The Potential of the Nile River Basin,
And The Economic Development of Sudan

by Marcia Merry Baker

Printed in The American Almanac, 1997.

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Figures 1 and 2 show the geography and the hydrological projects of the Nile River system.

The Nile system drains a watershed area of 3,030,300 square kilometers, constituting approximately 10% of all of Africa. The Nile Basin encompasses land in nine nations: Rwanda, Burundi, Zaire, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt.

The Nile is the longest river in the world, running for 6,650|km. Two rivers--the White Nile and the Blue Nile--join together at Khartoum to form the Nile, which then makes the long journey northward to the Mediterranean Sea. The only tributary to this final course is the Atbara River, which rises in the Ethiopian highlands, and joins the Nile about 320|km north of Khartoum. From Khartoum north to the Egyptian border and Aswan, the gradient of the Nile is steeper than south of Khartoum, and five of the Nile's six cataracts occur on this stretch.

As measured at Aswan, the annual volume of water of the Nile is given as 84 billion cubic meters. The relative shares of use of this water between Sudan and Egypt were given in the 1959 treaty between the two nations, called ``Full Utilization of the Nile Waters,'' which apportioned 18.5 billion cubic meters for Sudan, and 55.5 billion cubic meters to Egypt (this is based on net yield of water, after Aswan reservoir and other storage and regulation is taken into account).

Up to 70% of of the Nile's 84 billion cubic meters (at Aswan) comes from the Blue Nile system during its flood season, with the remainder from the White Nile and Atbara. The White Nile's flow is especially important because it arrives during the months when the Blue Nile is very low, when the Blue Nile may contribute only 20% of the flow to the lower Nile. The Atbara, during its flood stage, may contribute 13% of the annual flow of the Nile (11 billion cubic meters,) but from January to June the Atbara shrinks to pools and ponds.

The Blue Nile rises in Ethiopia, at Lake Tana, and proceeds for about 804|km through Ethiopia before beginning its course through Sudan to Khartoum. This is a fast-flowing river during the summer of torrential rains.

The southernmost source of the Nile River is in the White Nile sub-system. The White Nile proper begins at Lake No in south-central Sudan, from which it flows 1,000|km to Khartoum. But the most distant origin point of the Nile waters is far to the south in the Kagera River Basin in Rwanda and Burundi, and the upper Nile flow comes from the catchment of the equatorial lake plateau. The Kagera flows into Lake Victoria, from which Nile waters then flow on to Lake Kyoga, then Lake Mobutu Sese Seko (Lake Albert), and northward across the Uganda-Sudan border. Then, at the town of Bor, the land gradient changes, and the great swamp, the Sudd, begins.

The extent of the Sudd varies greatly with the volume of water received. During the period of the great rains of 1961-64 over the equatorial lake district, the Sudd reached 29,800 square kilometers (of both permanent and seasonal river-flooded area), which is close to the size of Belgium. At other times, the Sudd has averaged 13,100 square kilometers, still vast.

Through the Sudd, the Nile flow makes its way through various currents, mainly the Bahr el Jabal, which eventually forms Lake No, at a point about 1,156|km from Lake Mobutu Sese Seko (Lake Albert).

Flowing into the Bahr el Jabal from the west is the Bahr el Ghazal (the ``gazelle'' river). Flowing northward parallel to the Bahr el Jabal on the east, is the Bahr el Zaraf (the ``giraffe'' river).

The swamp is characterized by floating or jammed up ``islands,'' called sudd, of marsh vegetation, broken off from their moorings, and in various states of decomposition. There are vast chunks of sudd, some up to 30|km long. In the sluggish waters there are many varieties of malaria mosquitoes and waterborne parasites. The Sudd is almost impassable overland or by rivercraft.

A huge volume of Nile flow is lost to evaporation in the Sudd. The mean annual loss from evaporation from 1905 to 1980 is estimated to be 16.9 billion cubic meters, and can reach 20 billion cubic meters, which is nearly a quarter of the annual volume of the Nile at Aswan.


Figure 2 shows the major Nile River system projects--some completed, some proposed.

