Networking on the Nile

Written by Jan Luijendijk & Carel Keuls, on 25 July 2013

The Nile River is the longest in the world. Since South Sudan gained independence in July 2011, the Nile has been shared by 11 countries. It is one of the most complex and sensitive systems in the world, not only hydrologically speaking but also in terms of the diversity of the countries it crosses, with their mosaic of cultural, linguistic, religious and historical backgrounds. It is no wonder that cooperation among Nile Basin countries has tended to be laborious. After many abortive attempts, a breakthrough came in 1999 when the riparian countries agreed to form a transitional mechanism for cooperation, the Nile Basin Initiative.

This coincided with a parallel process to boost professional cooperation from the bottom up, which culminated in the launch of the Nile Basin Capacity Building Network in 2002. The process was guided by IHE Delft with the Dutch Government’s financial support. Ten years down the road, the network has attracted more than 1100 water professionals from the Nile Basin. Last year, the Nile Basin Initiative signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the network after a decade of working in parallel. This latest agreement not only acknowledges the complementarity of the twin mechanisms; it also underscores the need for both formal and informal avenues of cooperation to improve knowledge of the Nile Basin.

The Nile River is shared by Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda. Even today, the source of the river remains a mystery, with Rwanda and Burundi being the two contenders for its origin. For 6 500 km, the river snakes from Lake Victoria to the Mediterranean Sea. The first of its two major tributaries, the Blue Nile, originates in Ethiopia’s Lake Tana, whereas the much longer White Nile stems from the Great Lakes region of central Africa.

Despite the basin’s rich cultural history, disputes and conflicts linked to the control and use of Nile waters have been longstanding obstacles to development and security throughout the basin.

The first agreements on the utilization of the Nile River were bilateral and date back to the first half of the 20th century, one example being the agreement between Sudan and Egypt in 1959. When Hydromet, the first regional project, was launched in 1967, the riparian countries formed a Council of Ministers of Water Affairs to oversee the project, with a technical committee acting as steering committee. Hydromet was succeeded by Tecconile in 1992.

In February 1999, the Council of Ministers of Water Affairs replaced Tecconile with an ambitious programme consisting of 22 projects oriented towards technical assistance and capacity-building, backed by over US$100 million in donor funding. Although good progress has been made since, the Nile Basin Initiative is still in a transitional phase. Moreover, more than a decade later after its partial adoption, the Cooperative Framework Agreement has still only been signed by six out of the 11 riparian countries.

Regional research on transboundary issues

If one thing has become very clear in recent years, it is the need for a regional approach to tackle the principal problems, most of which cross political boundaries: food security, environmental degradation, adaptation to climate change, wetlands and ecosystem management, water quality management, flood and drought management, etc.

The population in the Nile Basin is expected to double to more than 300 million by 2040. All countries are struggling to provide their burgeoning populations with access to safe drinking water, adequate sanitation, electricity and other services. The recent heated debate in the subregion on Ethiopia’s large hydropower plant project, which will have an impact on both Egypt and Sudan, illustrates the urgent need for a dispassionate political dialogue based on scientific fact rather than assumptions and presuppositions. (Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam is currently about 21% complete. The only other large dam on the main Nile at present is the Aswan Dam in Egypt, built in the 1950s.)

Most of the riparian countries are burdened by a weak human and institutional capacity to manage water resources in an integrated manner. This applies to both transboundary and national waters. Within each riparian country, water management along the Nile River remains fragmented between sectors, with little coordination among the various national bodies. Institutional capacity also varies considerably from one country to another.

To compound matters, six of the 11 riparian countries have experienced civil strife or conflict that has resulted in a vast backlog of water-related investment, inadequate infrastructure management and a need for institutional and human resource development. Until recently, the lack of cooperation among riparian countries had hampered the exchange of information and experience across the region, penalizing research and development (R&D). Consequently, foreign experts tended to do the bulk of research in these countries. Not only are they more expensive than local experts but they also lack local knowledge.

By connecting isolated water professionals from the Nile Basin and enabling them to tackle urgent national and regional issues, the network creates an environment conducive to the exchange of ideas and best practices. It also nurtures international interdisciplinary research and the involvement of water professionals in market-driven research by encouraging its members to apply for research grants proposed by the African Union, European Union and other bodies.

The origins of an informal support network

The Nile Basin Capacity Building Network complements the Nile Basin Initiative by providing an informal support network for water professionals from the region.

The idea for such a network germinated during a Dutch-financed programme run by the IHE Delft to improve the capacity of the Hydraulics Research Institute in Cairo (Egypt) to train professionals. Between 1995 and 2000, more than 150 participants from various Nile Basin countries spent three months in Egypt on a Diploma Course in River Engineering. Often, young professionals on the course developed close friendships with others from countries with a very different political background and culture. They discovered that they spoke the same professional language and, perhaps more importantly, began trusting each other. In the jargon, we call this forming a community of practice. This mutual trust became one of the network’s fundamental building blocks.

The network was officially established during a workshop which culminated in the adoption of the Cairo Declaration on 15 January 2002. The 48 signatories included representatives of government, water authorities and research institutions from all the riparian countries, UNESCO, the World Bank and the Nile Basin Initiative.

