The Nile River in Aswan - CC via Flickr /Sam Valadi
CAIRO – 18 August 2018: To create mutual benefits for the Nile Basin Countries that suffer from climate change-related water scarcity, Egypt has proposed a notion to create a trade shipping route starting from Lake Victoria in Central Africa to the Mediterranean Sea, also known as the VICMED project.
Egypt, which suffers from increasing water scarcity, has launched the notion of a shipping route in 2013. Since then, negotiations have been under way among the Nile Basin countries on Egypt’s pre-feasibility study related to the project’s economic, social, and environmental benefits.
Due to the cataracts and dams that exist along the Nile and some swamps, the pre-feasibility study, of which Egypt Today obtained a copy from Head of the Nile Sector at the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation Dr. Ahmed Bahaa Al-Din, provides six alternatives to make the longest river in the world navigable for a trade movement.
Before shedding light on the alternatives, let’s take a general look over the Nile course from its upstream Lake Victoria to downstream flow in the Mediterranean Sea. The 6,650-kilometers-long Nile has two tributaries; the first one is the White Nile, which starts at Lake Victoria in Central Africa, particularly in Uganda, to South Sudan, then Sudan, and finally Egypt. Meanwhile, the second tributary is the Blue Nile, which starts from the Ethiopian Plateau.
As per Alternative 1, the route will be “navigable” and start from Jinja city of Uganda; the vessels will come from Kenya and Tanzania through Lake Victoria bound for the port of Jinja, from which the vessels will start their trade journey to the city of Packwash in Uganda, then move through the White Nile and complete it to the Mediterranean Sea.
Alternative 1 includes the possibility of linking Lake Edward to Lake Albert, from which the White Nile starts at the port of Packwash, via a railway system.
This alternative aims to upgrade the railway network that connects Uganda with the North Corridor in the East African Community (EAC), which include Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda. The EAC transportation network could expand from Owen Falls to Juba in South Sudan.
In Alternative 2, the navigation route would start in South Sudan’s Juba, while the connection from Lake Victoria, to Juba and Lake Albert to Juba will be through ground transportation routes. Also, the railway connection between Lake Edward to Lake Albert of Alternative 1 will be kept.
“This is substituted by strengthening the Uganda railway network and terminal at Packwash, as well as the enhancements of the Northern corridor networks and facilities, while extending it to Juba,” the alternative mentions.
The second alternative also requires building an 800 kilometers-long roadway between the Sudanese port of Abu Hamad to Egypt’s Aswan, in order to save time, cost, and a distance of 2,300 kilometers that could be taken if the vessels navigated via the Nile between these two cities.
The third alternative of the pre-feasibility study does not differ from Alternative 2, except for expanding the would-be railway route from Packwash city to Juba.
The fourth alternative has no difference from Alternative 1.
Alternative 5 does not differ much from Alternative 3, except for suggesting creating a navigational channel between Abu Hammad and Aswan, instead of establishing a ground transportation route.
Moreover, the sixth and last alternative is similar to Alternative 1 with the suggestion of an Abu Hamad-Aswan navigational route. Digging the navigational channel between these two cities could impact the demography of communities living along the 2,300 kilometers route. Therefore, this alternative will probably be ruled out as studies will take into consideration the social, economic and environmental aspects, according to Mamdouh Mohamed Hassan, head of the Central Department for Technical Cooperation at the Nile Sector of the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation.
However, the new channels could create new communities that would result in a touristic boost in the area, he added.
“Alternative 1 is navigable and all obstacles along the Nile such as cataracts and dams could be removed via technical and industrial works,” he told Egypt Today, adding that the water passages could be created around the dams for the shipment of the vessels.
“The specialists [in such works] said the navigational alternative could be implemented [...] but its cost will be very expensive,” he said, noting that some western countries have experience in such industrial works.
In June 2016, China announced the largest ship elevator at Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze, the longest river in Asia. The elevator carries the ship with water, allowing the ship to float inside of it, while it crosses over the dam to the other side of the river, according to National Geographic Magazine.
Professor of Soil Sciences and Water Resources in the Faculty of Agriculture at Cairo University, Nader Noureldeen, views the VICMED project as “a mere media show”, since the Ministry of Water Resources did not take into consideration many significant factors, namely the economic feasibility and the absence of cost-benefit analysis.
“I met with the Minister of Water Resources [Mohamed Abdel-Ati] two months ago, I asked him about the project, its feasibility and sustainability. During the meeting, I stated my reservations concerning the project but the minister could not give me any logic scientific answers,” Noureldeen told Egypt Today.
Noureldeen ruled out the project in terms of profitable economic feasibility and its high cost of establishment; “it would be unaffordable for the Nile Basin countries that mostly live on foreign aid,” he explained.
In a statement on Feb. 16, 2017, Egypt’s Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation said that the trade navigational line would be a “vital economic route” for the landlocked countries, such as Uganda, Burundi, Ethiopia and Rwanda.
