Egypt’s Jonglei Canal Gambit

By Patrick Keys 

(This is a continuation of two posts: first, Mubarak’s Fall and the Future of the Nile Basin ; and, second, Egyptian Water Security vs. Ethiopian Development)

In the previous two posts, post-Mubarak Egyptian water security and conflicts with upstream Ethiopian development were explored. It was argued that Egypt’s post-Mubarak water policy must remain hawkish in order to vie with the emerging upstream powers, notably Ethiopia’s development of the Blue Nile.

Though I indicated that the next post would be specifically on the Comprehensive Framework Agreement and future scenarios of development within the Nile Basin, other news must first be discussed.

Egypt Renews Interest in Jonglei Canal

On March 27th the current Prime Minister of Egypt, Essam Sharaf, visited government officials in the soon-to-be-partitioned Republic of South Sudan (here referred to as South Sudan). Although pre-trip  press releases suggested that PM Sharaf would be discussing Nile River issues with South Sudan, it was unclear that the Jonglei Canal was among them. Whats more, the Sudan Vision daily newspaper reports that various Egyptian ministers, including Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dr. Nabil Al Arabi, and Egyptian Minister of Water Sources, Dr. Hussein Al-Atfi, met with South Sudanese government representatives to discuss specific partnerships with regard to flow monitoring equipment and planned, bilateral cooperation.

Although this news is only a few days old, these are the first explicitly water-oriented actions of the new Egyptian political regime, and these statements and actions suggest that the new Egyptian government plans to be actively involved with upstream Nile nations, specifically with those nations that Egypt has historically strong ties.

This news is enormously important, because until recently, the Jonglei Canal has been a backwater (no pun intended) issue, given the continued lack of action.

Why is this a Gambit?

Renewing interest in the Jonglei is a gambit for Egypt in the sense of the so-named chess move; where a sacrifice is made to gain advantage.

Photo from Wikimedia

By agreeing to share the water that the Jonglei Canal would transport equally with South Sudan, Egypt is hoping that this hydro-diplomacy will cement their ability to exert influence in the new nation.

The Jonglei Canal – a Primer

The White Nile enters South Sudan from the south via Uganda. Shortly after entering Sudan, the Nile enters a vast marsh/wetland/swamp area known as the Sudd. The Nile enters the Sudd with an average flowrate of 1,048 m^3/s and leaves the Sudd with an average flowrate of 510 m^3/s. Therefore, approximately 500 m^3/s is “lost” in the Sudd (which if totaled over an entire year, equals approx. 15 cubic kilometers per year).

The  Jonglei diversion project would largely bypass the Sudd, with a 360 kilometer (or 220 miles) canal. For a sense of scale, this is equal to the straight-line distance between either New York to Washington DC; London to Paris; or the North-South length of of Taiwan.

The goal would be to transport more water downstream, that can be used for irrigated agriculture in Egypt, Sudan, and now, South Sudan.


First proposed in 1930 by hydrogeologists, the Egyptian government studied the diversion project during the 40’s and begin planning in the 50’s.  Construction began in the 70’s and stopped in 1984.  By the end of 1984, 240 of the planned 360 km had been completed. Construction halted due to actions by the South Sudanese rebels in 1984, and has not resumed since.  Until now, the project has remained a remote possibility due to a lack of political will both upstream and downstream.

Photo from United Nations

[The photo above is of the rusting hulk of a german made excavator, apparently named “Sarah”, that was abandoned after canal construction was halted in 1984]

The stakes: The Sudd

The Sudd (a.k.a. the Bahr al Jabal, Al Sudd or As Sudd) is an enormous wetland, fed by the White Nile, that has an average size of 30,000 square kilometers (although during the wet season, it can become as large as 130,000 sq. km.)

For an in depth overview of the Sudd, I recommend going to the Wikipedia page, which has sections on climate, geomorphology, population, and ecology. The important point is that the Jonglei Canal would, for the most part, drain the Sudd. Numerous studies have been conducted that provide ample evidence that there are both vibrant ecosystems (including huge numbers of wildlife) as well as diverse pastoral societies (notably the Dinka, Nuer, and Shilluk), that exist in the Sudd.

What are the Consequences of the Draining the Sudd to construct the Jonglei Canal?

Draining the Sudd would likely reduce, if not fully eliminate, many of the afore-mentioned human and non-human systems. A few of these impacts are detailed below.

Physical Consequences

The Jonglei Canal would be disastrous for the Sudd, specifically the diverse ecology that exists there.  There are over 400 species of birds that either live or migrate through the Sudd, as well as enormous numbers of large animals that forage and water in the Sudd region.

Photo by Charlesjsharp, from Wikipedia

Also, though Egypt and the other backers of a renewed Jonglei Canal project claim that the canal prevents the water from being “lost”, this is not entirely accurate. Lost is an inappropriate term, since recent research (Keys et al.submitted) suggests that a large amount of growing season precipitation originates as terrestrial evaporation over the Sudd. Removing the Sudd could thus have large implications for, albeit distant, rainfed agriculture in the Sahelian region.

Political & Economic

Increased Egyptian influence could potentially have a stabilizing effect on relations between the Sudan and new Republic of South Sudan.

Internally, however, it is unclear whether the negative consequences of draining the Sudd or the postive impacts from the construction of the Canal, would win the day. Southern Sudan has, historically, been racked by war and ethnic strife, and removing a key stabilizing factor (access to water and suitable grazing land for the predominantly pastoralist societies) would almost certainly inflame these tensions.

Photo by Tim McKulka, UN Media

However, if Southern Sudan can provide the means for the dislocated communities to receive the Egyptian influxes of capital, in the form of local jobs (canal construction and operation) and opportunities for communities (improved infrastructure, including electricity, water, roads, and potentially education), it is possible that these potential tensions may be reduced.

When Could the Jonglei be Completed?

It is unclear how long it would take to complete the project, but apparently in 2008 Sudanese and Egyptian authorities set a target of 24 years; in other words “Here’s a date that is so far into the future, that we aren’t going to worry about it.”

However, if Egypt is serious about investing in the Jonglei Canal (and it would appear they are serious based on the overwhelming display of Government Ministers on the recent trip to South Sudan), then it is probable that the project could take little more than a decade. This conservative estimate is based on the fact that the early construction completed 2/3 of the project (240 km of 360 km) in approximately 6-years, despite political unrest.

Foundations of a Nile Basin Showdown?

With Egypt courting the partnership of South Sudan, it seems much less likely that the government of South Sudan will sign the Comprehensive Framework Agreement (CFA).  Though there are many other nations in the Nile Basin that have signed the CFA, losing South Sudan’s support would be significant because it represented a major potential downstream partner.  The other signatories, Burundi, The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda,  are all generally upstream providers of the Nile River.

Including South Sudan in the CFA could mean a bridge between the currently upstream providers of the Nile waters and the downstream recipients.  In this scenario, South Sudan could act as an intermediary, facilitating dialogue between the upstream and downstream nations.

However, if Egyptian political and economic influence begins to play a major role in South Sudanese water security, it is unlikely that South Sudan would jeopardize their situation by signing a politically volatile treaty with the upstream nations.

What is the Future of the CFA in the Nile?

If this is true, then it is possible that the CFA may become irrelevant as a diplomatic tool for governing the Nile, and that the issue of allocating the finite waters among the Nile riparians will remain an uncoordinated endeavor.

The next post in this series will (likely) explore how these emerging issues will inform the ongoing CFA effort and how these new development may inform Future Scenarios for the Nile Basin.


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