Rice paddy with desiccated soils

The QANAT: June 16-25, 2012

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

– – – –


When the rivers run dry (by Fred Pearce) – David Zetland’s book review Aguanomics (June 18, 2012)

I give this book FIVE STARS for Pearce’s varied examples, clear analysis and accurate message: we cannot continue to dry out our rivers for special interests and traditional methods of mismanagement. We, the people, will benefit from restoring water flows into their traditional paths, borrowing and repaying water as it passes by.

    • Pat’s thoughts: I completely agree with Zetland about this book. If you are interested in water issues, and want a great overview of serious issues regarding water scarcity, read this. If you like Fred Pearce’s writing checkout some of his other work, including “With Speed and Violence”, “The Coming Population Crash”, and “The Land Grabbers”.
Water security GCC’s top priority. Arab News (June 21, 2012)

According to Assistant Secretary-General Abdullah Al-Shibli, the committee’s meeting discussed water coalition and water security in the Gulf countries and is a reflection of the GCC’s keenness on providing water at any cost and under any circumstances.

    • Pat’s thoughts: The whole “at any cost, and under any circumstances” makes me a little nervous, but since there isn’t really any water that they could take from others, I think it means “we’re going to desalinate, and the environmental impacts are a necessary side effect.”


Water pacts re-examined amid Arab Spring. UPI (June 14, 2012)

In May, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki warned his neighbors, with Turkey and Syria his main targets, that the region faces conflict unless the issue of dwindling water resources is addressed by regional governments.

    • Pat’s thoughts: I think a key area to watch will be the Euphrates river, particularly between Turkey and Syria. Currently, Turkey broadly respects the flow allocation to Syria – but with increased Syrian military aggression towards Turkey, water cooperation may be among the items to be scuppered. Watch this area, as the weeks proceed.
India’s dam plans anger Pakistan, symbolize global water woes. Brimbank Weekly (May 19, 2012)

The Indus Water Treaty, signed in 1960, gives Pakistan rights over the Indus Valley’s three western rivers. India controls the three rivers to the east. The treaty is important, in particular to Pakistan, which is downstream from India, and relies on its neighbour’s adherence to it for survival. But the treaty is beginning to crack under new pressures, and Pakistan’s increasing anxiety about its neighbour’s activities on its watercourses.

    • Pat’s thoughts: Indian dam development in the Indus basin will increase as long as India needs additional hydropower, flood control, and/or irrigation water. Pakistan must respond like it is, but I doubt that any actual conflict will occur unless India actually harms Pakistan’s access to water.
African nations pioneer natural resource accounting with “Gaborone Declaration”. New Security Beat (June 20, 2012)

…the advantage of knowing that a hectare of mangrove trees in a certain region of Thailand has been calculated to provide approximately $16,000 of flood protection when considering whether to clear-cut and sell the raw wood (worth about $850), convert the region into a shrimp farm ($9,000), or preserve it.

    • Pat’s thoughts: I think that recognition of the value of ecosystem services is very important for conservation, but I think there are important unintended consequences of such valuation. Particularly, if the market is to judge the best use of an area, and wetland is valued at $100,000 of services per year, while a shopping mall is $150,000/yr, then the valuation process has encouraged (rather than discouraged) conservation. I think there need to be other components, including non-monetary valuations, if conservation is the end goal.
South Sudan will join Nile Basin Initiative. Ooska News (June 12, 2012)

Joining the inter-governmental initiative will allow the fledgling state to take part in making decisions and laws related to use of Nile water… However, South Sudanese Water Minister Paul Mayom stressed during a visit to Cairo last month that “we will not sign the Entebbe agreement, and we will not pose harm to Egypt’s water interests.”

    • Pat’s thoughts: South Sudan is hedging its bets by aligning itself with both the NBI and the downstream powers, Sudan and Egypt. As Ethiopia begins to exert its influence more and more, it will be interesting to see whether allegiances shift with changing power dynamics in the Nile basin.


Is thorium a magic bullet for our energy problems? Science Friday (May 4, 2012)

As the search for cheap, safe and non-carbon emitting sources of energy continues, a band of scientists say the answer may be nuclear reactors fueled by thorium. Others caution that thorium reactors pose waste and proliferation risks. Ira Flatow and guests discuss the pros and cons of thorium reactors.

