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Egypt, the Sudan and the Nile

GENERAL GORDON, whilst on his fateful way to Egypt, on January 22, 1884, sent an official memorandum to Lord Granville in which the following passage occurs: "The Sudan is a useless possession, ever was so, and ever will be so. . . . I think Her Majesty's Government are fully justified in recommending the evacuation." The martyr of Khartum saw the Sudan through the spectacles of his generation. He surveyed its topography in the light of the past. To his mind the immense expanse which he beheld was but a channel through which the Nile carries its life-giving waters to the land of Egypt. He did not foresee that this "useless possession" might some day refuse to be merely an aqueduct. It never dawned upon him that in 1924 it might lay claim to the prerogatives of a riparian proprietor.

Every precedent justified the attitude of General Gordon. Egypt was the daughter of the Nile; the Sudan was her handmaid. The stream was more than the dower of the Pharoah's child; it was her birthright. The Sudan was born in bondage and knew no heritage. Such was the principle tacitly admitted when Tewfik, the Khedive of Egypt, in June, 1882, welcomed the arrival of the British Army of Occupation.

"At that time," writes Lord Cromer, "the nominal authority of the Khedive extended (in the Sudan) over an area stretching from Wadi Halfa on the north to the Equator on the south, a distance of about 1,300 miles, and from Massowah on the east to the western limits of the Darfour province on the west, a distance of about 1,300 miles--that is to say, he ruled, or attempted to rule, over a territory twice as big as Germany and France together. The worst forms of misgovernment existed over this vast tract of country. . . . The rich soil on the banks of the river, which had a few years since been highly cultivated, was abandoned. There was not a dog to howl for a lost master. Industry had vanished; oppression had driven the inhabitants from the soil. . . . The entire country was leased out to piratical slave-hunters, under the name of traders, by the Khartum Government."

There is a tradition in Islam that some time there is to appear on earth a Mahdi,[i] upon whose coming the world will be converted to the Muslim faith. In August, 1881, a man named Mohammed Ahmad proclaimed to the Sudanese, who in the north are all Mohammedans, that he was the Mahdi whom they were expecting. He was of their flesh and blood. Born amongst them, he had been apprenticed to his uncle, a boat-builder at Sennar, but early in life he entered a religious school at Khartum. His mission, as explained in his various proclamations, was to gain over the Sudan to his cause, then to march against Egypt, overthrow the heretical Turks, and convert the whole world.

Notwithstanding the credulity and ignorance of the people thus appealed to, it is probable that the Mahdi would have met with no success had not the prevailing discontent predisposed the inhabitants against the Egyptian Government. The Khedivial authorities, however, were so universally abhorred that the masses flocked to the standard of Mohammed Ahmad. It soon became apparent that Cairo had to deal with a formidable rebellion, the suppression of which would tax to the utmost the military and financial resources of Egypt.

The Khedive had no army worthy of the name. His coffers were empty. The situation was so ominous that on November 19, 1883, Lord Cromer, then Sir Evelyn Baring, despatched a cablegram to the British Foreign Office which the Maker of Modern Egypt characterizes as "largely responsible for initiating the policy of withdrawing from the Sudan." Circumstances, however, interfered with the immediate execution of this decision, and on January 16, 1884, a telegram was sent to London to the effect that the "Egyptian Government would feel greatly obliged if Her Majesty's Government would select a well qualified British officer to go to Khartum instead of the War Minister. He would be given full powers, both civil and military, to conduct the retreat." Gordon was chosen. He died at his post of duty when Khartum fell. Thereafter "the policy of withdrawing from the Sudan and adhering to a strictly defensive attitude on the Egyptian frontier was steadily maintained for some years."

Those in authority at London and Cairo, nevertheless, had no idea of definitely abandoning the Sudan. Britons are not moulded in such a frame. The popular sentiment among them found expression in the feeling that "Gordon must be avenged." But before any thought of reconquest could be entertained two conditions had to be fulfilled. In the first place, the Egyptian army had to be rendered efficient. In the second place, not only had the solvency of the Egyptian Treasury to be assured, but funds had to be provided for the extraordinary expenditure which the assumption of an offensive would necessarily involve. It took time to accomplish these results, but on September 2, 1898, the battle of Omdurman was fought and the power of the Khalifa, the successor of the Mahdi, crushed.

