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.

A child’s game in Uganda

Uganda, crossing Kasinga Channel, boys playing on Katunguro Bridge
Uganda, crossing Kasinga Channel, boy playing on Katunguro Bridge

African proverb…

Return to old watering holes for more than water;
friends and dreams are there to meet you.

East Africa:  Uganda, Murchison Falls National Park
East Africa: Uganda, Murchison Falls National Park

Gorillas in Uganda: “Landscape Architects” of the White Nile River Headwaters

NWNL is excited to share ranger-guide Gad Kanyangyeyo’s photo of a 1-day old gorilla sent to NWNL this week, confirming Wildlife Conservation Society’s news six months ago that Bwindi Impenetrable NP’s gorilla population has grown by 33% since 2006.

Uganda, Nile River Basin, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, gorilla trek, baby gorilla with mother, photo by Gad Kanyangyeyo
Uganda, Nile River Basin, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, one-day-old baby gorilla with mother, photo by Gad Kanyangyeyo

This 25,000-year-old montane rainforest, with elevations from 3800 to 5553 feet, is in southwest Uganda’s western edge of the Great Rift Valley.   One of the most biologically diverse areas on Earth, this forest is a faucet for the White Nile River Basin and also supplies 80% of the water supply of the contiguous country of Rwanda.  Worldwide, Bwindi is renowned for having more than half of the world’s remaining mountain gorillas.

In 2010 Gad led our gorilla trek in this UNESCO World Heritage Site. On our 12-hour journey on foot through Bwindi’s 128-sq-miles of thick jungle and steep ravines, he explained that it is the presence of the gorillas as a human tourist attraction that has saved these forests of over 160 species of trees from becoming fields for crops.  Eons ago the forest apparently covered much of western Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and eastern Congo, but now it is only a small oasis in a dense rural area with more than 350 people per square kilometer.  Fortunately, because the endangered gorillas bring tourism dollars, Bwindi was set aside as a National Park in 1991.  Supported by collective efforts of Ugandan park staff, Bwindi’s surrounding communities such as Gad’s, local government and NGOs, the gorillas have become the conservation heroes of this source of White Nile waters, often called “The Place of Darkness.”

(Click on these photos to enlarge.)

Gad showed us how the gorillas are also the landscape architects of Bwindi, pointing out clumps of vines and branches where every night each troupe of gorillas tear down more vegetation for their families’ new overnight nests.  The gorillas’ daily opening up space in the forest’s canopy encourages the new growth that keeps Bwindi’s forest healthy.  Comparing this watershed with other NWNL case-study watersheds, the gorillas’ role in saving this dripping sponge of a forest is similar to the wolves’ role in Yellowstone in stopping elk from browsing riverine vegetation – and the rhinos’ and elephants’ roles in maintaining the savannas of the Mara River Basin.

No gorillas – no forest – no water – no life!

Uganda, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, walk to Munyaga Falls, ranger-guide Gad Kanyangyeyo and Alison M. Jones with WINGS flag
Uganda, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, walk to Munyaga Falls, ranger-guide Gad Kanyangyeyo and Alison M. Jones with WINGS expedition flag (fiscal sponsor for NWNL)

A passionate conservationist, Gad heard the NWNL story and mission and asked to be a Ugandan representative for NWNL as he involves community neighbors in conservation. What a great NWNL partner!   He is exuberant about the great diversity of flora and fauna that make this primeval montane forest a perennial faucet for the Albertine Nile.  He taught us that ferns, underfoot each step in Bwindi, were among the first pioneer flora on earth.  He identified cabbage trees (Anthocleista grandiflora) and pointed out the red cherry-like fruit and yellow-latex bark of  Symphonia globuliferae in the canopy.