At the Nile Delta, there are barrages to protect the last available river water from the Mediterranean seawater intrusion.

Farther south, the Aswan High Dam, completed in 1971, is used as a storage system, and to regulate flow between what hydrologists call the ``timely'' and the ``untimely'' annual periods of the Nile.

In Sudan, there is the Khashm al-Girba Dam and reservoir to store water on the Atbara River.

Not shown on the diagram is a project (between Russia and Sudan) announced this May, for construction of a dam at Keibar (400|km north of Khartoum) for irrigation and power.

South of Khartoum, the Gebel Aulia Dam and reservoir on the White Nile, and the Sennar and Roseires dams and reservoirs on the Blue Nile, store and regulate water.

In Uganda, there is the Owen Falls Dam, at the point that the ``Victoria Nile'' leaves Lake Victoria.

The proposals for waterworks in the Sudd, and in the upper Nile lake plateau region, are either partially built, or not built at all.

The route of the proposed Jonglei Canal--over half excavated in the 1980s--is shown on Figure 2. There are other swamp water diversion plans for the Sudd to the west. Completing the Jonglei Canal alone would add significantly to the downriver Nile flow by reducing the Sudd evaporation.

Likewise, the potential upper Nile waterworks in the lake plateau region have not been built.

Vast resources exist for economic development in Sudan

In terms of physical resources, Sudan ranks high as one of the world's top ``natural'' breadbasket regions. In area, it is the largest country in Africa and the ninth-largest in the world, although it ranks only 32nd in terms in population. Sudan is over a quarter of the area of the United States.

Sudan is strategically located as a cultural bridge between the Arab Middle East and the African continent, and a geographical bridge between the Mediterranean and central Africa, stretching along the Nile River system, and bordering on the Red Sea (see Figure 1).

There are 2,506,000 square kilometers (966,757 square miles) in Sudan, much of it with gentle terrain. There are four mountain regions: In the east are the Red Sea Hills, running parallel to the coastline; near the west is the volcanic Jebel Marra mountain range, which forms the drainage divide between the Nile and the Lake Chad basins; on the central western plains, the Nuba Mountains form scattered granite hills rising up to 1,000 meters; in the south on the Uganda border are the beautiful rain-forested Imatong and Dongotona Mountains. The Imatong is the highest mountain in Sudan, at more than 3,000 meters.

Besides its size, the geography of Sudan is notable for its diversity. Sudan's latitudinal span, extending from just below the Tropic of Cancer all the way south nearly to the Equator, allows the nation great agro-ecological variation, ranging from desert (about 25% of the country), to pasture land and grain fields in the central belt, to lush mountain valleys of orchards, and other fruits, vegetables, and fiber crops, through to coffee and tropical products in the south (see Figure 2 and Table 1).

Sudan has at least 81 million hectares (200 million acres), which could easily be cultivated, which is more than half the currently cultivated acreage-base of the United States. This acreage could potentially produce crops sufficient to feed almost all of Africa. Sudan has another 88 million hectares (218 million acres) suitable for forestry, and 23 million hectares (57 million acres) for pasture.

However, at present, only 6.8 million hectares (17 million acres) out of the potential 81 million hectares are cultivated--only 8.5% of the potential farmland base. Of these 6.8 million harvested hectares, 5.1 million hectares are rainfed cultivation, and merely 1.82 million are irrigated. Because annual rainfall is highly variable--up to 40% variation from year to year--the annual output of the rainfed agriculture in central Sudan is therefore highly variable. These swings would be mitigated, even without large-scale irrigation, if other inputs were available--mechanization, farm chemicals, transport, and storage capacity.

Water throughput

Figure 3 shows how the average rainfall bands vary from 25 millimeters a year in the desert of the north, bordering Egypt, through to 400|mm in central Sudan--similar to the North American prairies--down to 1,100|mm a year in the south, where there are swamps and rain forests.

From south to north flow the waters of the Nile system, with the lower Nile formed at Khartoum by the juncture of the Blue and White Nile Rivers (see previous article).