The Sudan having been reconquered, the question of the future political status of the country naturally forced itself to the fore. The campaign had been carried on in the name of the Khedive. British and Egyptian blood had been shed and British and Egyptian money expended. It was therefore considered but proper that the new administration should be typical of this same spirit of coöperation. But there was still another difficulty to be faced. It sprang from that network of treaties known as the Capitulations and which had hampered the freedom of action of the Khedivial Government.

It was laid down in the preamble of the agreement entered into between London and Cairo that it was desirable "to give effect to the claims which have accrued to Her Britannic Majesty's Government by right of conquest, to share in the present settlement and future working and development" of the legislative and administrative systems of the Sudan. The text of the Treaty provides that:

(a) the British and Egyptian flags should be used throughout the Sudan; (b) the Supreme military and civil command should be vested in one officer, termed "the Governor-General of the Sudan," and to be appointed by a Khedivial decree on the recommendation of the British Government; (c) proclamations of the Governor-General should have the force of law; (d) the jurisdiction of the Egyptian Mixed Tribunals should "not extend to or be recognized for any purposes whatsoever, in any part of the Sudan"; and (e) no foreign Consuls should be allowed to reside in the country without previous consent of the British Government.

This agreement is still in force. It created a partnership between England and Egypt for the administration of the Sudan and has made of that country an asset of the partnership. This extension of England's sphere of influence in Africa flowed logically from her Egyptian commitments. This branching out of Egypt was but a natural expansion. The two High Contracting Parties had like interests and the partnership worked out admirably as long as Egypt submitted complacently to the presence in Egypt of the British Army of Occupation.

Today, matters have entered a new phase. The world of 1924 is not the world of 1898, and Egypt now aspires to absolute independence. England, accordingly, on February 28, 1922, abolished, in principle, her Egyptian Protectorate. The Proclamation which announced this unilateral decision set forth, however, that certain questions should form the subject matter of an agreement between England and Egypt. The Anglo-Egyptian partnership in respect of the Sudan is one of the points thus reserved for subsequent adjustment. Accredited representatives of the two governments have not met, as yet, to discuss these matters. (The recent conversations between Ramsay MacDonald and Zaglul Pasha were of a preliminary nature, intended merely to prepare the way for an official meeting of delegates duly appointed by the two governments.) It is believed that the ultimate fate of the Sudan, as such, will not prove an insuperable barrier. The Sudan, on the other hand, as the concrete expression of Nile Waterway rights presents an issue which merits careful analysis.

The statement which has just been made with reference to the final lot of the Sudan, considered as a territory and not as the channel through which the Nile flows before it enters Egypt, is based upon repeated unequivocal public declarations made by responsible British statesmen that England will never abandon the Sudanese. Since the armistice Great Britain has vacillated with regard to her Egyptian policy. Upon one point, however, she has remained adamant and consistent, and that is that she will not abandon the Sudanese. The very contortions of British declarations in respect of all other Egyptian questions serve to emphasize that Britain is determined to remain in the Sudan.

Properly to understand the water problem of the Nile Valley it is well to begin by recalling that, though the political boundaries of Egypt include within them a vast extent of territory, by far the greater part of it is desert, lying generally at a much higher level than the river.

The small and real Egypt may be literally described as "the river, which is Egypt," meaning the land formed by the deposit of the silt-laden annual flood. The main part of this land is the Delta, or Lower Egypt, which is triangular in shape. Its apex is at Cairo and its base on the sea. Its area is about 4,800,000 feddans, of which 3,000,000 feddans are cultivated.[ii] In the reaches from Cairo southwards to the Sudanese frontier the river runs in a broad cleft in the North African plateau, and has deposited there wide berms of alluvial soil covering about 2,500,000 feddans, of which 2,200,000 are now cultivated. Thus the combined area of all of the Nile lands of Egypt totals about 7,300,000 feddans, of which about 5,200,000 are under cultivation. Of the arable lands not yet utilized, 200,000 feddans in the lake zone of Lower Egypt should be reserved for pisciculture. This therefore reduces to 1,900,000 feddans the maximum increase of cultivation in Egypt.

Rain plays no part in the agricultural life of Egypt. It seldom rains. Irrigation from the Nile was thus introduced at an early date. The summer supply of water in that river is insufficient for the adequate irrigation of the cultivated lands at present dependent on it. Egypt is a growing country. The increase in population today is at the rate of 200,000 souls per annum. Egypt is exclusively an agricultural country. There is, therefore, an insistent demand for expansion of cultivation into new areas now lying fallow for want of water.

