Reflections on World Water Week 2012

The 2012 Stockholm World Water Week is now over, and I’ve had a few short days to digest the week’s events. Before my reactions disappear behind my piled-up to-do list, I wanted to share some of my key reflections from the event. For efficiency, I’ve organized things in two categories, with a few bullet points in each. My longer ruminations appear after the summary… Feel free to comment at the bottom of the page. It would be great to see what others thought of the event!

What was missing

  • Clear distinction between “enough food” vs. “food security”
  • Discussion of the most effective inducers of behavioral change
  • Urban governance, and its role in shaping resource consumption

Watch these areas

  • Standardized water footprints
  • Governance of land acquisitions
  • Managing the terrestrial landscapes that sustain rainfall
If you want to read my full thoughts, proceed….
The “Good Governance of Water and Food” rapporteur group.
Copyright Patrick Keys, All Rights Reserved
Read on below…

What was missing

I probably shouldn’t be so presumptuous as to think that I know what was missing from a week-long conference on water and food security, wherein I couldn’t even attend all the sessions – but I’m going to try anyway 🙂

A better distinction between “enough food for billions” and “food security of billions”

The first is a technocratic issue ( which is more or less solved), and the second is a political economic issue ( which is for far from solved). It would be worthwhile to deploy additional energy on the second issue.

Johan Rockstrom talking about “feeding the billions.”
Copyright Patrick Keys, All Rights Reserved.

The headline of the week may have been (some variation of) “Food shortages could force world into vegetarianism.” Aside from me being frustrated that the article makes such a broad generalization about the scientific findings, its frustrating when an experienced journalist misspells the name of one of the world’s most prominent scientists on water issues (its Malin, not Malik, Falkenmark).

Professor Malin Falkenmark, Stockholm University

The problem with the headline about vegetarianism is that it suggests that the world is one unit, and that somehow resource constraints would affect the world in a more or less uniform way. Barring the emergence of some centralized global government, this won’t happen. Some people will always be able to afford meat and will consume it. In 50 years, some people will probably still eat as much as modern Americans. The question is how are we going to create a world that is food secure for billions. I’m very confident that we will go through multiple advances in crop science, etc. that will allow us to feasibly grow more than enough food for 9 billion people. Imagine 6-10 tonnes of harvest per hectare. I’m 100% a techno-optimist in that regard. I’m not, however, optimistic that we are guaranteed to sort out how to ensure that people are food secure, meaning that the food that is produced can reach people who have the purchasing power to acquire it. Ultimately, “food security of billions” will boil down to the ability of those billions to purchase  what they can’t grow themselves, and that is a complicated issue that was addressed by Malin Falkenmark in her talk(s), but by very few others.

Discussion of the most effective inducers of behavioral change.

There was a great deal of talk about the need for people to “understand the value of water” and for people to stop “over-consuming.” These comments are complicated because they involved the individual decisions of people, that unless compelled by governments, are not required to either value water or consume reasonable amounts of healthy calories. Ultimately, both of these issues require changes in entrenched behaviors – and yet are critical for addressing water scarcity, health issues, food waste, etc.
I really would have liked to see a special session, maybe all-day, on understanding how governments, private entities, etc. induce changes in human behavior. Governments tend to use the strong arm of the law, rather than creative incentives. Private companies on the other hand, have a very well-practiced and nuanced marketing sense, because they have to if they want consumers to purchase their products. Its surprising to me then that Nestle and PepsiCo the two mega-large corporate sponsors/ participants in this year’s World Water Week didn’t collaborate and host a special session on human behavior change, in a very applied practical sense. This is something I would definitely like to see  next year.

Urban governance, and the role it could take in shaping resource consumption.

