the maximum efficiency,” he says. “This is a major concern. The best utilization of water.”

Masoud Shomon, a folklorist in Cairo, says it takes an Egyptian to understand the Nile.

“I consider the Nile like a person,” Shomon says. “In the source countries, the Nile remains like a child. And it is here where this child grows older and is able to make a civilization. Why have the Egyptians built such a great civilization along the banks of the Nile? It is because Egyptians understand the Nile.”

But there are just as many non-Egyptians in the river basin who say they, too, understand the Nile just fine. They chafe at what they perceive as arrogance on the part of Egypt.

Patrick Mmayi is a Nile river expert from Kenya who works at the United Nations Environmental Program in Nairobi.

“Egypt should see [the upriver countries] as equal partners. Eventually, you’ll find tensions rising up if the status quo remains. No amount of threats will actually stop the upper catchment areas from using these waters, if they want to.”

Egyptians actively guard their stake in the Nile, monitoring the river as closely as they watch over their peach groves, date palms, vineyards and banana trees. Engineers fan over thousands of miles in the basin and make daily readings of the river’s many tributaries.

Egypt may get most of the Nile’s water, they say, but it could use more still.

Saber Atta, a lawmaker from Al Fayoum, south of Cairo, says some of his constituents haven’t received water for their crops in years.

“We are a country concerned with every drop that’s used,” Atta says.

Already, the average Egyptian uses less water than most. The average American uses about 1,500 cubic meters of water per year. The international average indicating water scarcity is 1,000 cubic meters per capita. And the average Egyptian lives with about 700.

Unlike the upriver countries, Egypt has little rainfall. So in working with research facilities in the U.S., Canada, Australia and Europe, the Egyptian government is constantly testing ways to do more with less.

At a farm outside Cairo, they have reinvented the hose to irrigate orange trees for more efficient water use. Egypt is also scaling back wheat and rice production, which require copious amounts of water.

But not everyone is impressed. Ana Cascao specializes in Nile water affairs at the Stockholm International Water Institute. She is highly critical of Egypt’s insistence on growing any water-loving crop.

“Cultivation of wheat in the desert is hydro-suicide, and everybody knows,” Cascao says. “Really, it doesn’t make sense.”

What’s more, huge amounts of water evaporate annually from Egypt’s dams and canals. But Egyptians say it is their water to lose. For them, any tampering with the status quo is an affront to their national security.

Mohamed Mohiedeen is an Egyptian sociologist who has long been critical of Egypt’s stance on regional Nile issues.

“We think we are unique. We think that we are superior. There is a 1929 and a 1959 agreement, and they are recognized by the international community and whatnot and all that,” Mohiedeen says. “But the other part of the story is we are not doing the necessary things to ease our own problems.”

Egypt and neighboring Sudan are refusing to sign a new agreement with other Nile basin countries to more equitably share the water. But if the other countries agree to the old colonial guarantees, it could be hydro-suicide for them.

John Nyaro is Kenya’s chief negotiator among the Nile basin countries. A number of Kenya’s rivers empty into Lake Victoria, at the beginning of the White Nile.

“We cannot convince our people that that water belongs to Egypt or Sudan or another country,” Nyaro says. “In Mara, Maasai Mara, if a Maasai is crossing the river Mara with his cattle, can he convince those cows, ‘No, you cannot drink this water. This water belongs to Egypt?’ ”

Mohiedeen says the only way forward is to lower expectations for water usage within Egypt. Chances are Egyptians will continue making do with less, he says.

But most Egyptians are loath to think about drier days ahead. For them, the Nile begins at the border with Sudan and ends at the Mediterranean Sea. It’s hard to imagine that the Nile flows through thousands of miles of forest and falls, swamp and desert. Or that people in so many different countries call the river their own.

And yet despite competing efforts to claim the river, the Nile manages to slip free of everyone. It has never failed to flow to Egypt. But then it has never failed to flow away from Egypt. And the same can be said of every other nation the river touches.

Fishermen near Alexandria say that on some days you can see a dull trace of the river as it cleaves through the blue-gray waters of the sea. But it’s just a trace. And then it’s gone. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit


Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit


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