Seeking Nile River Origins via its Tributaries

By Joannah Otis for No Water No Life

This is the third blog on the Nile River in Egypt by NWNL Researcher Joannah Otis, sophomore at Georgetown University. This essay addresses the sources of the Nile  – lakes, tributaries, and a great swamp. [NWNL has completed documentary expeditions to the White and Blue Nile Rivers, but due to current challenges for photojournalists in Egypt and Sudan, NWNL is using literary and online resources to investigate the main stem of the Nile.]

For centuries, the debate over the source of the Nile River incited explorations and evoked endless questions. The Ancient Egyptians believed that the Nile originated from an underground sea or spring, but never ventured upriver to confirm their theory.  Instead they put their faith in Hapi, god of the Nile River.1 [See NWNL Blog “Finding Hapi-ness on the Nile,” .]

1000px-River_Nile_map.svgMap of the Nile River and its sources. (Attribution: Hel-Hama)

Interest in the elusive source arose again c. 440 BCE when Herodotus wrote in The Histories of the “fountains of the Nile.”  He asserted that melting snow from upstream mountains flooded the headwaters to create the seasonal inundation.2  It was not until 1768 when James Bruce began searching for and ultimately found the source of the Blue Nile at Lake Tana in the Ethiopian Highlands that some light was shed on the issue.  

In 1874, Henry Morton Stanley confirmed an earlier theory by John Hanning Speke that Lake Victoria was the source of the White Nile. These explorers and many others were often sponsored by the Royal Geographical Society in England and driven by their own hopes for fame.3 Today’s satellite technology and advanced resources have enabled us to positively identify Lake Tana as the source of the Blue Nile and Lake Victoria as the source of the White Nile. These two main rivers meet in Khartoum, Egypt to form the great Nile River.

ET Bar 0125D.JPGTissiat Falls, from L. Tana, source  of the Blue Nile.  (© Alison M. Jones)

The Blue Nile is the source of about 85% of the Nile’s water.4 Beginning in the Ethiopian Highlands where a plateau of basalt lava receives rain from seasonal monsoons from May to October, the Blue Nile stretches over 900 miles into Sudan. This origin point lies 2,500 meters above sea level.  Beginning its northbound route, this river flows through Lake Tana, as well as the Blue Nile Gorge.5 Lake Tana is a shallow body of water measuring 1,400 square miles, surrounded by the Amhara tribe’s ancestral lands.6 The Blue Nile Gorge, lying on the edge of Africa’s Great Rift Valley, guides the Blue Nile for 370 miles into the middle of the Ethiopian Highlands.7

While the White Nile contributes only 15% of the Nile River’s water, it is still an important ecological and hydrological presence.8 Originating in Lake Victoria and fed by the Ruvubu, Nyabarongo, Mara and other rivers, the White Nile flows through Lake Kyoga, Lake Albert, and the Sudd.9 The White Nile flows through much of the Albertine Rift Region.  It spans from the northernmost point of Uganda’s Lake Albert to the southern tip of Lake Tanganyika.10  This rift is home to a plethora of diverse wildlife, including 5,793 plant species, which brings profitable tourism to Uganda. Between Juba, Ethiopia and Khartoum, the river in Sudan drops just 75 meters. To the east and west of the river, the floodplains become savannah and then desert as lush growth that adorns the Nile’s banks disappears.11

White_Nile_Bridge,_Omdurman_to_Khartoum,_SudanThe White Nile Bridge in Sudan. (Attribution: David Stanley)

Just south of Khartoum, lies the vast Sudd, covering most of  South Sudan. Meaning ‘obstacle’ in Arabic. the Sudd is one of the world’s largest wetlands and the Nile Basin’s largest freshwater wetland.  The Sudd is a 12,355 square-mile practically impenetrable swamp of complex channels and lagoons –  an explorer’s challenge.  Fed by heavy rainfall from April to October,12 it provides floodwater storage and water habitat for 350 plant species, 470 migratory bird species, and 100 fish species.  Antelope migrations from the surrounding arid Sahel retreat annually to the Sudd in astonishing numbers.  Around 1.2 million white-eared kob, Nile Lechwe, and tiang, as well as wild dogs, crocodiles and hippos in the Sudd are best viewed by air.   The Sudd is also the home to pastoralist Nuer, Dinka and Shilluk tribes, Nilotic peoples who practice subsistence semi-nomadic cattle breeding and some grain farming.