In Sudan's water throughput, there are an average of 130 cubic kilometers a year of what hydrologists call ``renewable water resources'' (from precipitation, run-off from Nile system waters outside the national borders, etc.) available to the country. Because so much of northern Sudan is in the Saharan-Sahelian arid belt, Sudan ranks below, in absolute volumes of annual renewable water resources, geographically smaller countries located in the rainbelts of Western Africa. For example, Sierra Leone has, on average, 160 cubic kilometers a year of renewable water resources; Nigeria, 308; Guinea, 226; Liberia, 232; and Cameroon, 208.

However, the total national volume of water alone is not the story. The question is, how much of the available water is ``withdrawn''--diverted for potentially productive uses (agriculture, industry, domestic needs, power production)--and how well is the water utilization organized for these purposes? For example, look at the Imperial Valley of southern California, where limited amounts of Colorado River water were put to efficient use, and a manmade garden oasis was created, yielding up to four crops per year in the desert sun.

In Sudan, the fraction of available water resources ``withdrawn'' for use is about 14%. This is comparable to other nations located in arid zones--South Africa at 18%, or Mexico at 15%. Of Sudan's 14% annual withdrawals (18.6 cubic kilometers on average), fully 99% of this is applied to agricultural use for irrigation, and the other 1% fraction is for domestic use. Water use for industrial purposes is practically nil, which is an important consideration for development planning.

Moreover, Nile River Basin waters are shared among several nations. Therefore, were Sudan to withdraw significantly more of the Nile flow, Egypt would be shorted. Egypt at present uses 97% of its renewable water resources, which are currently confined to the Nile. Egypt ranks, with Israel, at the top of the list of nations with the highest ``withdrawal'' fractions of their renewable water supplies.

This is the context in which to understand what otherwise appear to be large per capita annual withdrawals of water in Sudan and Egypt. Sudan uses about 1,089 cubic meters per person per year, and Egypt 1,202 cubic meters. But with 99% of this water withdrawn going for agriculture in Sudan, and 88% of withdrawals going for agriculture in Egypt (7% for domestic use and 5% for industrial use), the seemingly large per capita annual withdrawals do not at all denote a high-tech, advanced economic profile.

As a comparison, the United States withdrew 2,162 cubic meters per capita in the early 1970s, with 42% in agriculture, 46% in industry, and 12% domestic use.

Both Egypt and Sudan would gain more water from Nile flow from the Jonglei Canal and other upper Nile system improvements, perhaps up to 7% more water downstream, and there are watersharing agreements in place for this incremental increase. But the essential source of additional water to these dry lower Nile lands is to desalinate Mediterranean Sea, Red Sea, and Suez saltwater with cheap nuclear power, at strategic development locations on the coastlines.

Limited transport grid

The limited transport grid in Sudan reflects decades of deliberate non-development under imperial British rule, and its continuation under the postwar regime of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank (see Figure 4).

There are only about 5,503 kilometers (3,432 miles) of rail lines in Sudan, and these lines are mostly between major towns. There is no real area density of rail coverage; statistically rails are 0.0019|km per square kilometer of the country. There are 29 diesel locomotives. The rail links run between Port Sudan and Khartoum in the east; Wadi Halfa' in the north (on the Egyptian border); El Obeid in central Sudan; Nyala in the west; and Wau in the south. The administrative center and manufacturing and repair shops of the Sudan Railways Corp. are in Atbara, north of Khartoum on the Nile River.

As of the mid-1980s, the overall road network, not counting dirt tracks, added up to 6,599|km (4,100 miles), of which 3,160 are main roads, and about 60% is paved. This means the national statistical road density is 0.03|km per square kilometer. Thus, like rail, this limited length of paved roadway does not constitute area coverage, but is a system of selective links. In 1980, a major road between Port Sudan and Khartoum was completed (1,197|km, or 744 miles). Bridge improvements on the White Nile have facilitated traffic circulation between Khartoum, North Khartoum, and Omdurman.