By 2050, the Earth is projected to be 70% urban. This means that 70% of consumption will take place in the context of cities, with populations under the governing wing of city governments (as well as state/province/federal government). Given that cities are often the clearest provider of day-to-day service to citizens (e.g. water/power utilities are often city-based) and given that food will for the most part be trucked/shipped into cities to feed the populations, then cities have an interesting opportunity to help shape sustainable resource consumption in the future.
Open air market in Hue, Vietnam. Notice the meat consumption?
Copyright Patrick Keys 2012, All Rights Reserved
I would have liked to see a greater focus on the role that urban governments could play on influencing consumption habits (perhaps not in as draconian a fashion as Bloomberg in NYC), possibly by incentivizing the import of vegetables and legumes, and taxing  more heavily the import of unhealthy, heavily processed foods. I know “small-government” folks like to harp on about how the government is a bad chooser of “winners”, which I tend to agree with in the technology sector – but I’m pretty sure the jury is in. Vegetables are the winners, and potato chips are the losers.
Next year maybe a session could be convened on how cities could cooperate to share best practices on setting sustainable urban food policies?

Watch these areas

Standardized water footprints, instead of context-less water footprints 

I’m excited by a “new” effort to develop an international standard method (ISO) for water footprinting assessments. I was at first fascinated by the idea of looking at “embedded water” in products, also known as the virtual water content of a product. A popular quote is 1000 litres of water to make 1 litre of milk, or 16000 litres of water for 1 kilogram of beef. National Geographic has created posters, and World Water Week’s corridors had large displays showing us how much water was required to make various food items and beverages.
However, what does any of that mean? In what context was that beef grown? Are you assuming it was grain fed on a feedlot or grass fed in a country hillside? Are these beef cattle eating grain grown in tropical drylands (e.g. the Sahel in Africa), or temperate rainy areas (i.e. the Pacific Northwest of the USA)?
Those details can make the difference between completely unsustainable and completely sustainable methods of food production. If the ISO standard can serve to improve the transparency and usefulness of the concept of water footprinting, then that would be an important achievement.

Governance of land acquisitions

The disappointing responseby the Deputy Minister for food security from Sierra Leone, gave me pause about the sophistication of their regulatory systems in place for ensuring responsible and sustainable management of land and water resources.
Land grabs session with representatives from various sectors.
Copyright Patrick Keys 2012, All Rights Reserved
Personally I think that governments in land rich nations have an amazing opportunity to set terms for foreign land and water investors-require things such as the following:
1. Mandatory rehabilitation of landscapes post extractive activity (e.g. mine reclamation)
2. Mandatory ecosystem enhancement in lieu of the alterations to existing landscapes
3. Mandatory training of the local workforce so that they may be eligible for local employment opportunities
4. Mandatory investment in development, particularly long-term water, sanitation & hygiene (WaSH) facilities, schools, health clinics, etc.
Governments perhaps out of fear that they may lose the opportunity of investment, have historically not taken advantage of the chance to shape corporate activity in their countries. However it would be interesting if companies began demanding better regulation for themselves. This would help them insured positive returns on investments and demonstrate their genuine willingness to behave sustainably and responsibly.
It could be that companies are merely greenwashing, but I doubt it. The representative from the World Business Council on Sustainable Development given an impassioned plea for better engagement.
Peter Bakker, World Business Council on Sustainable Development
Copyright Patrick Keys 2012, All Rights Reserved
For future and expanded reading check out the new book land grabs, edited by Tony Allan, Keulertz, Suvi Sojamo, and Jeroen Warner.

Managing the terrestrial landscapes that sustain rainfall

A big dimension of the food security discussion at World Water Week was the fact that rainfed agriculture needs to be improved in low-yield regions, with the addition of supplemental irrigation, fertilizer inputs, and appropriate management.
However, the reliability of rainfall in the future is thrown into question by climate change, with increasing variability in the timing and quantity of rainfall. Additionally, since rainfall originates as evaporation, if that evaporation changes (e.g. if a forest is removed), then the rainfall that sustains a given cropped area may become less reliable.
Conceptual diagram of a precipitationshed.
Copyright Patrick Keys 2012, All Rights Reserved.
[Warning, blatant self promotion] This is my PhD work, so I should have an answer for you in about half a decade 🙂 If you’re interested, read my latest paper for more information:

Continue reading

The QANAT: August 1 – 25

What is The QANAT? A weekly digest of water security highlights. If you have suggestions for next week’s QANAT let me know! The QANAT is named after an ancient water supply system.