Further control of the river is accordingly now urgently required both to prevent the heavy loss that occurs practically every year owing to the unavoidable restriction of crops, and also to provide additional water for development.

All authorities are agreed that the construction of the new reservoir thus so urgently required cannot be made upon Egyptian soil. The Aswan dam has already been built near the southern boundary of Egypt. Engineering science must, therefore, seek a site beyond the Egyptian frontiers. The commission of experts appointed in 1920 to inquire into this matter unanimously reported that "it is desirable, if not essential, that the reservoir should be as near Egypt as possible; but it cannot be constructed north of Khartum because it would be necessary to commence filling the reservoir before the end of the flood season, because Aswan already takes practically all the flood water which is free from silt, and it would rapidly silt up owing to the heavy silt contents of the Blue Nile in flood."[iii]

Egypt, therefore, cannot exist without drawing water from a river which rises far beyond her borders. Her sorry plight is made more acute by the fact that no possibility of expansion is available without building reservoirs beyond her frontiers. Manifestly such works may not be carried out unless the neighboring power consent. It follows that, when all is said and done, the future of Egypt depends upon the solution which will be given to the question of the Sudan.

Admitting, however, that the Sudan Government agree to allow Egypt to share in such waters as may be stored in the reservoirs built upon Sudan territory, the problem is not yet solved.

Egypt today needs annually about 34,000 million cubic meters of water for the adequate fertilization of her crops, while the experts appointed by the Egyptian Government to inquire into the Nile Projects agreed in putting her eventual requirements at 58,000 million cubic meters per annum. Now, an examination of the tables published by the Ministry of Public Works shows that in the year 1913-14 the aggregate discharge at Aswan, downstream of the Dam, was 41,000.[iv] This supply, while considerably short of the ultimate requirements of Egypt, furnished a nominal excess of 7,000 over the present consumption of 34,000. The conditions created by this relative scarcity of water, however, were such that Sir Murdoch Macdonald, the Adviser to the Egyptian Ministry of Public Works, writes that in 1913-14 "it is said some reduction took place in the normal quantity of cotton produced. . . . There was, however, practically complete suppression of the average 200,000 feddans of rice as this crop was reduced to 25,000." When it is borne in mind that rice plays an important part in the food supply of the Egyptian, the practically total suppression of the Egyptian rice crop of 1913-14 means that a margin of 7,000 million of cubic meters is drawing things too closely for safety.

It may be argued, however, that the 1913-14 discharge was the lowest during the last fifty years. The table before cited refers to 1902-03 and 1888-89 as "ordinary low years." The figures given are 67,000 and 68,000 respectively, and therefore afforded but a surplus of 9,000 and 10,000 over the eventual requirements of Egypt. If in 1913-14, when there was an apparent margin of safety of 20 percent, there was "practically complete suppression of the average 200,000 feddans of rice," it is clear that when Egypt shall have had all of her 7,100,000 feddans under cultivation, "ordinary low years" will leave but a margin of safety of 15 percent and therefore disastrously affect the food supply of the Egyptians. The contention may be advanced that over-year storage may be provided to meet the deficiency of a given low year and that it is not one year but the sequence of years which presents the governing conditions. If this principle be applied to the years 1913-14, 1914-15, and 1915-16, it is found that the aggregate flow from these three years (without eliminating any loss through evaporation) amounts to 190,000. The supply distributed over three years fixes, in theory, an average of 63,000 per annum. In other words, it creates a nominal surplus of less than 9 percent over Egypt's ultimate requirements.

These figures forget all about the Sudanese, that the Nile traverses their territory, that they have vast areas which require irrigation and that the Egyptians cannot get another drop of Nile water without making use of reservoirs erected in the Sudan.

Modern Sudan knew nothing of irrigation until 1903. It was then proposed to undertake experiments to test the feasibility of producing by irrigation exportable crops such as wheat, cotton, sugar, etc. It was foreseen that to obtain a favorable result it might be necessary to use summer water.