Another way to look at the lack of paved roads is that there are 98|km of paved roads per 1 million persons in Sudan. In contrast, there are 302|km of paved roads in Egypt per million persons. In Nigeria, 376 per million persons. In continental United States, there are 10-15,000|km of paved roads per million people.

For many locations in Sudan, the Nile River is the key transport link. River transport between Kosti and Juba (1,436|km, or 892 miles) had no overland alternative as of the mid-1980s.

The principal seaport of the nation is Port Sudan, on the Red Sea, and as of 1988, Sudan had 25 merchant vessels registered.

Small population

There are only 26.5 million people in Sudan, as of 1992, in an area the size of the European Community, where 300 million people reside. This means there are an average of 10 persons per square km, in contrast to over 200 per square km in Europe. Sudan's population is comparable to that of Taiwan, which is 80 times smaller in area. Sudan's small population, and certain related vital statistics, reflect the consequences of decades of British imperial rule.

About 30% of the population lives in urban centers, and there are over 2 million refugees in various locations in the country. As of the mid-1980s, the principal towns, with their population at the last census, which was in 1983 (the populations are all higher now), were:

Omdurman 526,287
Khartoum (capital) 476,218
Khartoum North 341,146
Port Sudan 206,727
Wadi Medani 141,065
Al-Obeid 140,024
Atbara 73,009

Figure 4 shows the locations of these largest towns, and some others. Outside the towns listed, the remaining 90% of the population lives in the smaller towns and villages.

As of 1994, the average life expectancy at birth was about 53 years for men, and 55 years for women. There were 42 births per 1,000 people, and 12 deaths per 1,000, for an increase rate of 3%. As of 1994, infant mortality was 80 deaths per 1,000 live births.

There are hospital beds on the ratio of 1 bed per 1,222 persons. There is one physician per 9,439 persons.

The average literacy rate is less than 30% for men, and less than 20% for women.

These statistics show only that large-scale improvements in essential domestic and social infrastructure--safe water, sanitation, health care, education facilities--are needed to make up for the degradation of conditions under British rule.

What is outstanding is the commitment and effort to provide for the general good, despite restricted means and inherited limitations.

Population expansion, and expanding the physical infrastructure to support this, are part of the explicit goals of the economic planning document The Sudan: The Comprehensive National Strategy, issued by the Government of the Republic of Sudan in 1992. This plan starts from the premise that the nation is underpopulated, assumes a continuing population growth rate of at least the present 2.7% per year, and sets goals for it as part of the economic development mobilization.

The school-age population is about 40%. Training the youth is stressed in the introduction to the Sudanese strategy document, which states the aim of a ``renaissance of thought and cultural development,'' and in particular, giving ``classical beauty and science'' to the youth. It says: ``Our nation is a young nation. The population growth indicators show that for a long time to come the predominance of youth growth will be the pattern. This fact necessitates that increased attention will be given to this very vital sector for its own sake, and for the investment of its potential.''

Not only youth, but ``people are an incarnation of the divine on earth, and ... from this principle spring basic human rights.'' The plan's overall statement of national objectives refers to ``noble values'' of the family and culture, ``dignity of the state,'' including its defense capabilities, and ``liberty and prosperity of the citizen.''

Agriculture, the major economic sector

Agriculture is the dominant sector in the Sudanese economy. It is the source of employment for 68-70% of the labor force, and agricultural products account for 95% of export earnings. The main imports include a broad range of industrial goods, petroleum products, chemicals, and foodstuffs.

Figure 5 shows the annual tonnage of production of all grains in recent years, showing a differentiation, by farm sector (irrigated, rainfed ``traditional,'' or rainfed mechanized) for 1983 to 1994. The graph shows that during the 1980s, the size of the annual grains harvest (sorghum, wheat, millet, corn) was on average about 3 million metric tons, and the bulk of that came from the rainfed, not the irrigated sector. The cash crops were concentrated in this irrigated sector--cotton and peanuts, particularly in the Gezira, described below.

But starting in the last season of 1990-91, a policy shift was made by the new government, to cultivate enough basic grains in the irrigated sector, mostly the Gezira, to guarantee a certain tonnage of grains staples so that national food security would be guaranteed.