Jones_040826_ET_0160Lake Tana, Ethiopia’s source of the Blue Nile. (© Alison M. Jones)

Ecosystems within the swamp include open waters with submerged vegetation, floodplain shrubland, surface-floating fringe vegetation, seasonally flooded grassland and woodland.13 Since most of the water that enters the Sudd evaporates due to high temperatures in Sudan, the White Nile leaves this swamp with half the power with which it enters.14  Since the 1930’s, there’ve been proposals to build a canal, today referred to as the Jonglei Canal Project, east out of the Sudd directly to the main stem of the Nile River.  It is said such a canal could increase Egypt’s water supply by five to seven percent. While Sudan and Egypt would benefit, South Sudan would see its fisheries die, grazing lands dry out and groundwater lowered.

Uganda:Lake Victoria, Uganda’s source of the White Nile. (© Alison M. Jones)

After years of searching, the sources of the Blue and White Nile River are no longer mysteries. The number of plant and animal species who depend on them are staggering, but they also serve as important lifelines for the humans living on their banks. From water for irrigation to water for domestic use, the Nile River tributaries are vital to North African survival of all species, including humans. It would be a human and environmental tragedy if these Nile tributaries or the great Sudd were drained and disappeared, as has Africa’s Lake Chad. Thus, these waterways deserve the respect and care owed to such treasured and vital resources.

Sources

1 Holmes, Martha; Maxwell, Gavin; Scoones, Tim. Nile. BBC Books. 2004.
2Bangs, Richard; Scaturro, Pasquale. Mystery of the Nile. G.P. Putnam’s Sons. New York, New York. 2005.
3 Turnbull, March. “The Great Race for the Rivers of Africa.” Africa Geographic. May 2004.
4 “Nile River Facts.” Africa Facts. Web.
5“History of the Nile.” Penn State College of Earth and Mineral Sciences. Web.
6Bangs, Richard; Scaturro, Pasquale. Mystery of the Nile. G.P. Putnam’s Sons. New York, New York. 2005.
7Holmes, Martha; Maxwell, Gavin; Scoones, Tim. Nile. BBC Books. 2004.
8“Nile River Facts.” Africa Facts. Web. September 27, 2017.
9Caputo, Robert. “Journey up the Nile.” National Geographic. May 1985.
10“The Environmental Resources of the Nile Basin.” p 57-98. Web.
11Pavan, Aldo. The Nile From the Mountains to the Mediterranean. Thames and Hudson Ltd. 2006.
12 Holmes, Martha; Maxwell, Gavin; Scoones, Tim. Nile. BBC Books. 2004.
13“The Environmental Resources of the Nile Basin.” p 57-98. Web.
14Holmes, Martha; Maxwell, Gavin; Scoones, Tim. Nile. BBC Books. 2004.

Showering in South Sudan…Sometimes

DSC_6347.JPGNWNL Director Alison Jones met fellow journalist Dale Willman just before he left for South Sudan. We stayed in touch as he worked to help young local journalists in this Nile River Basin, newly-formed country.   Dale is an award-winning editor, reporter, trainer and photographer with decades of reporting from five continents. During more than 15 years in Washington, DC, he worked for NPR, CBS and CNN. As a trainer, he was recently in South Sudan working with the staff of a local radio station. During the first Gulf War he reported from London for NPR, providing coverage for an IRA bombing campaign. 

South Sudan’s struggles with peace and availability of clean water continue to create disturbing headlines.  NWNL is proud to carry Dale’s story. 

By Dale Willman

Showering outside is one of the few pleasures for a temperate-zone kind of guy working in the tropics.

But water is a precious resource in South Sudan. It is also a complicated topic. For many of the country’s 8-10 million people, clean drinking water is relatively accessible. The operative word here of course is “relatively.”