Having now been a Bwindi ranger for 16 years, Gad wrote us that his passion for sharing and conserving this rainforest and its flora and fauna stems from his childhood experiences in this forest.  He outlined his story for NWNL to share:

When I was young, I used to travel with my older brothers, crisscrossing the forest of Bwindi – before it was protected as a national park (1991).   While smuggling goats, coffee and cows across the borders of Congo and Uganda, I learned the beauty of the forest.  In the forest, there was also gold mining and logging of timber.  We used to walk through the forest on logging roads carrying timber, which we put on the main road.  With that all experience, I loved the nature.  I was very much enjoying the forest.

These experiences were good enough to prepare me for my job now. Tourism here began in 1993; and since 1996 I have been working with the mountain gorillas under the Uganda Wildlife Authority.  I have received conservation training and have been working with the mountain gorillas of Uganda for 13 years.  I am now a conservation educator in Uganda because I like very much both plants and animals.  I educate visitors who come to see the gorillas and educate the local people about conservation.

(Click on these photos to enlarge.)

And this is the Bwindi legend Gad learned from childhood in the local Mukiga community:

The park is called Bwindi.  Bwindi is one of the richest forests in East Africa.  There are 150 bird species, 310 butterfly species, 324 tree species and 120 animal species.  Bwindi also has almost half of the world’s critically endangered mountain gorillas.

But what is Bwindi generally?  Bwindi is a dense forest with a very interesting name that originated from a very beautiful lady.  Many years ago, people used to migrate from the south to the north of Uganda.  A family was crossing the forest.  They reached a big swamp and they weren’t able to cross it.  They spent two days waiting until a spirit told them to sacrifice one of their beautiful ladies.  Their beautiful lady was called BWINDI BWA NYINA MUKALI.  After the lady was sacrificed, the family got a chance to cross the swamp.  The tale about the sacrifice was spread all over the area about the NYINA MUKALI lady.  From that date the forest is called Bwindi.

NWNL thanks Gad for sharing his passionate love of plants and animals and stepping forward to become one of Uganda’s conservation educators working with the mountain gorillas of Uganda and the White Nile River Basin.

Read NWNL’s 2010 post from Bwindi and the rest of NWNL Uganda/White Nile Expedition blogs.

Mara River Basin Expedition – Mara Conservancy

Welcome to #11 in a series of blogs written by Alison Jones before her departure to Uganda and Kenya as NWNL’s lead photographer.

grazing impalas

Recurring afternoon thunderstorms keep the grasses green for many species of grazers in the Mara Conservancy

Date: Wed–Mon, 14–19 April 2010 /Entry 11
Reporter: Alison M. Jones
Location: Mara Conservancy, Mara River Basin

Having just finished a 2-1/2 week expedition in Uganda’s White Nile River Basin, NWNL is now returning to the Mara River Basin for a follow-up to its Mara expedition in September–October 2009. That last expedition was at the end of a three-year drought that had severely reduced water flow levels, devastated wildlife and herds of Maasai cattle, and ruined both commercial and small-stakeholders’ crops. Now the Mara is experiencing its long rainy season with unusually heavy El Niño rains. The comparison between drought and flood conditions in this river basin will be valuable documentation for No Water No Life.

Note: Previous post is from the White Nile River Basin.

From the field: What a contrast to be in the Mara Triangle, the western third of Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve, in the rainy season after being here 6 months ago during the worst, final days of a 3-year drought. The results of that drought – and floods of the ensuing El Niño rainy season – have devastated parts of Kenya.

To the east of the Mara Triangle, Amboseli National Park lost 90% of its wildebeest, 80% of its zebra, a large percentage of Cape buffalo and 90% of local Maasai cattle. According to Harvey Croze, an elephant researcher in Amboseli, 20 elephant matriarchs died as did every elephant calf under the age of two. A compounding effect of the loss of so many antelope is that predators, such as the lions of Amboseli, have lost their food source.

To the northeast of the Mara Triangle, the Ewaso Nyiro River jumped its banks two months ago after heavy rains, sweeping away lodges and research camps in Samburu National Park. This devastation has been a blow to both tourism and elephant research. Expectations are that such extreme weather events – caused by rain or lack thereof – that dramatically affect river flows, will continue to be severe throughout Africa.

