Diverting the Congo River to the Nile

21 March, 2014    

The fanfare around the proposal to divert the Congo to serve the Nile is incomprehensible, because the plan is unrealisable, writesMaghawry Shehata

 During the ongoing crisis between Egypt and Ethiopia over the construction of the Grand Renaissance Dam, which threatens catastrophe for Egypt as we have discussed in previous articles in Al-Ahram Weekly, some have aired the idea of connecting the Congo River with the Nile. This, they say, will feed our river with 110 billion cubic metres of water a year through a canal and/or tunnel linking one or more branches of the Congo with the White Nile or with one of its tributaries in South Sudan. From there, of course, these billions of cubic metres of water would head northward, join up with the waters coming from the Atbara and Blue Nile and continue northwards into Egypt.

As its advocates summarise the idea, it would require the construction of dams or sluices on the Congo at a location some 600 kilometres from the White Nile. There the water level would have to be raised, by means of pumps, by a huge 250-300 metres in order to counter the opposing territorial incline. Then the water would be propelled towards South Sudan and the White Nile. Then, at some point in South Sudan, the water level would be raised again so as to channel it into a “new Nile”, some 2,500 kilometres long, to conduct the water through Sudan and on into Egypt’s Western or Eastern desert. Clearly a project of such a scale and complexity needs to be studied very closely by the relevant experts who will need to be extremely precise in their calculations and to take into consideration a range of other technical and non-technical factors.

In fact, the idea of an artificial Nile is not new. Colonel Muammar Al-Gaddafi had once proposed it beneath the banner of African development and the redistribution of the continent’s water resources among African Union members in the vicinity. He charged a team of experts with the task of undertaking the necessary studies, but the idea was soon dismissed because of its infeasibility due to the technical, political and environmental complications involved.

The group that is currently advocating the same idea also does so in the name of African development that, according to them, begins with a project to divert the Congo into the Nile. Such a project, they argue, will free Egypt forever from the spectre of water deficit, which has come to loom more perilously than ever in view of the Ethiopian hydraulic projects, particularly the Renaissance Dam. It is worth noting, here, that the head of this group is a businessman with projects in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and a former irrigation engineer and geologist in the Egyptian Mineral Resources Authority.

More significantly, it is important to bear in mind that no written technical, scientific or feasibility studies for such a mega-project currently exist. The only material that is available and that has been submitted to some government authorities was compiled from photos taken off the Internet and that have no geotechnical or architectural value. When authorities at the Egyptian Mineral Resources Authority were asked whether they had studies for such a project, they responded that they did not, contrary to the claims of the advocating group. The same applied to the Faculty of Engineering at Cairo University. The faculty’s irrigation and drainage department said that they had never undertaken a scientific study for that project. Moreover, they also said that the group advocating the Congo River diversion project had asked them only for a design for a model village and for a design road parallel to the “new Nile” should the project be carried out. The latter request was curious since, as any engineer will tell you, roads cannot be designed on the basis of satellite imagery. Field surveys and measurements have to be conducted on the ground. Apparently the group also asked for a study on the amount of energy that would be required to raise the water level to the necessary height. According to the calculations of an advisory organisation, more than seven gigawatts would be needed, which is to say the equivalent to the amount of power that would be generated by the Renaissance Dam.

As for the concept of a 2,500 kilometre long new Nile stretching through Sudan and into Egypt, it is obvious that its proponents had little interest in the topographical and geotechnical properties of the ground through which such an artificial river course would pass, let alone the environmental impact.

So, before indulging in this pipe dream further, let us consider the following hard facts:

– Due to the relatively steep geological incline of the DRC, the flow of the Congo is very rapid. At a rate of up to 40,000 cubic metres a second, it is one of the fastest and most turbulent rivers in the world, making it very difficult to control. Moreover, this does not even begin to take into consideration other geotechnical considerations such as the nature of the bedrock, rifts and fissures, and the like.

– Some 400,000 square kilometres of dense jungle surrounds the Congo River, adding yet another obstacle, on top of the geographical incline, to the choice of the site for constructing a dam or series of sluices near the borders of South Sudan.

– The area identified for the proposed canal leading from the Congo to the White Nile consists of a range of steep mountains. With peaks up to 2,750 and 5,170 metres, these mountains are formed of hard granite rock.

– The envisioned dam (or dams) will be larger than the Renaissance Dam (with a 74 billion cubic metre reservoir capacity) and even more technologically complicated to build.

– According to the group’s figures, the reservoir behind the dam would hold 110 billion cubic metres of water. It remains a mystery how they came up with this figure, as alluring as it is, given that it is exactly twice as much as Egypt’s current water quota from the Nile and more than 1.5 times the amount of water to be retained behind in the Renaissance Dam.

– Designing the open canal or tunnels or pipelines, or whatever means are conceived to transport such enormous quantities of water, is in itself a herculean task.

– Southern Sudan, where the water from the Congo would be initially destined, is primarily marshland. What precautions, if any, have been envisioned to prevent that area from being submerged beneath the water that would be flooding in from the Congo?

– The branch of the White Nile, with which the Congo is meant to be connected, does not have a large capacity. It cannot hold more than 12 billion cubic metres a year.

– The artificial river that would stretch 2,000 kilometres through South Sudan and Sudan and then another 500 kilometres in Egypt would have to be a multinational endeavour and as it would pass through rugged terrain and both inhabited and uninhabited areas the obstacles facing it would be virtually insurmountable. If we have not yet been able to resume work on the comparatively modest Jonglei canal project, imagine the fate of a mega-project such as the “new Nile” meant to carry twice the amount of water as the old Nile.

Proponents of that project have billed it being able to transport 110 billion cubic metres a year, generate 18 gigawatts of electricity and to reclaim 80 million acres of land all at the cost of LE8 billion. They say, moreover, that it could be completed in the space of 24 months or, if we add the additional six mentioned by a senior official, 30 months. Such “projections” only underscore how unscientific the proposal is.

The huge media fanfare surrounding this project is unwarranted and incomprehensible. But what is more suspicious are the claims voiced by members of the group promoting this project, that it has already obtained the approval of government authorities in spite of all the objections on the part of specialists in geology and hydraulic engineering, experts in feasibility and technical studies, legal experts, especially those informed on matters regarding international river courses, and political analysts who are aware of the nature of the relations between the countries of the Congo and Nile River basins and of the fact that the DRC already is engaged in hydraulic projects with South Africa that will generate 40 gigawatts of power.

All these people agree that geologically, architecturally, politically, mechanically and economically the project is totally unrealistic. If it were at all feasible, why would we object so strongly to the Renaissance Dam?

The writer is former president of Menoufiya University and an expert on water issues.

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