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Christopher Ondaatji

The Nile

by Robert O. Collins

Yale University Press

As Robert O. Collins admits in the bibliographical essay that concludes this excellent book, there is no shortage of literature about the Nile.  From works about the search for the source of the river to the discovery of the origins of man, from Herodotus to Hercule Poirot, the Nile’s waters have flooded writers’ imaginations and scientists’ curiosity.

Perhaps it is no surprise that the world’s longest river should inspire so much typescript.  For over four thousand miles, the Nile weaves its way through nine countries and passes through almost every conceivable landscape - from glacier-topped mountains, through the lush forests of the equatorial region.

It is then almost swallowed by the Sudd, a vast area of impenetrable marsh, finally reaching the arid desert region of North Africa.  Its flow sustains more peoples than can be listed here - the Nilotes alone, dwelling in the Sudan, include dozens of different ethnic groups.

Collins takes us on the journey of this extraordinary river and its diverse peoples with the assurance of nearly half a century’s passion and research.  Early chapters on the major geographical areas of the Nile - the Lake Plateau, the Sudd, the Egyptian Delta- provide a wealth of hydrological and geographical information (did you know that the amount of fresh water carried by the Nile out of equatorial Africa and the Ethiopian highlands is only 2% of that carried by the Amazon?) immersed in detailed historical background.  With inter-disciplinary ease, he often explains complex geography through historical event.  The endless swamps of the Sudd defeated the attempts of every pharaoh and emperor who tried to traverse it.  No one managed to cross it until 1841 and there is still no open passage through: Collins explains these failures by describing the Sudd’s hostile nature.  He explains how the British came to dominate the Nile basin at the end of the nineteenth century, but reminds us that “the imposition of imperial authority could not disguise imperial ignorance of the basin’s geography, its people or its waters”.  The Victorians’ ignorance is the author’s cue to clue us in.

This structural insistence on the inseparability of the Nile’s physical make-up and the people who have lived on its banks is a reflection of the idea that governs Collins’ book: the absolute dependency of all who dwell by it on the Nile itself.  The very first settlers over 5,000 years ago found that in settling for the security of cultivation they no longer had the independence of the hunter/gatherer life - they were at the mercy of the waters.  In particular, the unpredictability of flood (when the river rose high enough, it would overflow its banks and flood the surrounding fields), has caused anxiety to Egyptians throughout the ages.  As Collins says, “The waters gave life in flood and death in drought, dominating the daily routines, seasonal rhythms, structures and methods of governance.”  He even claims that the Nile has influenced a nations’ characteristic, suggesting that the Egyptians’ inherent conservatism is the result of the deserts surrounding the upper part of the country, which insulate it from the outside world, and the vagaries of the river itself, which dictate their way of life.

For the Egyptians fluctuations of the flood have led to a lasting paranoia.  The idea that those upstream can control the lives of those downstream has entrenched a fear and suspicion of the Ethiopians that has lasted a millennium.  Collins returns to this mistrust in the second half of his book, considering both the unfinished Jonglei Canal and its devastating effects on the Sudanese, and the environmental and political consequence of the Sadd al-Aali - the Aswan High Dam.  Completed over thirty years ago, the dam saved the Egyptians from the 1980s Nile drought.  They were spared the Ethiopians’ suffering.  To the country that built it, it remains a monument of engineering accomplishment that has eased dependence on upstream states.  But this is still “the wrong dam in the wrong place”; the price paid for it by the environment remains high and Egypt remains reliant on the Nile.

As an environmental historian, Collins’ view of the future is unsurprisingly gloomy.  The problem is simple enough: the average amount of accessible fresh water remains relatively stable, the population of the world does not.  The Nile basin provides for 250 million people today, in 2025 it must serve 600 million.  The various long-standing and expensive hostilities of the riparian states must be set aside if there is to be any chance of effective development of their water resources.

There may be an inordinate number of books about the Nile but this is one of the best.  It is a delight to find an author so at ease with his subject, who has effectively combined a wealth of social history, scientific learning and political understanding to create a comprehensive and comprehensible story of this most tyrannical of rivers.

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