Fortunately, all wildlife in the Mara Triangle, including the world-renowned wildebeest-zebra migration, survived this past drought thanks to a perennially-flowing Mara River. The waters of the Mara River, albeit often flowing at very low levels, were always available in the Mara Triangle. As well, this southwestern corner of Kenya was the least impacted by the country’s lack of rains.

However, stakeholders and scientists realize they must work together to maintain sufficient reserves of water for the growing number of users of the Mara River – upstream in Kenya and downstream in Tanzania where it empties into Lake Victoria. This week NWNL met again with GLOWS scientists Amanda Subalusky and Chris Dutton. They have monitored flows of the Mara River for two years to establish the critical point when extraction by Mara River’s water users must be limited. As well, NWNL also met a half dozen PhD students here this week who will be working in the Mara River Basin on related hydrology issues under a program called Mara Flows. This continued scientific monitor of water needs and usage is essential to establishing guaranteed water availability in the future for all species – human and wildlife!

White Nile River Basin Expedition – Jinga 4/10

Welcome to #10 of 11 blogs written by Alison Jones before her departure to Uganda and Kenya as NWNL’s lead photographer. Updated 4/11: Location and text have been updated to reflect revised plans.

The former Rippon Falls, where L. Victoria becomes the Nile and J. H. Speke camped in 1862

Date: Sat–Wed, 10–14 April 2010 /Entry 10
Reporter: Alison M. Jones
Location: Jinga

NWNL will end its White Nile River Basin expedition in Jinga on Lake Victoria, the head of the Victoria Nile. With the guidance of a member of the National Association of Professional Engineers, NWNL will photograph fishing on Lake Victoria, the Bujagali and Owen Falls dams, and a local resettlement village created for those who had to be moved out of the Bujagali Reservoir. Discussions will focus on the processes followed (or not followed) in constructing these hydro dams and on other Nile River Basin projects that NAPE is focused on that impact Nile watershed ecosystems and water supplies, including oil exploration and extraction from protected areas.

From the field: The end of NWNL’s Uganda expedition was the beginning: the source of the Nile at the northern end of Lake Victoria’s Napoleon Bay! In 1862 John Hanning Speke was the first European to see Rippon Falls, submerged when the Owen Falls Dam was built (1954). At this hydrological landmark the Nile River begins its 4000-mile (6400-km), 3-month-long journey north to the Mediterranean Sea.

Our visit to Bujagali Falls, downstream from Rippon Falls, gave us an understanding of the power and drama of the Nile – what Rippon Falls was like before the Owen and Kiira Dams. Bujagali Falls provide nesting sanctuary for many bird species and are home to the spiritual gods of the Busoga Kingdom. Yet these falls will also be submerged when the government, with support of international financial institutions, finishes another large hydropower dam, despite the failed productions of the two immediately upstream.

A villager from Malindi where blasting for the Bujagali Dam has cracked many homes

These losses will be in vain because it is all but certain that the Bujagali dam will never reach its promised production of 250 megawatts. The upstream Owen Falls and Kiira Dams, meant to produce 350–380 megawatts of power, only produce 120 megawatts now – less than half intended! This is because of Lake Victoria’s falling water levels due to climate change, increased extraction by growing populations, and deforestation in the headwaters of rivers entering the lake. Water amounts coming into the Bujagali Dam are no different than that coming into the two upstream dams, as there are no additional tributaries between them and the Bujagali site.

Additionally, there were no proper environmental or social impact studies prior to construction. The government has largely disregarded the effects of the dam on the livelihoods of local stakeholders, whether resettled or suffering from the blast impacts. Surrounding communities (comprising over 8000 people) are struggling with landlessness, food insecurity, declining environmental quality, declining health, collapse of their fishing industry, and uncertain socio-economic futures. Resettled farmers who were moved from the Nile’s riverine flood plains have been struggling for 10 years to live on reassigned land that lacks water, sanitation or trees.

