What do rafting, The Hague, and pyramids have in common? The story of the River Nile

Thanks mostly to the Nile, Egypt’s land under irrigated farming is 2.9 million hectares – in comparison, Kenya has about 34,000.

SINCE the dawn of civilisation natural resources played a crucial role in development. Rivers, oceans and lakes were significant incentives for growth because they provided food, farmland and protection.

Arguably the most famous civilisation to ever build upon the reliance on such a natural resource – the River Nile – was Ancient Egypt. Youth around the world are still being taught about Egyptian sophistication; its elaborate culture, social organisation, breathtaking art and, perhaps most noticeably, ingenuity in construction.

The pyramids of Egypt are world-famous. The Giza Necropolis incorporates a three pyramid complex and the sculpture of the Great Sphinx, the Step Pyramid of Djoser - identified as the “world’s oldest substantial monumental structure to be built of dressed stone” and the Pyramid of Khufu – the largest existing pyramid. All these, however, would not exist if the River Nile did not provide splendid farmland, necessary for food production to the many thousands of labourers.

Since the start of the building of pyramids, around 2630BC, the River Nile (in Ancient Egyptian meaning “river”) has always played a crucial role in the different aspects of African development.

Curiosity killed the cat

As mass explorations began and an obsession with mapping the globe developed, the Nile posed widespread fascination. The mighty river that flows through Cairo, the backbone of Ancient Egypt, provided the best background story and, to some extent, mainstreamed the curiosity among the public.

In 1866 David Livingstone, already a hero in his homeland for his extended explorations along the Zambezi river, began searching for the source of the Nile sponsored by the British Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

He died in 1873 never finding the source of the Nile, but instead finding Henry Morton Stanley who made him the subject of one of the most famous quotes in history (“Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”).

Today, the source of the Nile, generally perceived as the longest river in the world, is known to be Lake Victoria in Uganda. And still today, the Nile poses equal excitement.

Immediately after leaving Africa’s largest lake at Ripon Falls (named after George Robinson the 1st Marquess of Ripon) the Nile creates rapids near the Ugandan town of Jinja – the Mecca for rafting enthusiasts. 

Jinja is a brand. Nalubale rafting, with its outstanding number of grade 5 rapids – the strongest commercially accessible level – is pure adrenalin. The trip advisor reviews speak for itself. Out of 214 reviews, 197 rank Jinja rafting as excellent. The rafting in Jinja is an important generator of tourism revenue, but the source of the Nile also provides for other business entities. 

The biggest local employer is Kakira Sugar Works (KSW), the largest sugar factory in East Africa. Another important actor is Nile Breweries Limited, a beer producer of Nile Beer, a brand that started in 1950s. There is Bidco, a palm oil refinery, but most importantly there is $900 million Bujagali Hydroelectric Power Station with a capacity of 250 megawatts.

Tri-city story

As the Nile moves north, however, its surroundings become dismal. Arriving in its first capital city, Juba, the river takes the role of a saviour in a crisis situation.

A number of articles this year point to the South Sudan’s water problem - the capital, Juba, lacks safe drinking water. One way to go around this predicament is to purchase expensive bottled water. 

The Nile became the resort of choice for drinking water. Tanker trucks pump the water from the river to help the growing thirst in the city, but the continuous devaluation of the South Sudanese Pound against the US dollar increases the cost of fuel, which is all imported.

The river isn’t a safe choice of drinking water, but given South Sudan’s current political turmoil, it might have to serve as one for a while to come.

On the way to Khartoum, 200km north of Juba, lies the town of Bor. A recent power struggle between the Dinka and Nuer communities broke out over the Nile river. Several thousand people escaped across it, running away from the tribal conflict. Many died on the 16km crossing, but even more have survived, sheltered by the grand scale of the river’s breadth.

In Khartoum, the second capital city on the Nile’s journey north, resides Omar al-Bashir, the president of Sudan since 1989 and a man wanted by International Criminal Criminal (ICC) at The Hague, for crimes against humanity.

Apart from providing for a serene background for ICC fugitive’s breakfast view, the Nile in Sudan also plays a fundamental role in social life. It serves as a water source for pastoralists and also facilitates trade and administration. It is no coincidence that Khartoum was built on the confluence of both White and Blue Nile.

In the largely deserted surroundings of Sudan rivers are vital sources of farmland. The majority of the country’s population is dependent on its rivers, most of which depend on the Nile – the largest one of them.

The spring at the delta

The delta of the River Nile is one of the largest in the world. It stretches for over 240km on the Mediterranean coastline, from Alexandria in the west to Port Said in the east. About half of Egypt’s 80 million population lives along the Nile.

The delta has incredibly fertile soil providing for outstanding farmland. For over 5000 years Egyptians have been farming in this area. Currently, Egypt’s land under irrigated farming is 2.9 million hectares – in comparison, Kenya has about 34,000.

This beautiful set up has been the background to the eruption of Egypt’s Arab Spring. Inspired by Tunisia, Egypt quickly followed suit in the protests against governmental repression. Thousands flocked to the streets of Cairo, the third capital on Nile’s journey north, making history with revolutionary demonstrations in what was until then a largely subdued nation.

Creating and saving lives on its way to the Mediterranean the Nile is a river which in so many ways contributes to African development. It helps create private sector business in places like Jinja, it saves lives in Juba, protects conflict escapees in Bor, supports Sudan’s livelihood and allows the Egyptian population to complain, about what is only a right cause, by acting as a food basket in the times of need and the only stable supporter of their fight.

The Nile is a truly remarkable river, with history like no other. Many had admired it, but it seems that today too few respect it for it currently signifies.

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