As the dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia over the latter’s Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam dam was raging, the former was lobbying other Nile Basin countries to find alternative ways to maintain the volume of water flowing down to the Aswan Dam.
The alternative was found in South Sudan. It turns out that in the middle of the dam controversy, Egypt and South Sudan signed a “secret” agreement to dredge the Nile River tributaries in Unity State, to divert 4.8 million cubic metres of water annually downstream to Sudan and Egypt, an increase of around five to seven percent of the latter’s current volumes.
A split government
The issue has divided the Juba government. The agreement came to light recently when South Sudan Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation, Manawa Peter Gatkuoth, now deceased, revealed that Cairo and Juba had signed an agreement in April last year, for Egypt to dredge the 30km stretch of Bahr el Ghazal river system from Unity State capital Bentiu.
Vice President for Economic Cluster Dr James Wani Igga had led the government team to Egypt, according to Mr Gatkuoth.
The canal project involves the building of water cadres in Egyptian institutions, dredging and aquatic weed control in the Bahr el Ghazal basin, as well as the creation of landing spots along the canal.
Solar systems will be installed at drilled boreholes to provide safe drinking water.
So when a 21-truck convoy from Egypt arrived in South Sudan through Khartoum, many rose up to oppose the project, arguing it will affect the ecological balance in South Sudan, and make Sudan vulnerable to floods.
Among those opposed to the dredging is the Minister of Environment and Forestry Josephine Napwon, who termed the project illegal in the absence of a proper environmental assessment and a notification from the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation.
The controversy has spilled over to the East Africa Court of Justice where Elario Adam and Athiangbiar Deng say it is environmentally unsustainable and it will affect protected areas in East Africa.
“The main reason for this application is challenging the legality of the dredging along the Naam River Nile in Unity State and Bahr El-Ghazal basin. According to East African laws, prior to this kind of project there must be environmental assessment,” said Mr Adam.
But despite the environmental concerns, former director of water resources in Kenya, John Nyaoro, says that Egypt would gain up to an additional 10 billion cubic metres if the tributaries are drained.
“While the waters that leave Lake Victoria through the White Nile is 40 billion cubic metres, only 20 billion arrive in Khartoum where it meets the Blue Nile from Ethiopia. If the swamps channels are opened to allow quick flow of water, it would solve the problem of stagnation which results in loss through evaporation,” said Mr Nyaoro.
This story was first published in The EastAfrican print version on Saturday, June 25, 2022.