Food Is the Ultimate Power Parched Countries Tap the Nile River Through Farms
Oil-rich Gulf states grow crops in Egypt and Sudan to export, leaving locals increasingly dependent on imports
THE NILE DELTA, Egypt—At the end of the world’s longest river, Ahmad Muhammad has run out of fresh water.
For generations, water from the Nile irrigated wheat, rice, corn and eggplants that Mr. Muhammad’s family grew near the river’s mouth at the Mediterranean Sea. When he was a child, Mr. Muhammad says, the Nile’s water was so clean he could drink it.
But fresh water stopped running to his farm about three years ago, the result of dams and droughts, big new factory farms and growing cities along the Nile’s 4,100-mile course. Now, Mr. Muhammad must use treated sewage water to irrigate his crops.
“Because of the water, when the corn grows, it has cancer,” he said one morning in late June, using a colloquial term for a disease that prevents the seeds from germinating. Concerned the Nile can no longer support his family, he’s considering selling the farm.
Along its journey from Central Africa’s mountain forests, through one of the world’s largest swamps and across the vast deserts of Sudan and Egypt, the Nile has become a battleground. Countries that sit upriver and wealthy Gulf states are starting to use the Nile more than ever for water and electricity. That means less water for the 250 million-plus small farmers, herders and city dwellers in the Nile basin.
Dams funded by foreign countries including China and oil-rich neighbors like Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states are tapping the river to irrigate industrial farms and generate electricity. Crops grown using Nile water are increasingly shipped out of Africa to the Middle East, often to feed livestock such as dairy cows.
Securing the right to grow crops for export using river water has given water-stressed countries an incentive to support strongmen in Egypt and Sudan. Despite their Nile access and ample farmland, both countries are big food importers.
Exporting crops to feed foreign animals while borrowing money to import wheat is “almost insane,” Sudan’s new prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, said in an interview. “It’s exporting water, basically. We could be growing wheat and getting rid of half our import bill,” he said. Mr. Hamdok’s predecessor, dictator Omar al-Bashir, is in prison after an uprising sparked by rising prices for food.
Water shortages sparked by population growth, global warming and pollution are also breaking out in Central America, the western U.S. and India. More than half the world’s cities regularly experience water shortfalls, according to the U.S. environmental nonprofit The Nature Conservancy. In 2018, Cape Town, South Africa, imposed severe restrictions on water use to avoid running dry and Chennai, India’s fifth-largest city, has been meeting only two-thirds of its water needs this year amid a long-running drought.
The Nile rises in the mountain ranges of East Africa. Its tributaries flow through Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Flowing northward, the Nile enters the giant Sudd wetland in South Sudan and exits into ever-drier climates. By the time it reaches the border with Sudan, the river is known as the White Nile, for the color of the sediment it carries. Another 275 miles downstream the river joins its biggest tributary, the Blue Nile, in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum. That is where it becomes the giant river whose rich floodplain fed ancient Egypt and imperial Rome.
Though the Nile historically carried enough water to turn vast swaths of desert into fertile farmland, it is reduced to a virtual trickle by the time it reaches the Mediterranean Sea.
In 2013, a group of U.S. military researchers at West Point predicted the Nile basin was headed toward “extreme water scarcity by midcentury with potentially catastrophic human implications.”
The most dramatic change to the Nile in decades is rising in Ethiopia, where the Blue Nile originates. Ethiopia, which has one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, turned to China to help finance the $4.2 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project to generate electricity. While the dam, located just miles from the Sudan border, won’t supply water for farms and cities, its massive reservoir will affect the flow of water.
Downstream, Egypt is worried that Ethiopia will try to quickly fill the reservoir beginning next year. The issue is “a matter of life and death for the nation,” Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi said in televised remarks in 2017. “No one can touch Egypt’s share of water.” A spokesman for Ethiopia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a September press conference that “any move that does not respect Ethiopia’s sovereignty and its right to use the Nile dam has no acceptance.”
Sharing of the Nile’s waters has long been governed by international treaties, with Egypt claiming the vast majority. Since Ethiopia wasn’t included in those treaties, it was never provided an allotment of water. Ethiopia’s massive dam has thrown a wrench into past agreements.
Sudan is stuck in the middle. Much of the water that flows through the country is already allocated. “Sudan actually doesn’t have that much free water available,” says Harry Verhoeven, author of “Water, Civilisation and Power in Sudan.”
The U.S. considers Sudan a state sponsor of terrorism and imposes financial restrictions that make it difficult to get equipment and money in and out of the country.
Mr. Bashir, Sudan’s former leader, turned to Saudi Arabia for investment and financial support. The kingdom had long been focused on securing its food supplies. But a three-decade effort to grow its own wheat drained Saudi Arabia’s own underground water reserves, and over the past decade Saudi leaders intensified their interest in Sudan’s potential as a place to grow export crops.
By early 2015, Saudi Arabia doubled its investment in Sudan’s agriculture sector to $13 billion, equaling about one-third of all foreign investment in Sudanese industry, according to a report by Oxford Business Group, a U.K. research company. Mr. Hamdok, the new prime minister, says he will respect those existing contracts even though he disagrees with the policy.
