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Is Ethiopia to blame for Nile crocodiles appearing in Khartoum?

Officials in Sudan are advising citizens to avoid the Nile River because of crocodiles — which some are blaming on Ethiopia’s second filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
A Nile crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus) comes out the of the water at the Kuku Zoo wildlife park in the Khartoum Bahri (North) twin city of the Sudanese capital, Sudan, June 25, 2020.

CAIRO — A state of anticipation prevails in Egypt, after the appearance of the Nile crocodiles in Khartoum. Meanwhile, officials in Sudan have warned citizens against getting close to the Nile River after the completion of the second filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), in the absence of an agreement with the downstream countries — Egypt and Sudan.

In a July 30 press statement, director of the Civil Defense Department in Khartoum, Maj. Gen. Othman al-Atta, warned citizens against getting close to the Nile or swimming in it, as the country is witnessing major floods, leading to a rise in the Nile water levels and causing the emergence of predatory Nile crocodiles and snakes. Atta also advised against using Nile boats.

The situation in Sudan has raised concerns among Egyptians who are worried the situation would spill over to their country. Egyptian newspaper El-Watan reported Aug. 1 that citizens had witnessed a crocodile emerging from the water in the village of Zefta in Gharbia governorate, in northern Egypt. The crocodile crawled on the asphalt for a distance of 100 meters (328 feet) before returning to the water. The incident stirred panic among the villagers. But the undersecretary of the Egyptian Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation, Adel Abdel Qadir, denied the presence of crocodiles in this area.

Observers and experts who spoke to Al-Monitor said that the Nile crocodiles are not the only negative environmental impact of the GERD. Other effects, such as soil salinity and the disappearance of some animals and plants, are a result of the environmental changes caused by the dam.

Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia did not reach a binding legal agreement on the GERD operation and filling process. Negotiations have stalled although the issue was raised for the second time before the United Nations Security Council in July — but without any significant progress. Ethiopia initiated the second filling of the dam reservoir despite the objection of Cairo and Khartoum.

Nader Nour el-Din, professor of water resources at Cairo University, told Al-Monitor via phone that Ethiopia has failed to store the amount it had declared in the second filling of the GERD. Besides, it did not coordinate with the downstream countries — Egypt and Sudan — and insisted on the unilateral filling of the dam in the absence of an agreement, he said, adding that this caused an increase in the water levels of the Blue Nile in Khartoum, along with the increase in rains in the flood season that resulted in a huge increase in the number of crocodiles in Khartoum.

Ethiopia failed to store the amount it had planned for the second filling of the GERD, which amounted to 13.5 billion cubic meters of water, and only succeeded in storing 3 billion cubic meters, in addition to the 5 billion cubic meters that were stored in the first filling in 2020.

Nour el-Din noted that crocodiles in Khartoum will not reach Egypt because of the Aswan High Dam that pushes huge crocodiles toward Lake Nasser, and only small crocodiles can pass through the openings. This explains why some Sudanese farmers have found crocodiles on their lands.

He added that the harmful environmental effects in Egypt and Sudan are not limited to the spread of crocodiles, but include the ecological fragility of the Nile River delta in Egypt as a result of salty sea water and lack of fresh water to address the problem, as well as the salinity of the soil and reduction of its fertility, and the savagery of some weeds and the disappearance of others due to drought, and the disappearance of some river animals such as frogs and fish. The agricultural sector in Cairo and Khartoum will be the most affected by the Ethiopian dam.

Abbas Sharaki, head of the Department of Water Resources and Geology at the Faculty of African Studies at Cairo University, believes that the emergence of these predatory crocodiles in Khartoum is linked to the floods and the Ethiopian dam’s lake, which is 100 kilometers (62 miles) long and around 10 kilometers (6 miles) wide and which holds about 9 billion cubic meters of water.

Sharaki told Al-Monitor over the phone that the lake’s water, which covered places that could not be reached before the construction of the GERD, contains wild insects and reptiles that can reach Sudan through the water rushing to it. The GERD lake does not contain turbines that prevent the passage of crocodiles, he explained. Therefore, their frequent appearance in Khartoum with the increase in floods is a natural repercussion of the GERD, he added.

He said that with the floods that feed into the dam, there is only a narrow passage with a width of 250 meters (820 feet). Part of the water passes through it, and the rest of the flood water passes from above the dam, and the water of the lake filled with crocodiles rushes with the water from the top of the dam to Sudan, he explained. 

There are other environmental effects such as climatic changes and earthquake activation in the area where the Ethiopian dam lake is located, according to Sharaki.

He added, “But the situation in Egypt is completely different from Sudan, as the Aswan High Dam keeps away large and predatory crocodiles through its turbines that prevent their passage. The water passes through holes and turbines, and crocodiles would die if they try to cross. The GERD, on the other hand, does not have any turbines.”

Dia el-Din el-Qossy, an expert in water resources and former adviser to the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation, called on Egypt to prepare for all scenarios to deal with the negative repercussions of the GERD, because Cairo’s water security is an existential issue. Egypt, he stressed, will accept no compromise or neglect of its historical rights in the Nile waters. This stance is that of all Egyptians, and it is unanimous.

Qossy told Al-Monitor that Ethiopia has more than once refused to conduct any studies on the safety of the GERD and its environmental implications on the region, because it was well aware of the negative repercussions of drought and desertification caused by water shortage. These affect the agricultural area in the downstream countries and hugely impact food security, he said.

He added that crocodiles have been present in the Nile River since before the GERD, although the dam lake contributed to increasing their numbers in Khartoum during the flood period. This is normal, and is much less harmful compared to the water damage and food security threat, he said. 

Qossy called on the international community to assume its responsibilities to put pressure on Ethiopia to sign a binding agreement that preserves the historical rights of Egypt and Sudan.

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