As geographically distributed knowledge networking was quite new to the academic world at the time, the network was considered a pilot. The scope of research was thus initially restricted to river engineering. Thirteen research groups work in six clusters: hydropower; environmental aspects; geographical information systems and modelling; river morphology; flood management and river structures. Each group is assigned a scientific advisor from IHE Delft and its partner, the Faculty of Geo-Information Science and Earth Observation at the University of Twente (Netherlands). In 2007, the network launched the Nile Water Science and Engineering Journal to help members disseminate their research findings. 

Studying the potential for small-scale hydropower

One of the first studies produced by the network was an inventory by Mtalo et al. (2005) of Potential sites for small hydropower schemes in rural parts of Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda. The authors, who originated from these countries, pinpointed a need for capacity-building in a wide range of scientific disciplines, as well as in manufacturing technology. They also advocated vocational training for the technicians who would operate and maintain the plants. Mtalo et al. recommended the publication of a Design Manual for Small Scale Hydropower Use in the Nile Basin and the launch of a small-scale pilot project.

This recommendation inspired a research project by Ndomba et al. (2010) on the Design and fabrication of a Cross Flow Turbine, as a practical example of a low-cost design for small dams that could be locally produced and tested.

Controlling flooding at the source of the Nile

When Kimwaga et al. (2010) from Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda elaborated scenarii for future hydropower development in the Lake Victoria Basin, they incorporated the influence of climate change into their study. Their work showed that any changes in temperature and precipitation would considerably modify the hydrology of the lake basin, affecting its hydropower potential. Climate change has become a recurrent focus of research done by the network, which is able to draw upon the growing knowledge base established by the cluster on geographical information systems and modelling.

The Nile River takes its source from Lake Victoria, the largest in Africa, shared by Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. The Nzoia and Kagera Rivers both feed into Lake Victoria. The Nzoia Basin is traditionally flood-prone. ‘There hardly passes a rainy season without flooding events in the floodplains’, observed Nyadawa et al. (2010) from Kenya and Tanzania, in their study of flooding in the catchment. The situation has nevertheless deteriorated in recent decades. Using modelling tools and geographical information systems, the scientists were able to show that the loss of forest cover had led to greater surface runoff, exacerbating flooding. As crops need less soil moisture than forests, water was more likely to run off the surface on agricultural land, rather than infiltrating shallow aquifers. This reduced groundwater levels while augmenting the risk of flooding.

Although rainfall had increased significantly in parts of the catchment, irregular rainfall had led many farmers to abandon rainfed agriculture in favour of riverine agriculture, while others migrated to urban centres such as Kakamega, Eldoret and Kitale. The spreading urban centres were even less able to absorb surface water. The authors observed that government tree-planting campaigns had restored some forest cover in the basin but that it had nevertheless declined by about 22% since 1973. They concluded that maintaining forest cover would be an effective strategy for mitigating floods in future.

In a separate study published the same year, Otieno Dulo et al. focused on Integrated flood and drought management of the Nzoia and Kagera Rivers. Originating from Egypt, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda, the authors expanded the scope of their study to include guidelines for disaster preparedness.

Testing water quality in Khartoum

Besides regional research, the Nile Basin network also fosters collaborative research among different stakeholders at the national level. Ibrahim et al. (2010) analysed the Quality of Khartoum’s water, in collaboration with representatives of eight water-related institutes in Sudan. Khartoum has an arid climate with rainfall of less than 200 mm per year, so the population is reliant on surface water for 85% of its needs, which is supplemented by groundwater. The study found that, despite being at the confluent of two Nile rivers, the city’s water supply network was poor: 71% of the population was connected to the governmental water supply network but just 8% to the sewerage network.

When they tested Water quality in Khartoum for different pollutants, Ibrahim et al. (2010) found acceptable levels of heavy metals like zinc and lead but unacceptable levels of Escherichia coli in several of Khartoum’s boreholes, including that of the Soba Educational Hospital. The E.coli bacterium is part of normal gut flora but some strains can cause severe illness in people who eat food or drink water contaminated by faeces. The study concluded that current wastewater disposal practices in Khartoum posed a serious hazard to both surface waters and groundwater.

Looking ahead

In all, 24 research projects were presented to the network’s conference in 2010, including those cited here. These projects were implemented either locally or regionally by scientists with common interests. The experience of working together has built trust and created a platform for senior scientists from the region to share their skills and knowledge with one other and with younger compatriotes. 

Although some projects have attracted funding from the European Commission, the network will remain dependent on external donors for another five years or so, until a system of sustained funding for research and capacity-building can be put in place. The Memorandum of Understanding signed by the network and the Nile Basin Initiative in 2012 is a step in the right direction, for it identifies a number of joint undertakings, including the further development and use of the Nile Decision Support System.

With the level of water education still woefully inadequate in the region, the Nile Basin Capacity Building Network has chosen to broaden the scope of research collaboration beyond river engineering from now on and to include a focus on improving regional water education at MSc level. But it cannot do it alone. Government support and external financial aid will be essential if the network is to build a solid knowledge base and train the competent water specialists of tomorrow.

Authors: Amel Azab (Manager of the Nile Basin Capacity Building Network), Carel Keuls and Jan Luijendijk (IHE Delft)

Further information

For more details:

Visit the network’s knowledge map:

Read the Nile Water Science and Engineering Journal:

This article was originally published in UNESCO's A World of Science, Vol 11, No. 3 [July-September 2013] (also available: Arab version)