Blue Nile Hydrosolidarity

Flow Dynamics and Manipulations of Blue Nile Waters

PhD research project by Hermen Smit


Every summer rain storms wash away Ethiopian soils from plowed lands into the Blue Nile. Whereas these soils for long created fertile Egyptian lands, most of the sediments now entering the Blue Nile deposit in dam reservoirs and irrigation canals in Sudan and Egypt.

While governments and international development organisations claim to implement 'win-win' projects to conserve soils, expand reservoirs and optimize silt management, the number of people losing cultivable land is higher than ever (MoARD 2010, Goor et al. 2010). The irrigation efficiencies and land productivities put forward to justify these projects do not reveal who are winning and who are losing, as these indicators hide how flows of water and sediment are calculated, diverted and used (Mitchell 2002, Barnes 2012).

To better understand the techno-politics (Mitchell 2002) of Blue Nile 'development' projects, this research examines how control over cultivated land in the Blue Nile basin is being redistributed through sedimentation, erosion, construction, operation and maintenance of the Blue Nile and its water infrastructure. I track the transformation of the river and water infrastructure morphology through which the redistribution of cultivation is materializing. During twenty months (2010-2012) of field work in Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt, I traced how water and sediment flows come into being (Mol 2002) in the Blue Nile basin.
The flow of water, the channels and infrastructure that transport and transform it, and the water users are continuously reshaped through interactions between human and non-human actors (Blaikie 1985, White 1996, Mollinga 2003, Bijker 2007, Barnes 2012). These interactions are spatial and historical as they are partly shaped by events at faraway places and in the distant past (Murdoch 1997). This research investigates the engineering of relations (Mitchell 2009) between water, sediments and the technologies and arrangements of their use. I follow a water (rain) drop on its way from an eroding plot in the Ethiopian highlands to the sorghum plant through which it transpires in a Sudanese irrigation scheme around 1000 km down the Blue Nile.

Part 1 - Forming a gully in the Ethiopian highlands
I track how a soil conservation terrace is reshaped between a drawing board in a ministry building in Addis Ababa and its construction on a hill slope in the Ethiopian highlands, and how the terrace construction programme is used by a political party to extend its control over the countryside. Three months later I follow a rain drop to see how it conspires with an ox-plow to destroy the terraces. I track how land users maneuver the drop down along their plot boundaries until it reaches an 8 meter deep and 40 meter wide gully, which is expanding up the hill. Why did gully formation start at this particular location and what does this imply for whom? I construct a praxiography (Mol 2002) of the gully to understand the transforming relations between the gully, the identities of the people living on the hill slope and the drainage pattern of the 30 ha of land (165 plots) draining to the gully.

Part 2 - Damming the Blue Nile
Some five hundred kilometers downstream on the Blue Nile, in Sudan, the drop is slowed down by Roseires dam. The coarser sediment particles in the brown Blue Nile water deposit on the bottom of the reservoir behind the dam, blocking the turbine inlets and decreasing power generation.
The operation of Roseires dam can not be understood independently from the other dams on the Nile. Not only has Roseires dam taken over the water storage function from the silted up Sennar dam three hundred kilometers further downstream. The construction of Roseires dam and the High Aswan Dam was only possible after the governments of Egypt and Sudan agreed (1959) to divide the waters of the Nile between Egypt (55.5 BCM/year), Sudan (18.5 BCM/year) and evaporation losses (10BCM/year).
To understand the transformation of the Blue Nile morphology and control, I construct a praxiography of reservoirs along the river. To do this I examine operation and construction of Sennar (1925) and Roseires (1966, heightening 2013) Dams in Sudan, High Aswan Dam (1970) in Egypt and the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (under construction) in Ethiopia. I track how flows of water, sediment and money to and from the dams are manipulated and used, how dam operators and water users manipulate and record Nile flows, how these records are used for justification of projects for further 'development' of the Blue Nile waters, and what the changes in the water distribution means for different land and water users in the basin. The praxiography engenders an analysis of how Blue Nile water and sediment flows, reservoirs and their decisions over their financing, design, operation and use co-evolve.

Part 3 - Shaping crops, canals and cultivators in the Gezira scheme
At Sennar, the dam and its operators divert the drop with about a fifth of the Blue Nile waters to the Gezira irrigation scheme. In the scheme I track the water and sediment manipulations through which the water drop is transported to the plot of a 25 year old woman sharecropper who is growing sorghum on a 2 feddan plot. I investigate how crop choice in the scheme was recently 'liberalized' yet remained constrained by creditors, owners of combined harvesting machines and the water supply to the plot. And how sediment deposition and canal excavation improve water access to some cultivators yet worsen water access for others. In this way I analyse relations between the cropping pattern, canal morphology and identities of the cultivators along one of the 1500 minor canals of the Gezira scheme.


The praxiography (Mol 2002) of the Blue Nile River and water infrastructure morphology created in this research will shed a new light on the flow dynamics and water politics of the Blue Nile. This light illuminates how control over water is shaped out of interactions between water and sediment flows, and the practices and technologies through which they are distributed, represented and regulated.


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