Photo: OFID/F. Albassam

Controlling the Nile – a struggle with colonial roots

Dams and other water projects in Egypt during the 19th century are what interests Jakub Mazanec. He usually studies history at the Charles University in Prague, but has come to the Nordic African Institute to spend time among the NAI library resources.

“I have found a lot of useful stuff here. But the best thing about my scholarship is being able to visit the Institute with one of Europe's leading scientists on the Nile, Terje Oestigaard. His supervision has been invaluable”, Mazanec says.

In the early 19th century, Muhammad Ali governed Egypt, even though the country was formally part of the Ottoman Empire. Throughout history, the Nile has been a resource for human survival, but Muhammad Ali wished to extend the use of its waters and develop irrigation systems to improve farming. Many of those who helped him were French engineers and advisors who had ties to Egypt after Napoleon's invasion in 1798. However, more water projects were initiated when Great Britain got involved. Yet the aim of the British was not to gain the Egyptian population, but to secure the textile industry at home.

Jakub Mazanec.

"By cultivating cotton along the Nile, Britain could break its dependence on the United States. This became evident during the American civil war, when cotton production fell drastically and hit England's industry”, Mazanec observes.

Many of the British engineers had been working in India, building water systems. In Egypt, they began constructing the so-called ´British Nile Empire´, and according to Mazanec, it was much more than just building dams.

“Those water projects were thought-out systems for expanding and improving the use of the Nile’s waters. Not least were they often masterpieces of architecture. In addition, Britain soon understood that it was more efficient to build dams further upstream. Thus it became important to control the territory of Sudan as well”, he adds.

This sparked off geopolitical competition over the Nile’s waters, which continues today – then, between European colonial powers, and now between the independent states along the Nile.

"Many of the ongoing disputes can actually be traced back to the 19th century’s numerous water projects. It was then people realized that controlling the Nile could generate wealth and economic development”, Mazanec concludes.

TEXT: Johan Sävström

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