– – – –


This Qanat is going to focus on a few interesting articles from the last month that are related to food security in a time of global change.

This focus comes from the fact that I will be a Junior Rapporteur at the Stockholm World Water Week, focusing on “Good Governance of Water and Food.” To follow World Water Week posts on Twitter, search for #wwweek – and for the junior rapporteur feed add #Jrap to your search.

Farm in the Sinai peninsula, Copyright Pat Keys 2011, All Rights Reserved

“Amid a devastating drought, does it still make sense to use corn for fuel?” Washington Post (July 31, 2012)

Meat and poultry producers get hit especially hard when the price of corn and animal feed rises. Many livestock producers have to respond by culling their herds to stem losses. In the short term, that leads to a drop in meat prices, which squeezes the industry’s profits further. Only after a delay do meat and poultry prices start to leap upward.

    • Pat’s thoughts: It never made sense to me to make fuel out of food, and the subsidies that are in place that currently distort the market lead to both perverse consequences and incentives. I understand that the market is complicated, but given the overwhelming data suggesting that in the future there will be an inability to grow enough food for future populations, that using arable land and food crops for fuel seems like a mis-allocation of resources. Additionally, given the dubious affect of biofuels on reducing carbon emissions I fail to see the purpose of using corn for biofuels, aside from providing further artificial stability for corn farmers.

“Urbanization and Climate Change” Global Trends 2030 (August 24, 2012)

By 2030, six of out every ten people will live in cities; by 2050, this number will increase to roughly 70 percent of the global population (or 6 billion). By 2030, roughly 450 million people may be living in megacities. The pressures of population growth and urbanization on megacities and their infrastructure may prove quite problematic, particularly as competition for scarce natural resources becomes more intense. For instance, cities account for 70 percent of global energy use.

    • Pat’s thoughts: “Urban resource security” is going to be a buzz word of the coming decades, as urban populations, and their consumption patterns, swell. Understanding the types of food being consumed, and the origin of that food, will be absolutely critical to urban sustainability.

“One man’s future is another man’s present: Farms of the Future hits Tanzania” Climate Change, Agriculture, and Food Security – CGIAR (August 2, 2012)

…Rosalia got the chance to participate in the first farmer-to-farmer exchange visit to Mbinga and several other analogue learning sites en route to see exactly what she might expect from the future, and, better yet, to learn how farmers there are already coping with their climate.

    • Pat’s thoughts: This is an extraordinary example of ‘South-South’ knowledge transfer and climate change planning foresight. Furthermore, the inclusion of female farmers is critical to the longterm viability of any educational effort, given the demonstrated critical importance of women in sustainability efforts – especially in the developing world. It is ironic that they highlight female farmers, and yet the title is refers to “men.”

“Southeast Asia’s rice insulates region from food crisis” VOXXI (August 2, 2012)

But Thailand’s warehouses are practically bursting thanks to a fluke of populist politics. To secure votes in rice country, Thailand’s ruling party has vowed to buy every grain farmers can harvest for up to 50 percent above the market rate.

    • Pat’s thoughts: This article makes it sound like rice will be a valuable crop in the future and will provide some sort of regional immunity to food shortages. However, this quote makes it clear that the mitigating influence of rice on regional food shortage is more due to human influences (populist politics) than climatic influences (drought or flooding). I do think that rice will be an excellent buffer in the future against failures of other crops, in that rice is irrigated where the failed corn harvests are rainfed. Likewise, the fact that “rice baskets” are predominantly in a very different part of the world compared to “corn baskets” and “wheat baskets” (“breadbaskets” doesn’t really seem appropriate, given rice is used primarily for… rice – not bread).

“The End of Abundance” REVIEW

I recently finished reading David Zetland’s book The End of Abundance and it was fantastic. First things first: I was given a sample of the book for review purposes, so take all of my comments with however much salt you think necessary.

That being said, I have a “Quick Review”, and a “Longer Review” below…


The End of Abundance (TEoA) should be required reading for any person interested in the field of water resources. Engineers, economists, environmentalists, utility managers, venture capitalists, city council members, students, professors, and water scientists.