On top of these socio-economic issues, the cost of the dam relative to the amount of power expected will make Bujagali Dam’s hydropower the most expensive in the world – certainly not affordable to the 90% of Ugandans who currently lack electricity. NWNL hopes that the advocacy efforts of its newest partner, NAPE (National Association of Professional Issues), will help raise awareness and mitigate some of the problems being caused by the Bujagali Dam. The World Bank and the European Investment Banks are currently conducting investigations and withholding their critical funding until the reviews are concluded and recommendations initiated.

Alison Jones at the Source of the Nile with flag of NWNL’s fiscal sponsor, WINGS WorldQuest

White Nile River Basin Exped. – Kidepo Valley NP

Welcome to #9 in a series of blogs written by Alison Jones before her departure to Uganda and Kenya as NWNL’s lead photographer.

Pregnant Karimojong girl carrying baby and water, Kidepo Valley, Uganda

Date: Wed–Fri, 7–9 April 2010 /Entry 9
Reporter: Alison M. Jones
Location: Kidepo Valley National Park

The last of the six national parks to be visited on this expedition is the 556 sq mi (1,442 sq km) Kidepo Valley National Park, with its views of Alekilek Volcano, Labwor Hills and Bar Alerek Rock.

This park is located on the Sudanese border. It is comprised of savannah landscapes ending in the rugged horizon formed by Mountain Forest. Along its Lorupei River, there are Acacia geradi forests, kopjes – quite typical of arid Kenya. Its huge latitudinal range, and thus climate variety, accommodates a high diversity of flora as well as fauna. Carnivores here include lion, bat-ear fox, striped hyena, aardwolf, caracal, cheetah and hunting dog. Ungulates include the lesser and greater kudu, reedbuck, klipspringer, bright gazelle, Rothschild giraffe and oribi, and kavirondo bush baby. The tree-climbing lions are found in Narus Valley. There are 58 birds of prey in this park.

This park is known for its giant kigela trees, big sand rivers, unusual fox kestrels and fascinating walks. We will also visit the Kanangorok Hot Springs, located 11 km from Kidepo River Valley, and a local village. The Karimajong manyattas and kraals will offer interesting cultural perspectives.

From the field: Abutting southern Sudan, this dramatic open savanna valley in Karamoja district was the “lomej” (the meeting point) where Karimojong, Ik and Dodoth pastoralists gathered for their hunting. Otherwise the scarcity of rain kept them nomadic and well dispersed, since Karamoja gets only 600–800 mm of rain per year, far below what is needed to sustain people and their herds. The rule of thumb is that at least 1,000 mm is needed to sustain people in a land without infrastructure.

In this valley where dry season dust-devils can rise up to 50 m high, three seasonal rivers that run north to meet the Nile in Sudan and deep, hand-dug and -shelved wells in sand beds have provided water for these people and the wildlife. In 1962 the Uganda Wildlife Authority gazetted Kidepo National Park and moved the indigenous people out beyond the park boundaries.

Traditionally, both the women and the men who lived here had rain ceremonies. The male elders slaughtered and read the intestines of a cow to predict when rains would come. The women would travel as a group, singing and dancing, to seek those who might have angered the gods by unethical practices, such as stealing a neighbor’s crops. When the women found the likely perpetrator, they would denounce him for causing the gods to withholding rain. With justice served in this raucous fashion, the gods would be willing to release the rain again.

However, recently rain has become scarcer according to Faustino, the 100-year-old Karimojong chief interviewed by NWNL. Since the longest-running civil wars in Africa have surrounded and spilled into Karamoja, automatic weapons have proliferated. Thus – as in Ethiopia’s Omo River Basin – fatal conflicts over access to water and cattle raiding have risen with the increased frequency and severity of drought and environmental stress in turn causing severe famine. Recently the government has established a policy of disarmament in this region, which has reduced the killing and is applauded by many, including Chief Faustino. Yet, still, his people’s well has gone bad and their cattle have been raided. Fortunately, the village is sustained today by tourism income and a badly-needed health clinic and accompanying well are about to be built.