Environment, Science

The Nile: lifeblood of East Africa

With a length of approximately 6,695 km and a basin area of 3.3 million sq km, the Nile river is the longest in the world and, if harnessed, a bountiful source of energy.


The two main tributaries of the river are the Blue Nile and the White Nile. The former originates in the Ethiopian Highlands and contributes approximately 85% of the total flow, while the latter provides the remaining 15% from Lake Victoria in Uganda. The river crosses various climactic regions of Africa, from tropical rainforests to desert.

For millennia, the Nile has played an integral role in Egyptian sustenance. The annual flooding made the riverine land very fertile in contrast to the arid and semi-arid land that is abundant further south into Africa. It also served as the main roadway, helping to connect outlying portions of Egypt to the capital and increasing trade and communication. Excluding Egypt, there are nine riparian countries that rely on the Nile for resources. Of these nine, three (Ethiopia, Burundi and DR Congo) are in the poorest 10% of the continent in terms of GDP per capita.

The quality of Nile waters has deteriorated in recent years due to increases in population and industrial development. Following the completion of the Aswan High Dam in 1971, artificial fertilisers and industrial waste that were previously flushed away fester in the water. High levels of phosphorous in Lake Edku in the Nile Delta have led to eutrophication. This is a serious concern for biodiversity, and in turn for human food supplies, as increased algal growth results in diminished levels of sunlight reaching the depths of the water.

With the United Nations predicting that the population of the countries through which the Nile runs will rise to 647 million by the year 2030 – a 52% increase from today – this degradation is bound to continue. For the moment, however, water quality in large parts of the Nile is still within the standards of the World Health Organisation.

The threat of climate change is particularly worrying for the river Nile. Currently, water irrigation levels are so high that in dry periods the water does not reach the sea. Given the length of the river, and its course through the arid regions of Sudan and Egypt, it is not surprising that much water is lost to evaporation. The warmer and drier these countries become, the further the dependency on the Nile will increase to catastrophic effect.

The hydropower potential in the basin is 28 GW, of which only 26% is currently realised. As demands increase, the importance of exploiting this natural energy source will become paramount. With the construction of the aptly named Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam underway, international tensions in the region are very high. In a televised speech, the Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, underlined the importance of the Nile waters to Egypt: “We are not advocates of war, but we will never permit our water security… to be threatened”. But when we consider that Egypt’s GDP per capita is virtually five times that of Ethiopia, not to mention the environmentally friendly nature of hydroelectric power and the huge potential the dam has for eradicating poverty in Ethiopia, it is difficult to sympathise with the Egyptian president.


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July 2021
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