Likewise, anyone who has any interest in figuring out how to equitably and efficiently allocate the world’s freshwater resources will be intellectually richer from having read this book. The most important dimension that Zetland illustrates in TEoA is the importance of incorporating markets into the allocation of water management. Though it is fashionable in many circles to avoid anything that sniffs of privatization or markets with regard to natural resources, Zetland makes a convincing and compelling argument for replacing/retrofitting failed, outdated institutions for dynamic institutions that are capable of meeting the challenges of scarcity. I will be recommending this book to all of my colleagues in the water resources field.

Here is the link to Amazon to get your own copy, and here is the link to David Zetland’s blog “Aguanomics”if you want to follow his active participation in all things water.

Also, here is the Table of Contents for TEoA so that you can get a flavor of what to expect:

  • Prologue
  • The beginning of the end
  • Part 1: Personal water choices
    • Water from the tap
    • Dirty water
    • The liquid lifestyle
    • Water for profit
    • Food and water
    • Water for power for water
  • Part 2: Social water choices
    • Managers and politicians
    • Dams, pipes and pumps
    • Water and the environment
    • Weather and climate change
    • A human right to water
    • Water wars
  • Afterword: What you can do
  • Acknowledgements
  • Glossary
  • Notes to the text
  • Works cited
  • Footnotes
  • Praise for the book


*Note: Quotations are cited with their relative Kindle location, since I have the page-less electronic version of TEoA. If I get a paper copy at some point, I will update this review with the actual page-numbers. OVERALL MESSAGE The overall message was this (my summary, not Zetland’s):

Conventional water management institutions that were designed to govern water resources during times of surplus are now failing, and because water is becoming increasingly scarce, management must shift towards methods that efficiently and equitably allocate water – namely methods employed by markets which excel at allocating scarce resources to their highest and best use.

I won’t try and summarize every part of the book, since that defeats the purpose of your reading the book. However, I will elaborate on some of the key strengths that I took from this book. THE KEY STRENGTHS ARE:



As a recent graduate student, and now owner of my own water-related consulting company, this book could serve as an unmatched book for a graduate course in water management. The book would be at home in an economics, engineering, policy, operations & management, or an overview/survey course.

The academic strength of this book is the useful definitions and distinctions provided for different aspects of water management. For example, Zetland on institutions:

“Institutions can be classified in four layers. The deepest layer includes culture and other informal norms of behavior that evolve over centuries. The next layer includes basic rules such as constitutions that are fixed for decades or change very slowly. The third layer contains rules and regulations that may last for years but are often the subject of political and regulatory modification. The fourth layer is barely fixed; it consists of our choices of how to allocate resources in markets or organizations.” (Location 110)

Also, at times the book reads like a “how to guide” which is incredibly valuable to folks going into the water management field. Many of my cohort in graduate school went on to work for water management institutions (Seattle Public Utilities, the Army Corps of Engineers, etc.) and this book would have provided an information-dense guide to take with them to their jobs, for example:

“Do not sell water below cost; raise prices in scarcity. Those solutions will create excess revenues or profits, but those profits can be refunded to customers once the shortage is avoided to ensure that profits stay close to zero or a targeted return.” (Location 298)

Finally, the focus on how economic instruments can be brought to bear in water management is the centerpiece in this book. And, all too often economic instruments are absent from water management education (having experienced it directly). Though there are nearly no equations in this book, there are many graphs clearly explaining the economics concepts that underlie the incorporation of economic tools into water management.


As usual, I enjoy reading books that challenge my own preconceived notions (such as: Stewart Brand’s “Whole Earth Discipline”, Fred Pearce’s “The Coming Population Crash”, and Nina Fedoroff’s “Mendel in the Kitchen”).

