Could water from the historic River Nile irrigate the barren deserts of Saudi Arabia? This peculiar idea was proposed nearly 40 years ago by Prince Mohammed al-Faisal, and has recently been revived by a Saudi academic specialized in irrigation.
Mohamed al-Douan, professor of geology and head of the Department of Hydrology at King Abdulaziz University, proposed in a column that appeared in a Saudi daily the possibility of redirecting some of the Nile water from Sudan to Saudi Arabia. This would be achieved through pipelines that pass through the Red Sea, across a distance of 300 kilometers between the cities of Port Sudan and Jeddah.
Yet, questions have been raised, on the one hand over whether such a project could be technically feasible, and on the other over its potential effects on the countries involved. Would the Nile Basin countries, most prominently Egypt, ever agree to such a scheme, particularly amid heightened tensions over the past years due to the ongoing Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project?
The Sudanese press has expressed interest in the Saudi proposals for importing the Nile water, implicitly welcoming the idea. Three years ago, the Khartoum State Water Corporation announced its plan to export purified Nile water to the countries in the Arabian Gulf in the future.
This followed a study proposal presented by the Riyadh Economic Forum in its sixth session in December 2013, calling for the founding of a trial project to import water from Sudan to feed the underground water reserves in the Najran region, in the south of Saudi Arabia. The proposal also included the ratification of international agreements for importing water, to safeguard the rights of the different parties.
Just a Theory
Professor Al-Douan nonetheless affirms to Raseef22 that the purpose of his proposal was simply to make the best possible use of the Nile water. Al-Douan notes that his proposal was inspired by a UAE project for importing water from the Indus River in Pakistan, to meet Emirati citizens’ water needs.
“It is just a theory that is not related to any other topics. I am only directly interested in water topics,” he adds.
Al-Douan claimed in his article that the proposed project would provide fresh water to the cities located in the western regions of Saudi Arabia, and fulfil the needs of pilgrims. The project operates through investing in the heavy water flooding that occurs in some Sudanese cities during the summer.
Sudanese scholar Wael Ali tells Raseef22 that one of the main reasons behind the proposal is the kingdom’s attempts to find alternatives sources of water, and ensure water security for its citizens. Ali notes that the idea was initially suggested by Prince Mohammed al-Faisal in the 1960s, during King Faisal’s reign.
Ali affirms that the prospects of this project are huge, if Saudi Arabia begins working on it. Sudan has a large share of unconsumed Nile water, while the east Sudanese provinces through which the pipe would run suffer from water scarcity, and as such could benefit from the new proposal.
Nonetheless, water exportation to Saudi Arabia has not been officially proposed between the two countries, and remains a theoretical proposal championed by academics, he continues. The project is similar to another proposal presented in Egypt, before the revolution in 2011, which proposed connecting the Nile to the Congo River.
As Sudan seemingly embraces theoretical proposals to export water to Saudi Arabia, Egyptians threaten war.
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The Sudanese scholar further notes that there is a lack of technical studies on the topic of exporting water to Saudi Arabia, except for a Chinese study proposal.
Obstacles include difficult terrain, whereby the pipe would pass through the Red Sea Mountains, whether from the Sudanese or the Saudi side, which would require pumps. In addition, Sudan would require lucrative incentives to allow a tunnel project connecting it to Saudi Arabia, according to the Sudanese scholar.
Ali claims that the revenues from the project would be significant for both countries, explaining that in order for the project to be completed, an artificial lake and a dam would have to be built in Sudan, which would allow for the establishment of large-scale agricultural projects benefiting the country. The project would also contribute to the revival of agriculture in the Red Sea province in Sudan, and combat water scarcity, in addition to resolving the water crisis in Port Sudan. The project would also contribute to reviving agriculture in the middle and western regions of Saudi Arabia.
He however notes that only experts can answer to the technical aspects of the hypothesis. However, in his opinion, the technical difficulties can be resolved. “China was able to build artificial lakes in the ocean,” he explains.
Regarding the official Sudanese stance on the proposal, he says: “Until now, there has been no comment from the Sudanese government. The topic has only drawn responses from activists on social media. It is clear that there is polarization regarding this issue. In addition to those who support the project, large social segments believe that areas such as Darfur and Kordofan should benefit from the Nile, instead of Saudi Arabia.”
He further claims that the project would not officially affect Egypt’s share of Nile water, but would allow Sudan to exploit its own full share from the Nile. “Over the past few years, Egypt forcibly seized a huge portion of Sudan’s share in the Nile’s water, under the pretext that Sudan does not need it. Egypt definitely would not be happy about this project.”
He further notes that most of the Nile basin countries would reject the project, but according to him, this refusal is trivial, as Saudi Arabia has great influence in the region that would allow it to silence the voices of dissent.
Ali stresses that Egypt alone would not be able to obstruct the execution of the project. In order to fully incapacitate the project, should it become official, the Nile basin countries would have to form a conglomerate. Moreover, he calls into question Egypt’s willingness to openly declare opposition to the project, as this would harm existing relations with the oil-rich kingdom.
The Outbreak of War
Conversely, Hossam Sweilam, a former general in the Egyptian army and head of a military think tank, tells Raseef22 that the idea of transporting the Nile water from Sudan to Saudi Arabia will never see the light of day. He describes the proposals as delusions that would violate international laws and treaties if undertaken, and would compromise Egypt’s share of Nile water, which Cairo would never consent to.
Sweilam explains that Egypt would never agree to tamper with the Nile and its natural route from the south to the north. Sudan would not be able to change the course of the Nile, he claims, adding that there were former Israeli attempts to acquire the Nile water directly from Ethiopia and the Abyssinian Plateau, but all these attempts have failed.
Egypt has long laid claim to the lion’s share of Nile water, a status quo that was only recently contested with the development of the new Renaissance Dam in upstream Ethiopia. The move to build the dam was met with major opposition by Egyptian officials, who sought out various methods to put an end to what they claimed was an illegal infringement on Egypt’s inalienable rights. However, the dam remains scheduled for completion 2018 at the latest.
Meanwhile, Sweilam contends that the previous Sudanese discussions over exporting the Nile’s water to Gulf countries constitute a form of manipulation by Khartoum of previous media statements. He further concludes that the only possible outcome of such a plan coming into effect would be the outbreak of war.