The Anglo-Egyptian partnership which then and now operates the Sudan did not act as an ordinary riparian proprietor would have done. It did not proceed without first considering the interests of Egypt. "As the available supply was strictly limited," writes Sir Murdoch Macdonald, the Adviser to the Egyptian Ministry of Public Works, "an agreement was reached between the Sudan and Egyptian Governments provisionally fixing the Sudan areas which could draw summer water at 10,000 feddans." When the Aswan dam was heightened, the Sudan summer area was increased to 20,000. In a footnote to a table giving the approximate present and future requirements of cultivation, Sir Murdoch Macdonald is, therefore, able to say that the present-day necessities of the Sudan are negligible.

It is accordingly clear that the Nile has always been looked upon both by Egypt and the Sudan as Egypt's river. As long as a community of interests obtained, as long as England occupied Egypt and was but a joint partner in the administration of the Sudan, this attitude may readily be understood. It was not that Britain loved the Sudan less; it was that she loved Egypt more.

Now that the British Protectorate over Egypt has been withdrawn and that England proposes to retire from that country but to remain in the Sudan, the matter of the allocation of the waters of the Nile enters a new phase. A partnership is a moral person having a legal existence which is separate and distinct from that of the partners. If and when England leaves Egypt, the Anglo-Egyptian partners will begin to have conflicting interests in the Sudan. When gentlemen fall out others profit. Here, when partners disagree the Sudanese will profit.

It has already been pointed out that the Sudan covers more territory than Germany and France together. A part of this area enjoys a satisfactory rainfall. But there are large stretches of excellent arable lands which cannot be cultivated without irrigation. This acreage, at all events, approaches in extent the 7,100,000 feddans which constitute the Egypt of the fellah. Certain British syndicates have already learned of the productive quality of the soil of the Sudan, and plans are now under way whereby 300,000 feddans will be developed within the next few years, of which about one-third will require water in the spring of each year. Once the Anglo-Egyptian partnership shall have ceased to administer the Sudan with more than due regard for the vital interests of Egypt, it may be assumed that British capital will flow into the Sudan and that these 300,000 feddans will extend into the millions. And there is a reason for this. Lancashire today is dependent upon foreign countries for her raw material. The Sudan produces an admirable grade of cotton. Everything tends to show that Manchester will see to it that Britain inquires into the riparian rights of the Sudan and that they are enforced.

The law affecting riparian rights admits of a rule known as "first in time, first in right." This principle compensates foresight and rewards enterprise. It is equitable. It finds its proper application as long as the potential water supply answers all existing needs. It recognizes vested rights. It does not, however, give a "first appropriator" a right of preëmption upon the "unappropriated" water supply. It does not exclude the hypothesis that all the arable lands unwatered but irrigable belonging to different proprietors, including the "original appropriator," enjoy an equitable right to an adequate share of the unappropriated water of a stream.

If these principles be as well founded in law as they appear to be sound in equity, it follows that should England retire from Egypt, remain in the Sudan, and give no undertaking as to the "unappropriated water" of the Nile, Egypt will be in immediate peril not only of seeing her future expansion definitely arrested but of having the value of her cotton crop cut to pieces by the increased supply south of her frontiers.

Egypt's present requirements call for 34,000 millions of cubic meters of water. In 1913-14 the supply was insufficient to fill this need. It has already been shown that the quantity available in an "ordinary low year," such as 1902-3 or 1888-89, will not fulfil Egypt's ultimate demands. The maximum known flow of 138,000 will be inadequate for the eventual necessities of both Egypt and the Sudan, whatever reservoirs may be erected in the Sudan to husband the waters of the Nile. It will take decades before the Sudan can be developed to such an extent, particularly as it suffers from a scarcity of population. Governments, however, must think not only of the present, but of the rights of future generations.

It, therefore, is not imperialism but a question of life and death which causes independent Egypt to claim the Sudan. It accordingly is not imperialism but a reluctance to recede from an existing partnership which impels England to refuse to abandon the Sudan. Without a practical monopoly of the "unappropriated waters" of the Nile and the right to erect reservoirs in the Sudan, Egypt cannot expand and will be unable to provide for her increasing population. Without a right at least to an adequate share of this "unappropriated water" stored in reservoirs built on her own soil, the Sudan cannot realize the magnificent future which awaits her. When the Sudan ceases to be an aqueduct she will become a priceless possession; but Egypt will have been dealt a staggering blow. Courageous statesmanship should be able to solve the problem which the abolition of the British protectorate has brought to the fore.