Zetland, via suggesting that markets can deliver equitable allocation where government bureaucracies & monopolies fail, stirs the hornet’s nest in the environmental community. I like this. If we’re not uncomfortable, it often means we’re complacent, so my discomfort reading this book is a good sign. The key success of Zetland in this area is that he doesn’t come off as an ‘industry apologist’ as some might label him. He argues with “ruthless logic” (his words), which lends his arguments a strength that others rarely seem to acquire. For example,

“In fact, it’s not public or private that matters. It’s monopoly. A monopoly delivers water to whom it wants, when it wants, at a price and quality it wants. Water utilities’ monopoly power comes from two sources… Water distribution is a “natural monopoly” because it’s hard for a new company to enter the business in competition with an incumbent company that’s already installed the network of pipes for delivering water… Competition is the answer The real problem with a monopoly is not that we don’t know what it’s doing or don’t know how to make it change what it’s doing… The real problem is that competition doesn’t force monopolies to concentrate on customer service and value for money.” (Location 1318-1356)

Another thing Zetland does is NOT tow a party line (industry, environmentalist, or otherwise). Though I think Zetland ultimately values a functioning biosphere and hydrosphere, he does not let popular arguments and rhetoric cloud his assessment of water management. For example:

“In the late 1990s, the 1 million residents of Cochabamba, Bolivia, had bad water service. The local public agency, SEMAPA, was delivering poor quality water to a fraction of the local population. The World Bank was willing to provide loans to improve the system, but only if SEMAPA was replaced. A 40-year contract was signed with Aguas del Tunari (AdT), a private consortium of four foreign and two Bolivian companies. Activists opposed AdT from the start, but AdT’s clumsy price increases and attempts to control local water supplies (claiming to own the rain, for example) led to mass protests in 2000. AdT was kicked out in 2006, and SEMAPA was put back in charge. Victory for the masses, right? No. Three years later, a left-wing observer wrote: SEMAPA has failed to address its two biggest problems. In a valley still deeply thirsty for water, SEMAPA loses about 55 percent of the water it has to leaks in the pipes and to clandestine hookups. And despite a steady flow of financial support from international donors and lenders, including the Japanese government and the IDB [Inter-American Development Bank], the company still doesn’t have a sustainable financing plan in place. One water expert familiar with SEMAPA’s internal workings blames the problems on mismanagement. “It is an organization that is completely dysfunctional. They don’t generate enough income to cover their costs and they are letting the system deteriorate.” (Location 1428)

Finally, somebody answers my question of whether water service has been improved in Cochabamba post-protest; an example that is always touted as an example of how “the people won”, and yet I’ve always missed the follow-up. Thanks for filling in the information gap David.

Another topic is Zetland’s rebuttal to reports of mass Indian farmer suicides resulting from policies related to genetically modified crop production:

“…In the past few years, some people have claimed that Indian farmers are committing suicide because their genetically modified BT cotton crops have failed. While it’s true that Indian farmers do commit suicide, the reasons are home grown. Government subsidies for groundwater pumping mean that a monsoon failure leads to crop failure for poor farmers who cannot afford the deep wells and big pumps necessary to access the lower water table. Some of these farmers cannot repay debts to moneylenders, and they commit suicide. Don’t blame BT-cotton for crop and income losses; blame government policies that destroy farmers’ traditional insurance policy against drought.” (Location 1841)

I do not think that tragedies such as Indian suicides should just be explained away, or that the competing motivations driving decisions such as suicide can be easily disentangled. I do, however, think that Zetland deserves some credit for trying to examine the root causes of suicide occurrence in BT-cotton farmers in India, and that local/regional groundwater mismanagement is as complicit in the deaths of the farmers. Finally, Zetland discusses “Peak water”:

“Some people say that we are close to “peak water,” but that analogy is wrong. First, water is a renewable resource that flows from place to place in seasonal cycles; these flows may shift but they do not reduce the fixed stock of water that rests mostly in oceans. Second, most water does not have a scarcity price attached to it, so there’s little understanding of relative supply or demand. Third, water is a local good that’s managed in different ways in different places.” (Location 1874)

Likewise, here’s his perspective on the “energy water nexus”

“There’s no inherent need to study the water-energy nexus, like there’s no need to study the coffee-doughnut nexus. These pairs of complementary goods are connected by interlinked supply and demand, such that the demand for one increases the demand for the other. The clearest way to signal the resulting change in scarcity is with changes in prices, not a memorandum from the Office of Energy-Water Relations. We don’t have coffee or doughnut shortages because these goods are priced in markets that reflect present conditions and future predictions. The same could be true for water and energy.” (Location 2023)