    • Pat’s thoughts: Fascinating, balanced discussion of thorium as a nuclear fuel. Must listen 🙂


Avoiding Future Famines: strengthening the ecological basis of security through sustainable food systems. UNEP (June 20, 2012)

Globally, an estimated one-third of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted, amounting to 1.3 billion tonnes per year.

    • Pat’s thoughts: This is a great report from UNEP, and I really appreciate how they draw in some unconventional points, particularly around food waste. Check out the Executive Summary if you like, and then download the full report if you need more detail.
Shortages: Fish on the slide. BBC (June 17, 2012)

The year of Peak Ocean Fish was 1996. Crews hauled in 87.7 million tonnes of wriggling protein. The total sea catch has since fallen to about 80 million tonnes and stabilised.

    • Pat’s thoughts: This is a really important topic; also check out the animation for the expansion of fishing worldwide. Fish provide protein to millions of people globally, without which, we would have even more problems with land-based food production. Sustainable management of fisheries is critical to avoid collapse of fishing-based diets, leading to increased competition for land-based diets.

IS Alvand (F-71) 1977

Egyptian Saber-rattling and the White Nile Coalition

By Patrick Keys 

(This is Part IV of Water Security Blog’s series on post-Mubarak Water Security, the previous posts are: 1. Mubarak’s Fall and the Future of the Nile Basin; 2. Egyptian Water Security vs. Ethiopian Development; and 3. Egypt’s Jonglei Canal Gambit.)

Photo by Nabil Omar, from Wikipedia

Over the last few weeks, the Egyptian leadership has moved further and further away from Mubarak style diplomacy, towards a more active and “in-your-face” style diplomacy. In the first post we asked what the post-Mubarak regime would look like, and whether they would be more amenable to upstream riparians and the Entebbe Agreement, or whether they would take a more hawkish stance. The verdict is in, and they are not only more hawkish in speech, but appear to be more hawkish in behavior.

As of this morning (April 8, 2011) Egypt looks to be cementing relationships along the White Nile to act as a buffer to unilateral Ethiopian development along the Blue Nile. This is both strategic and necessary on Egypt’s part to ensure that when the “Great Millennium Dam” is constructed, and filling, that Egypt continues to have an adequate flow in the Nile. Furthermore, by cementing relationships with upstream riparians, this blog is arguing that Egypt may be in the process of forming a “White Nile Coalition” that can act as a nested interest group within the larger Nile basin.

Outside of Nile Basin policy, Egypt is taking a hardline stance against Israeli activity (by making overt threats related to Gaza), and reversing the more-or-less frozen ties with Iran. The implications of these developments on Nile Basin water security are limited, save for the importance of acquiring regional allies, that are of strategic geopolitical importance.

This post seeks to summarize the current flurry of News reports, unpack some of these issues, and provide some analysis on where things are headed.

Egypt strengthening ties with White Nile Riparians

All signs suggest that Egypt is not resting while the Entebbe Agreement (a.k.a. the Comprehensive Framework Agreement) inches closer to becoming a fully fledged International Treaty. A recent Newsvision article seems to suggest that Uganda may hold-off on ratifying the Entebbe Agreement until Egypt undergoes its post-Mubarak transition. The article is quoted below:

“Museveni said Uganda was willing to wait for Egypt to reorganise herself before she could ratify.”

If this is true, then Uganda may be much closer to Egypt than earlier assumed. Also, it begs the question: What did Egypt offer in exchange for this delay? It would be foolish to think that Uganda is doing this out of generosity, and thus the details for this agreement between the two nations are important.

Photo from Wikipedia

This comes closely on the heels of another high level visit by interim Egyptian leadership to the new country of South Sudan, as discussed in the previous post here. In short, Egypt’s stated interests were to help South Sudan develop economically, including restarting the Jonglei Canal project to drain the Sudd wetlands (depicted above).

All of this points to a concerted effort on the part of Egypt to cement relations along the White Nile, likely towards the goal of forming either a formal or informal coalition. Though its unlikely that the purpose of this coalition would be for military purposes, it is not unreasonable to think that this group could serve exclusionary purposes, including favorable trade agreements or development assistance among coalition nations.