The question of the future political status of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan has entered an acute phase. Even before the British ultimatum following the assassination of Sir Lee Stack on November 19 there had been a rupture of negotiations and both the British and Egyptian Governments had adopted an intransigent attitude which did not promise well for the future.

In ancient times the rulers of Egypt long held extensive territories on the upper Nile. In the nineteenth century, we find that the famous Mehemet Ali, Pasha of Egypt, after practically emancipating himself from the control of his master, the Turkish Sultan, and creating an army on European principles, determined to build up an empire to the southward. Gradually Egyptian dominion was extended, until by 1880 the Egyptian Sudan came to include an area of about a million square miles with a sparse population of mixed Arabs and negroes. Such a territory was difficult to control, and under a weak and corrupt officialdom there was a great increase of slave raiding at the expense of the black populations beyond. This was finally checked after some hard fighting, chiefly by the efforts of a few European officials of whom the best known are Sir Samuel Baker, the explorer, and "Chinese" Gordon.

In 1882 the revolt of the Egyptian army under Arabi Pasha led to the intervention of the British, who as soon as they had taken the government into their hands were called upon to deal with the political and religious insurrection in the Sudan of the so-called Mahdi. This had spread rapidly; and in 1885 Khartum (which was defended by General Gordon who had been recalled to save the situation) fell after a long siege, just as a British army was arriving to its relief. Gladstone and his ministry thereupon decided to abandon the region to the Mahdists. The latter held it till its reconquest by an Anglo-Egyptian army under Sir Herbert Kitchener in 1898. The Sudan, however, was not restored to its former status. Instead, by a convention signed on January 19, 1899, between the governments of Great Britain and Egypt (which was itself under British rule), the territory south of the 22nd parallel was to be administered by a Governor-General appointed by Egypt with the assent of Great Britain. The British and Egyptian flags were to be used together. The governors of the provinces have been British officers.

Until recently this system has worked well. The Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, which has made extraordinary progress in the last fifteen years, seems to have been admirably governed and developed. England has good cause to be proud of the result. But now that Egypt has been recognized as an independent state and is no longer under British tutelage, the question as to the actual ownership has become critical. The Egyptians declare that the territory belongs to them and has never ceased to since they first acquired it, that Britain reconquered it solely and explicitly as the guardian and trustee of Egypt,-- indeed, that she pointed this out to the French when she required them to withdraw from Fashoda, especially emphasizing that Egypt, whose existence depends on the Nile, must control the upper waters of the river. Since then, the troops stationed there have been paid for chiefly by Egypt, Egyptian officials have been employed in the administration, and deficits in the Sudanese budget have been made up from the Egyptian treasury. As long as Egypt itself was ruled by foreigners, it mattered little that the Sudan was not administered from Cairo, but now that Egypt's right to govern herself is recognized, she is equally entitled to get back all of her territories.

To this the English reply that the case is not parallel, that the Sudan was a foreign colony lost to Egypt through her misrule, that she would never have recovered it by herself, and that she did not get back sole possession of it, as the title "Anglo-Egyptian" recognizes; furthermore, that she is incapable of giving it good government and that the Sudanese, and particularly the Arab tribes, are totally opposed to being handed over to the politicians in Cairo. (This the Egyptians of course deny.) The British admit that Egypt has some rights in the matter, including a guarantee that the Nile water necessary to her shall not be tampered with higher up the stream, but they declare that to restore the Sudan to unadulterated Egyptian authority would mean the undoing of much of the work of the last fifteen years.

The settlement of this difficult controversy was reserved in the 1922 declaration by which England gave her consent to the independence of Egypt. It will not be easy to achieve a permanent arrangement through action by only one of the parties concerned.

[i] The literal meaning of the word "Mahdi" is one who is "conducted in the right path." The idea conveyed is in effect not widely different from the Jewish conception of a Messiah.

[ii] Egyptian official reports speak of feddans and not of acres. A feddan is practically of the same dimensions as an acre. The figures given here and in the next two paragraphs are taken from "Nile Control," issued by the Ministry of Public Works, Egypt, Government Press, Cairo, 1920, Vol. I, p. 1.

[iii] Report of the Nile Projects Commission. Printed with the authority of the Egyptian Government, Cairo, 1920, page 53.

[iv] The water discharge figures herein set forth are all in millions of cubic meters.

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