I think this challenge to ideas of peak water and the energy-water nexus is useful because it suggests that our fundamental assumptions about how water supplies are managed, are in fact incorrect. Both by clarifying the assumptions of how water is managed, and that we are using economic terms to describe phenomena that are not managed using economic instruments, Zetland succeeds in convincing the reader (well, me at least) that there is enough water to go around if it is managed properly. Good management is ultimately more scarce that water supplies.


A major contribution of this text is the new ideas that he provides, namely the novel market mechanisms that could more equitably and efficiently allocate water resources, without undesirable consequences and distorting subsides. First great idea is the “All-in-Auction”, here’s his outline:

“The most efficient market for quickly settling many trades is an auction. Here’s how all-in-auctions work. Assume that 50 farmers have different land, crops and quantities of water rights. They jointly control a cooperative irrigation system. These farmers received 250 units of water in the past, but now they have only 60 percent of that amount (150 units of water). They all have equal priority to that water. How should it be allocated? … An all-in-auction has several attractive features. First, it ensures that the maximum amount of water is traded. Second, it allows any farmer to “buy back” his water at zero cost, neutralizing any objections of being forced to sell; Alex paid nothing to keep his three units. Third, it makes each farmer think about how much water he really wants.…Note that AiA can also be used inside of other big organizations (regional water distributors or government irrigation projects, for example) where historical rights are not very well matched to current demands.” (Location  1721 – 1761)

Great idea, right? I think there is definitely room for improvement, but the All-in-Auction (AiA) becomes a major contribution of this book and in the long-run might be an important legacy for future water management efforts.

The second great idea is how to reconcile “human right to water” with reality, for example:

“….Access to water (let alone access to clean water) requires more than rights; it requires money and a functioning government… Maybe we can use markets and property rights to deliver water — in the same way that markets deliver bottles of refreshing Coca-Cola pretty much everywhere in the world and mobile phone service to two-thirds of the world’s poor. The first step is to give each citizen a property right in his nation’s water wealth….Property rights are different from human rights in two important ways: property rights can be alienated, but human rights cannot; governments must protect property rights, but they must deliver human rights. As our discussion shifts from a human right to water to a property right in water, we need to understand whether water can be owned as property and (if so) whether such commodification is harmful to others.” (Location 3018-3103)

Outstanding. I have long struggled with the idea of water as a human right because of the fact that a “right to water” is not something that is protected (like free speech), but instead must be delivered (like electricity). Zetland operationalizes the human right to water, by creating a mechanism (citizen-based property rights for water) that in turn would guarantee every citizen both a lifeline volume of water that cannot be taken away, and a flexible volume that can be sold to generate wealth for each citizen. Now, the implementation will be much tougher, but at least we now have a starting point.


A key asset of this book is that it remains both intellectually challenging while being supremely accessible. There is no need to have a Masters in water resources, or a PhD in economics to understand this book. A challenge for a book like this is to be relevant for the broad range of potential readers while remaining detailed enough to engage specialists. It appears that Zetland has achieved this by incorporating many new (and/or innovative) ideas into the text that serve to both introduce the issues to a novice while deepening and challenging conventionally held wisdom of experts.


Since starting the book, I have had the opportunity to travel for water-related work to the Middle East (Israel/Jordan/Palestine/Egyptian Sinai), the Western United States (Washington/Montana/Colorado), the Eastern United States (New York), Southeast Asia (Vietnam), and Europe (Netherlands/Germany). Reading this book while traveling for water work illustrated the enormous challenges of managing water throughout the world, where different cultural attitudes & beliefs exist,  where people have wildly varying trust in government institutions, and widely divergent trust in private markets to deliver goods and services.

Importantly, however, I think this book can usefully translate across cultural, linguistic, and political boundaries to move water management to a more sustainable and equitable path.

So, stop reading this blog and read the dang book already! 🙂

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.