Noureldeen further explained that it would be hard to deduce the expected trade volume of 10 Nile basin countries, except for Egypt, from the project’s feasibility, adding that some landlocked countries such as Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, and Ethiopia have other fast routes via maritime navigation in the seas and oceans.
“Ethiopia can transport its goods via Djibouti, Somali and Eritrean ports, particularly, after Asmara and Addis Ababa reached reconciliation,” Noureldeen continued.
As for Tanzania and Kenya, their goods could be shipped via the Port of Dar es Salaam (Tanzania) and Mombasa (Kenya) on the Indian Ocean.
Furthermore, the professor’s third reservation considers how Egypt will deal with the dams on the Nile river starting from Lake Victoria to the Mediterranean Sea. “How are the vessels going to pass through the Nile amid the existence of the High Dam of Egypt, Merowe Dam and the Jebal Aulia Dam in Sudan (on the White Nile)?” Noureldeen questioned.
In addition, Uganda has many swamps and its Lake Kyoga is shallow, as its depth is estimated to be at 4-5 meters deep, Noureldeen continued, saying “in order to dig the lake, it needs to be 14 meters deep.”
Another obstacle that could possibly hinder the project is the Sudd Swamp which is classified as the biggest fresh water swamp in the world and extends for 500 kilometers, in South Sudan, which has no slopes and water stay in swamps, the professor added.
The Sudd was an area of an incomplete mega-project between Sudan and Egypt; they had started digging Jonglei Canal to deliver some of this swamp water (of which 30 billion cubic meters every year is lost by evaporation and deep seepage) to Egypt and Sudan.
Water flow of the White Nile became very weak at Lake No after passing across this long wide swamp, where it meets the Sobat River that comes from south Ethiopia, which provides the Nile with 11 billion cubic meters originating from the Ethiopian Plateau, and gives a “kiss of life” to the low speed of White Nile flow to push it forward north until Khartoum, he continued.
Moreover, most of the Nile Basin countries export agricultural products and organic food, which should be transported rapidly; hence, the Nile trade shipping movement is very slow compared to maritime navigation.
“Furthermore, the logistics that will be used for uploading and downloading the goods would waste time, he said, begging a question on the expected cost-benefit analysis, especially when we transfer (forward or alternate) from navigation to trucks across the free roads,” Noureldeen said.
However, Hassan said that there will be a cost-benefit analysis to find the most suitable alternative, adding that what has been done so far is the pre-feasibility study and other Nile Basin countries will give their final decisions after the full feasibility study.
“Drafting the feasibility study requires more data that should be collected, along with a demographic survey that will be carried out,” he added, noting that the feasibility study will tackle the economic situations of all Nile Basin countries.
The full feasibility study needs several financial contributions as its operational cost is higher than what has been spent on the pre-feasibility study, which have not provided all the essential informational needed,” Hassan said.
It has been estimated that the final cost of the feasibility study could reach $10 million; however, the cost could be divided into two installments. The first one estimated at $6 million, he added, saying that a promotional panel for the VICMED would be held in the upcoming Cairo Water Week (CWW) due in October 2018.
Egypt submitted its preliminary report on the project to the member states of the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) in June 2018, according to Egyptian Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation, Mohamed Abdel Ati in a statement. The report proposed revolves around establishing an African regional authority to work on the project, he said, adding that the report tackles proposed reference terms for an international tender to conduct feasibility economic studies of the project.
The pre-feasibility study includes the establishment of a regional training center to prepare human cadres from the member states to ensure the sustainability of the project, he added. Permanent job opportunities will be provided for individuals of NEPAD countries, Abdel Ati said.
The Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) is coordinating the project among the member states. It is agreed that the African Development Bank (AFDB) will finance the first phase of the project with $560,000 in grant to fund the pre-feasibility study. The total cost of the project was estimated at $10-12 billion.
On May 8, President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi hosted his Ugandan counterpart Yoweri Museveni in the Egyptian presidential palace in Cairo, discussing the bilateral relations and the VICMED projects, eventually agreeing to take implementing procedures for the VICMED project, according to a statement issued by the Egyptian Presidential Office.
Ugandan Commissioner of Transboundary Resources at the Ministry of Water and Environment, Jackson Twinomujuni, told Egypt Today via mail that Ugandan authorities highly appreciate the project and are looking forward to positive outcomes from the feasibility studies. “The government is giving it all its support to ensure its success,” he said.
Commenting on the six alternatives, Twinomujuni said that all scenarios are considered and the most suitable alternative – based on the Feasibility study – will be implemented. “The selection will be based on various criteria (economic, technical, environmental, etc.),” he continued.
On Feb. 22, 2016, Egypt’s Ministry of Water Resources and Tanzanian Minister of Transport agreed to create Nile navigation from the Nile and Lake Victoria.
Along the Mediterranean Sea, the Egyptian side was preparing the Damietta Branch of the Nile, which spills into the Mediterranean, according to a statement from the ministry on Jan. 16, 2016. The branch has been developed for the VICMED project.