After two years, key parts of this emergency program succeeded, to the point that in 1993 Sudan began supplying grain to the World Food Program and shipping food aid directly to Bosnia, Afghanistan, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and other points of need. By carefully diverting certain limited agricultural inputs, such as irrigated area and fertilizers, away from quick cash crops and into staples, Sudan achieved a grain surplus in 1993.

Total grains output reached 4.59 million metric tons in 1991-92, and 5.691 mmt in 1992-93. The harvest this year is expected to be the best ever, projected at over 6 million metric tons.

Figure 6 shows the irrigated sector crop output shift from predominantly cash crops (groundnuts and cotton) to more grains as of 1991-92. However, even with the new balance of food-to-cash crops in the irrigated sector, sizable cash crop harvests are still taking place. The harvest of cotton and groundnuts that just ended this year is excellent.

The Gezira irrigation project is the largest, oldest, and most important agriculture scheme in Sudan, and the largest farm in the world under one management. Located in the triangle area formed by the Blue and White Nile rivers, and the Sudan Railway line between the towns of Sennar and Kosti, the Gezira constitutes 12% of the total area cultivated in Sudan. It was started in 1911, with 250 feddans, which is 105 hectares (1 feddan is 0.42 hectares or 1.038 acres). As of 1962, it had reached 882,000 hectares. It was nationalized in 1950, and today the management system represents tenants, employees, and the national food security and export revenue interests. The main crops grown in the Gezira are cotton, sorghum, wheat, groundnuts, vegetables, and fodder.

As of the mid-1980s, the profile of the relative annual tonnages of the top agriculture food products produced were, in metric tons:

Sesame (largest in Africa)228,000

In addition, there are thousands of tons of smaller food crops--tomatoes (150,000 tons), cassava (128,000 tons), yams (115,000 tons), dates (116,000 tons), and corn (40,000 tons).

Sudan is the world's largest producer of long staple cotton. In 1986-87, Sudan's cotton output was 780,000 bales. In 1985, cottonseed was 360,000 tons, and cotton 196,000 tons. Sudan is Africa's largest producer of sesame, and the world's largest producer of gum arabic--supplying 80% of the world's use of the product, which is derived from the acacia tree.

As of the mid-1980s, the principal exports, in rank order of cash value were: cotton, gum arabic, sesame, and peanuts. In addition to that were a variety of other agriculture exports, including meat and livestock.

Table 2 shows the growth trend in Sudan's national livestock inventory in recent years. This past year, livestock numbers increased sharply because of the good rainy season, and good provision of inputs. Several institutions are intervening to develop the livestock sector, including ``The Livestock Bank,'' with branches all over the country, and the Anaam Corp. (anaam means ``livestock'' in Arabic).

The principal imports to Sudan, in rank order of monetary value were, as of the mid-1980s: manufactured goods, transport equipment, machinery and other equipment, foodstuffs, chemicals, and petroleum products.

In the mid-1980s, Saudi Arabia was the single largest trade partner, accounting for about 15% of Sudan's imports (mostly petroleum), and buying 14% of Sudan's exports. Other important trade partners included the United States. Britain, Germany, Japan, France, and Italy.

Mineral and oil wealth

Among the diverse rock formations in Sudan are identified deposits of a range of minerals including gold; sulphides of copper, zinc, and silver; chromite ores, iron ores, tungsten, and manganese. There are gypsum, silica sands, and many other economically useful deposits.

Exploration for oil began in the 1950s, and has identified several major fields. In 1993, Sudan for the first time ever, began to pump and refine its own oil.

The Sudanese ``Comprehensive Plan'' for the future calls for foreign investment in economic infrastructure for the purpose of ``raising the volume of such investment in the agriculture and agro-industrial sector to the highest possible level,'' and using oil and mineral export revenues for that purpose.

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The preceding article is a rough version of the article that appeared in The American Almanac. It is made available here with the permission of The New Federalist Newspaper. Any use of, or quotations from, this article must attribute them to The New Federalist, and The American Almanac.

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