I lived in Turalei, a small village in South Sudan from July of 2015 until March 2016. Older U. S. sports aficionados will remember its most famous resident, NBA basketball star Manut Bol, who is now buried in a memorial north of the village. I was there as a journalism trainer for Radio Mayardit. We lived in a fenced compound with our radio station, a small living area of three tukuls (small huts), a cooking area, latrines – and that outdoor shower.

160302-shower-6.JPG

Turalei is a sleepy village. Its rutted dirt roads pass by market stalls made of sticks and rusty, corrugated metal roofs.  Posters of soldiers killed in the country’s civil war are plastered on a monument that marks the middle of the village. Food is scarce. I lost 30 pounds in my first two months. For a guy more comfortable with snow, it is hot. South Sudan is a tropical country where daytime temperatures regularly reach north of 115 degrees. An evening shower under the stars helped me survive.

The entire country however lacks the most basic infrastructure, including running water. Many larger villages have at least one wellhead, thanks to the tireless work of dozens of NGOs over the past ten years. But for those in the countryside, which is most of the country’s population, the nearest well may be a kilometer or more away. That presents difficulties for some of the country’s most vulnerable citizens – its youngest population.

Children are an economic asset in this country. Kids working at home are more important to a family struggling to survive than kids getting a classroom education. So rather than backpacks filled with books like American school kids, many South Sudanese children carry dirty, yellow jerry cans a kilometer or two from wellhead to home. Each can holds five or more gallons of water and weighs 40 pounds or more. Often children do this several times each day in order to have water for the most basic of needs – cooking and bathing among them.

160122-maper-26.JPG

Having access to clean water though does not mean that the water people drink is clean. For as many as 2/3 of homes, by the time water is consumed it is contaminated with E coli and other impurities, according to research over the past decade.

Open storage is a huge problem. In Turalei’s compound where I lived and worked, drinking water was kept outside in a 50-gallon drum, loosely covered by a broken wooden board, often left lying on the ground. It was not uncommon to see mosquito larvae and pupas floating in the water. Birds that regularly sat on the drum’s rim would defecate into the water. And of course the dust – there is always dust – also infiltrates the barrel.

And there’s that shower I so relished. The water tank for my shower was regularly left uncovered. The container was so contaminated that at one point I was treated for a ruptured eardrum, probably caused by an infection from contaminated water.

Transport of water from its source to a home is another source of potential contamination. Many worked and lived in our compound, thus our water needs were extensive. A young man we hired regularly brought the water to us in two 50-gallon drums welded together and hauled on a donkey cart. One day my shower smelled of petrol. It’s possible that he made a little extra money that week by hauling fuel for someone, using the same drums he used for our water.

DSC_8579.JPG

How water is stored in the home plays another major role in whether families will be drinking clean water. The jerry cans that store water in homes across South Sudan are often also used for cooking oil, petrol and other commodities.

The way water is used, or not used, is a significant health factor for the country’s population. It was common during my year in South Sudan for me to see people returning from a toilet before meals without washing their hands. Since most meals are eaten communally, diarrheal diseases easily spread through entire communities.

Throughout history, water has played a major role in defining South Sudan. The White Nile divides this country as it flows from its Ugandan southern border to its northern Sudanese border. Above Juba, the nation’s capital, the river spreads out to form the world’s largest swamp called The Sudd.

Juba-air-1.JPG

In 61 A.D., The Sudd blocked invading Romans, ending Emperor Nero’s hope of dominating all of Africa. In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, the British attempted to cut through the Sudd. While the British were periodically successful, their efforts were always short-lived. Nature, it turns out, is a better reclamation artist than humans usually give credit. Even now, the Egyptian government’s effort to create a canal to drain a portion of the swamp in the next 24 years has stalled.

For many years, The Sudd has been an advantage for the citizens of South Sudan, having created a natural barrier to fighting that has ravaged the country. With much of the conflict based around the oil fields in the northeast, the Sudd has prevented some of that fighting from infecting much of the nation’s western flank.

Like I said, water is a complicated issue in South Sudan.