Current Egyptian regime more volatile than predecessor

The hawkish activity within the Nile basin is mirrored by hawkish activity outside the basin. A trademark of the Mubarak regime was regional stability, both in the regime’s maintenance of diplomatic ties with Israel and with the broader Middle East North Africa (MENA) region. In general, there was very little saber-rattling.

Photo from Wikipedia

Not so anymore. Recent news reports suggest that on various fronts, Egypt may be ramping up its military rhetoric as well as strengthening ties with regional nations that have a track record of anti-Israel rhetoric- specifically Iran. In February, for the first time sinze 1979, Egypt allowed to Iranian boats through the Suez Canal, including the Iranian warship Alvand. Though this does not mean Egypt wants a war, it is apparently comfortable with Iranian boats floating right next to Israel (a country that Iran has in the past threatened directly).

Photo from Wikimedia

Several days ago, Mohammed Elbaradei – a former International Atomic Energy Agency inspector (IAEA), Professor, and Nobel laureate – met with Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, President of Iran. This wouldn’t be terrible on its own, however a recent soundbite from Elbaradei is reason for pause. Elbaradei is quoted as saying: “In case of any future Israeli attack on Gaza – as the next president of Egypt – I will open the Rafah border crossing and will consider different ways to implement the joint Arab defense agreement.”

Photo from Wikipedia

So, what constitutes an attack? What does “implement the joint Arab defense agreement” actually mean? Boots on the ground? Since the Muslim Brotherhood does not have the power that many news outlets suggest (for more on that read this), Elbaradei is a very realistic candidate for future president. Now, it could be that he is bulking up his “tough-talk” street-cred to cozy up to the current interim Egyptian military leaders, or, he could actually be quite hawkish. Time will tell.

Positive outcome?

This increase in aggressive rhetoric could be interpreted as a bad omen. Many in the MENA region and beyond are frightened that these words are drum-beats for a war march. However, I think there is a great deal of room for optimism, primarily because the question of an actual war between Arab nations and Israel would draw in other allies that have enormous stake in the stability of the region, specifically the US and China. Why? Oil (obviously).

Photo from Wikipedia

Actions speak louder though, and actions by these global powers are being taken. This is evidenced by China sending its special envoy for Middle East affairs, Wu Sike, to Israel, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon and Qatar, in an effort to encourage the Peace Process. China has no desire for Middle Eastern tensions to actually erupt into violence, because it would threaten the pace of their development – which isn’t  an option for the Communist regime. Rising fuel prices in China would foment existing discontent and could lead to unrest similar to what we have seen in many Arab nations. China will do everything it can to avoid this.

It is also worth noting that China is beginning to act like a global power, perhaps even inadvertently preparing to wear the mantle of the (emerging global superpower. That, however, is fodder for another post…

What does it mean for Water Security in the region?

This blog is about water security, not international security in general, so what does this mean for the Nile Basin? In general, this increased hawkishness by Egypt means that the ratification of the Entebbe Agreement will likely move more slowly, especially as this White Nile Coalition takes shape.

For Ethiopian development, particularly for the Great Millennium Dam, it means that a more unified White Nile could make trade and other international activity more difficult. Since the Great Millennium Dam costs 4.8 billion USD, equal to 95% of the Ethiopian governments fiscal year 2011 budget, Ethiopian is very nearly going “all-in.”

I predict that China will step up its efforts to mediate relations in the basin for the simple reason that it has made a significant investment in the hydrological future of Ethiopia, specifically in its hydropower (dam) infrastructure. These investments are likely not a generous act on behalf of the Chinese, but almost certainly related to the fact that China’s food security will require massive imports of cereals and other crops in the coming decades, and Ethiopia’s abundant water resources make it a viable candidate for this necessary agricultural expansion.

Photo by Steve Evans, from Wikipedia

That prediction should of course be taken with a grain of salt, given how quickly things on the ground change.

Also, I’ve been trying to tell you what to expect from “upcoming posts”, but seeing as how Current Events have called me to the other topics, I’ll just say that expect more on this topic soon.

If you have comments, thoughts, or reactions, please feel free to share them, and please keep them in the spirit of furthering the discussion, because I will reject comments that are outwardly hostile, especially if they are hostile to specific nations or peoples.


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.