The contrast between verdant export crops watered by the Nile and parched villages was visible in the area where protests started in December, during a nationwide wheat shortage. One day that month, students at a technical high school in Atbara—a city surrounded by farms growing crops for export to the Gulf—went out to buy lunch and found that bread prices had doubled. So they pooled their lunch money, bought a tire and lighted it on fire in protest, says Salah Alsir, a 28-year-old artist in Atbara who joined the protests.
The protesters were angry about food prices, poor job prospects, social strictures and Sudan’s moribund economy, Mr. Alsir says. “We’re surrounded by farms,” he says. “But we’re not getting any of it.
Not far from Atbara sits Jalin, a barren desert settlement of low cinder block houses about a mile east of the Nile. There’s not much in Jalin—no road leads to the town, and it has no businesses. A spindly acacia tree provides shelter to the villagers’ few sheep.
Past a rocky expanse next to the village flows a deep canal, green with weeds, dug a decade ago by a Saudi-owned company called Tala Investment Co. It runs from the Nile about 10 miles to Tala’s farm, which leases its land from the government.
Tala grows crops for export and maximizes profits using Sudan’s “cheap manpower,” the company’s website says. Tala currently has 17 center-pivot sprinklers, each a giant boom moving in a circle that waters just over 100 acres. The alfalfa is shipped 400 miles overland to Port Sudan and then across a nearly 200-mile stretch of the Red Sea to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, then is used for animal feed.
When Tala first arrived, its managers and local officials told Jalin’s residents that they’d benefit, men in the town say. “We’ve been promised that there will be a canal coming here,” says Ibrahim Hashem, a 45-year-old sheep herder with a bushy mustache.
Alsadig Mohammed, the secretary-general of the Tala Agricultural Project’s board of directors, said “there was no binding agreement for water with local communities.”
Some of the village’s teenagers work for a few dollars a day at another nearby farm, Crown Agriculture, owned by investors from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Sudan.
There’s not much money to be made selling locally “because the locals are very poor people,” says Crown manager Irshad Ahmed, who moved from Pakistan to run the operation. He ships most of the farm’s alfalfa to Dubai, where it feeds horses, camels and dairy cattle. Mr. Irshad says he’s currently farming around 4,000 acres and plans to expand.
Stress on the Nile increases as it flows northward toward the Egyptian border, where it enters Lake Nasser, which was formed by the Aswan High Dam.
The dam is primarily used to generate electricity. But a sprawling desert farm, the Toshka project to the west, taps the reservoir. That is where Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. have made some of their biggest agricultural investments in Egypt in the past decade.
The strategy there is straightforward, says Turki Faisal Al Rasheed, founder of Saudi agriculture company Golden Grass Inc., which has explored purchasing farms in Egypt and Sudan. “When you talk about buying land, you’re not really buying land,” he says. “You’re buying water.”
Launched in the 1990s, Toshka has failed to create even one-tenth of the arable land originally planned, largely due to poor soil conditions. Mr. Sisi, the Egyptian president, has pledged to expand the project.
The country uses about 85% of its fresh water for agriculture, compared with an average of about 70% for the rest of the world; 90% of the water used for agriculture comes from the Nile.
Even with all that water dedicated to growing crops, the country is rapidly outstripping its resources. The problem is population growth, says Hussein Gadain, a former representative of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization in Egypt. The country’s population is forecast to grow 20% to 120 million by 2030, and to 150 million by 2050.
Access to water in Egypt is increasingly uncertain. The country’s annual per capita water use dipped below 24,000 cubic feet in recent years and is expected to fall below 18,000 cubic feet by 2030, a level defined as “absolute water scarcity,” according to the United Nations. The comparable figure in the U.S. is 100,000 cubic feet, enough to fill an Olympic swimming pool.
Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. control about 383,000 acres of land in Egypt, an expanse nearly twice the size of New York City, according to Land Matrix. The main crops are corn, potatoes, wheat, alfalfa, barley and fruit such as grapes that are exported back home.
Spokespeople for Egypt’s water ministry and for Mr. Sisi didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The accumulated stresses on the river are clear in its last miles. The Nile Delta, Egypt’s millennia-old breadbasket that sprawls north of the capital, is studded with a patchwork of 2- to 3-acre plots manned by an army of small-hold farmers. In recent years, many of these farmers complain that the life-giving waters of the Nile are either running out or are too polluted to grow their crops.
Mr. Sisi is now looking for new places to grow food. In 2015 he launched a program to expand arable land by more than 1.5 million acres in the country, part of which will tap into the Nubian aquifer, an irreplaceable ancient store of water beneath the Sahara. Saudi and U.A.E. companies have bid for lands in the project, according to the New Egyptian Countryside Development Co., which is managing the project.
Mr. Al Rasheed, the Saudi farm owner in Egypt, says that for him and others from the Gulf, farming along the Nile is about building regional influence as much as ensuring food supplies. “Food is the ultimate power,” he says.
—Abdullah Mohieen in Khartoum contributed to this article.