Nile: Irrigation along the Nile

Irrigation along the Nile

The use of the Nile for irrigation dates back to at least 4000 b.c. in Egypt. The traditional system of basin irrigation—in which Nile floods were trapped in shallow basins and a cool-season crop of wheat or barley was grown in soaked and silt-replenished soil—has been replaced since the mid-1800s by a system of perennial irrigation and the production of two or three crops a year, including cotton, sugarcane, and peanuts. The delta barrages, just below Cairo, channel water into a system of feeder canals for the delta, and other barrages at Isna, Asyut, and Nag Hammadi keep the level of the Nile high enough all year for perennial irrigation in the valley of Upper Egypt; the Idfina Barrage on the Rashid prevents infiltration by the sea at low water. Nile water is also used for irrigation in the Faiyum Basin.

The Aswan Dam (completed 1902 and raised twice since then) was the first dam built on the Nile to store part of the autumn flood for later use; it has a storage capacity of 5 billion cu m and is now supplemented by the Aswan High Dam (completed 1971), 5 mi (8 km) upstream, with a storage capacity of 48 billion cu m, sufficient (with existing dams) to hold back the entire flood for later use. Construction of the Aswan High Dam has added c.1,800,000 acres (728,500 hectares) of irrigated land to Egypt's cultivable area and converted c.730,000 acres (295,400 hectares) from basin to perennial irrigation. Lake Nasser, created by the Aswan High Dam, has experienced problems with silting. There has been a reduction of soil replenishment downstream and a reduction of nutrients that once fed the E Mediterranean Sea. Other important storage dams, all outside Egypt, but built with Egypt's help or cooperation, are the Nalubaale Dam (formerly Owen Falls Dam; 1954) and Jabal Awliya Dam (1937) on the White Nile; the Sennar (1927) and Roseires (1966) on the Blue Nile; and the Kashm-el-Girba Dam (1964) on the Atbara River.

Agreements signed in 1929 (between Egypt and Great Britain) and 1959 (between Egypt and Sudan) essentially apportioned nearly all of the Nile's flow to Egypt and Sudan, and gave Egypt the right to veto dams in the upstream nations. Those agreements as well as other colonial era agreements regarding the river have been disputed by the upper basin nations that are the sources of the Nile's waters; they regard the treaties as a vestige of colonialism and invalid. In 1999 the Nile Basin Initiative was established by the basin nations to develop the river in a cooperative manner. The upper basin nations (except Eritrea, which has not been active in the initiative) since have sought a treaty that would replace earlier agreements and apportion the waters in what they regarded as a more equitable manner. An agreement was signed by Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda in 2010 and by Burundi in 2011 that was intended to result in an reapportionment that would not have a significant affect on Egypt and Sudan; those two nations strongly objected. In 2011 Ethiopia began work on a massive hydroelectric dam on the Blue Nile not far from the border with Sudan. Egypt objected to its construction, but in 2015 Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan signed an agreement on principles concerning the dam. Further talks, however, have not resolved disagreements over the dam, and tensions over the issue have increased; the dam began to fill in 2020.

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