Thirsty Egypt Clings Tight To The Nile 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.
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Thirsty Egypt Clings Tight To The Nile

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Thirsty Egypt Clings Tight To The Nile

Thirsty Egypt Clings Tight To The Nile

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REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

The Nile River and Egypt have almost always belonged in the same breath. But four of the Nile's upstream countries recently signed an agreement that could allow them more access to the waterway. Egypt says it won't give up a single gallon. For Egyptians, the Nile is the bedrock of their economy and their history.

NPR's Gwen Thompkins has this final installment from her series of reports on the Nile River.

GWEN THOMPKINS: This is what a thirsty man sounds like.

Mr. RABI AHMED ABDEL GAWAL (Farmer): (Foreign language spoken)

THOMPKINS: Rabi Ahmed Abdel Gawal is a farmer. And you don't have to understand Arabic to know that, OMG, is he angry.

Mr. GAWAL: (Foreign language spoken)

THOMPKINS: Gawal lives at the end of a complicated line of canals carrying water from the Nile River to his land. He needs that water for his wheat and tomatoes and corn. But right now, Gawal's land and that of his neighbors - all 1,500 acres - is as dry as an old box of Saltines. In fact, the eye doesn't settle on anything here because there ain't nothing to see.

Mr. GAWAL: (Through Translator) And when you go and speak to the people responsible, they're the people that live further up in the river, they have enough water, they are growing their land. But here, there's no water.

THOMPKINS: The water stopped coming a couple years back, and the people here say it's being used by farms that are closer to the source. That's the trouble with being at the end of the line. There's always a chance that the supply will run out before it gets to you.

Mr. GAWAL: (Through Translator) In half an hour, I would leave this land. But I have a family of 10 or 12 and I can't just leave. Where would I go? There's nowhere to go where I could survive. This is the land that we love and we can't just leave it.

THOMPKINS: It's what most Egyptians worry will happen to them, that the nations closest to the headwaters of the Nile will draw and draw and draw from the river until there's nary a drop left for Egypt. Then everyone will be raising sand.

Ayman Abou Hadid runs a research center at Egypt's Agriculture Ministry. He says desert people have only one obsession.

Dr. AYMAN ABOU HADID (President, Agricultural Research Center, Agriculture Ministry): Water availability. That's it. But it is a challenge to improve the awareness of our people that we have to use it at the maximum efficiency. And this is very much a concern, the best utilization of water.

THOMPKINS: Egypt has the biggest population and the biggest economy of any country in the entire Nile River Basin. It also draws more water from the Nile than all of the other countries combined. Since the beginning of memory, the river has never failed to flow. The Blue and White branches of the Nile travel northward from the African interior and then join to make one grand procession through Egypt, all the way to the Mediterranean Sea.

Masoud Shomon is a folklorist in Cairo.

Mr. MASOUD SHOMON (Folklorist): (Through Translator) I consider the Nile like a person. In the source countries, the Nile remains like a child. And it is here where this child grows older and is able to build a civilization. Why have the Egyptians built such a great civilization along the Nile banks? It is because the Egyptians understood the Nile.

THOMPKINS: Get used to it. When any Egyptian opens his mouth to talk about the Nile, a pharaoh falls out. In the regional game of water politics, thousands of years of pharaonic civilization is Egypt's royal flush.

Mohamed Mohideen is an Egyptian sociologist and Nile River expert with the United Nations Development Program.

Mr. MOHAMED MOHIDEEN (Sociologist): We are a nation that chews a lot on history.

THOMPKINS: Thanks to the Nile, Egyptians chew on a whole lot more than that. Peach groves grow in the Nile Delta, olive trees, date palms, grapes, watermelons, bananas. And to keep food on the table, the country dispatches engineers over thousands of miles to monitor the entire river basin. They study the river's many tributaries like palmistry, measuring the life of the Nile like the lines of a human hand. And most people here conclude that Egypt doesn't have enough water.

Saber Atta is a lawmaker from El Fayoum, south of Cairo.

Mr. SABER ATTA (Member of Parliament, City of El Fayoum): (Through Translator) We are a country concerned with every drop of water that's used.

THOMPKINS: Already, the average Egyptian uses less water than ever. You see, water is measured in cubic meters. The average American lives on about 1,500 cubic meters of water per year. The international average, indicating water scarcity, is a thousand cubic meters per capita. And the average Egyptian lives on about 700.

The government is constantly testing ways to do more with less. Here, at a test farm outside Cairo, they're reinventing the hose to irrigate orange trees.

(Soundbite of running water)

THOMPKINS: Egypt is also scaling back wheat and rice production, which require copious amounts of water. Ana Cascao specializes in Nile water affairs at the Stockholm International Water Institute. She calls Egypt's insistence on growing any water-loving crop hydro-suicidal.

Ms. ANA CASCAO (Stockholm International Water Institute): Cultivation of wheat in the desert is hydro-suicide and everybody knows. Really, it doesn't make sense.

THOMPKINS: But Egypt says it's their water to lose. Egypt and neighboring Sudan insist that two colonial-era agreements forever guarantee them more than 80 percent of the Nile's flow. And maintaining the status quo is a matter of national security. Again, sociologist Mohamed Mohiedeen.

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

THOMPKINS: Egypt and Sudan are refusing to sign a new agreement to more equitably share the water with other Nile Basin countries. 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.

Mr. JOHN NYARO (Chief Negotiator, Kenya): We cannot even convince our people that that water belongs to Egypt or Sudan or to another country. 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?

THOMPKINS: Truth is, Egypt doesn't know the rest of the countries in the Nile Basin all that well. Mohiedeen says that most Egyptian leaders have been pre-occupied with other borders.

Mr. MOHIEDEEN: Egypt has two main concerns for its national security: the eastern front, where Israel is located, and historically it's the east that represented the gate through which entire armies and occupants of this country entered the country. From the time of the Pharaonic time, the Hexus, the Marmelukes, the Arabs, the Persians, the Romans, you name it, you got it, they came mostly from the east or the northeast.

THOMPKINS: Mohiedeen says the only way to shore up the southern front is to lower expectations for water within Egypt. Chances are, Egyptians will have to make do with less.

(Soundbite of kids playing)

THOMPKINS: But who wants to think about dryer days ahead? Candy-colored umbrellas are lining the beaches of Alexandria. Egyptian tourists come to the Mediterranean every year to dance in the waves that once brought Napoleon to shore.

(Soundbite of kids playing)

THOMPKINS: In nearby Rosetta, the Nile finally gives way to the sea. The sound of water lapping against the rocks is a quiet ending to a long story - the longest of its kind.

(Soundbite of water flowing)

THOMPKINS: Out here, it's hard to imagine that the Nile has been through thousands of miles of forest, falls, swamp and desert, or that people so far away call the Nile their own.

Despite the best efforts to hold onto it, the Nile somehow slips past everyone. Fishermen say 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.

Gwen Thompkins, NPR News.

(Soundbite of water splashing)

ROBERTS: You can find parts one and two of our Nile River series on our website, NPR.org.

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