Ethiopia: The Mystery of the Black Nile


By Tuji Jidda*

A lot has been said about the Abay River and the Blue Nile: patriotic poems have been composed, and beautiful songs sung in their honor; accords signed; major wars fought; and boundaries demarcated. After the recent inaugurations of the highly political Tekeze Dam in Tigray and the Tana-Beles project in Amhara region, the issue of Nile politics has resurfaced once again. Meles Zenawi is touting a renewed possibility of war and is accusing Egypt of backing anti-government rebels in Ethiopia. There is no reasonable ground for Zenawi’s allegations, and his swagger is based on inaccurate facts. This article tries to challenge the correctness of previous opinions of Abyssinian rulers regarding the Nile River.

Westerners do not understand the difference between Abyssinian and non-Abyssinian Ethiopia. It was only fairly recently that it was made known that 86% of the Nile’s water originated in the Ethiopian highlands. As the saying goes, ‘Ferenj na lij yenegerutin yamnal – roughly translated, ‘The white man and the child believe all they are told.’ Abyssinians still do not admit the reality about the origin of the Nile water. They also fail to mention that 50% of the White Nile arises from Ethiopia’s Black Nile, and that 100% of the Juba, Somalia’s big river, comes from Ethiopia.

It is striking, to say the least, many people neglect to properly acknowledge Ethiopian rivers apart from the Abay River and the White Nile. As a result, there is little known information regarding how the utilization of the many key Ethiopian rivers could address the chronic food security issues in Ethiopia.

Ethiopia has many big rivers, eleven lakes, nine saline lakes, four crater lakes and over twelve major swamps. Almost all of the rivers flow from highlands of Ethiopia to the lowland neighboring countries. The true equation for the analysis and understanding of these rivers can be depicted easily by describing the courses of the main rivers one by one. The mapping and presentation of these river basins are crude and subject to major errors.


 River Basins in Oromia/Ethiopia (Map Source: Ministry of Water Resources – Ethiopia).

Tekeze, Abbay Mormor and Baro-Akobo Openu make up the Nile River Basin in Ethiopia. The Tekeze River meets the Great Nile River in the Sudan; the Mormor River makes up the “Blue” Nile drainage system in Ethiopia; and the Openu River system contributes to the White Nile River by joining it in South Sudan.

Eighteen Ethiopian rivers flow to the Sudan and cross the border at six different places: three of them being big perennial rivers from southern Ethiopia while the other three are seasonal rivers of the north. Also, four rivers from the Arsi-Bale highlands flow toward Somalia in different directions; three of them merging at the Ethio-Somali border to form the Juba River. The Omo River flows from the southwest highlands of Jimma to Kenya and forms Lake Turkana, the biggest desert lake in the world. The Awash River ends up in Lake Abbe at the Ethio-Djibouti border.

Unlike what is traditional claimed, major Ethiopian rivers do not originate from the arid Semien highlands of Abyssinia or from the desert lowlands of Afar or Ogaden. Instead, Ethiopia’s primary water sources are formed from the streams and lakes of the country’s rainforest regions. Rivers that arise from the northern arid highlands of Amhara and Tigray regions do flow westwards in the direction of Sudan. Those rivers that arise from the west side of the Rift Valley in Arsi, Bale, Chercher and Gara-Mulata mountains flow towards Somalia. Those originating from Tulama (Shoa) and from the Rift Valley area flow towards Djibouti, whereas numerous others originating from the tropical rainforest highlands of southwestern Ethiopia flow in three directions: to the Blue Nile, to the Black Nile and to the Omo River.

If we look closely at Ethiopia’s internal drainage systems, we can easily deduce a number of fundamental political realities. Before the creation of Ethiopia in the late 19th century, Abyssinians and some explorers considered Abay to be both the source of, and a major contributor to, the Nile River. This notion persisted even after the formation of contemporary Ethiopia. The problem remains that Abyssinians present Abay as equivalent to the Blue Nile and, by implication, mistakenly consider all Ethiopian rivers flowing into the Nile as tributaries of Abay. This leads them to the wrong assumption that the Blue Nile is nothing without Abay when, in fact, the opposite is true.

The rhetoric of Abyssinian rulers has always been a false representation of the county as a whole, and its rivers in particular, with the aim of promoting the skewed political dichotomy between Abyssinia and the rest of Ethiopia. It is to be remembered that Abyssinians have managed to present terrorist-like shifta rulers Tewodros, Yohannes and Menelik as noble leaders in Ethiopian history.

Abay, a tributary of the Blue Nile, originates from Lake Tana. Lakes are reservoirs, and they discharge an amount of the river proportional to intakes coming from inflowing streams, rivers and precipitations. As such, Abay cannot have greater contribution than the White Nile, which arises from the tropical rainforest area of Lake Victoria.

To understand the dynamics of the Nile River, one needs to raise the following question: if Ethiopia accounts for 86% of the Nile River, and the Abay River contributes only 6% of the river water, where does the remaining 80% come from, and why are other Ethiopian rivers only mentioned as small-scale contributors to Abay? The answer? Most of the contributing rivers come from Oromia and other subjugated Southern regions of Ethiopia.

The Blue Nile or Mormor River

A lot has been said about the Blue Nile from the Abyssinian perspective, focusing mainly on the fact that Abay originates from Lake Tana. However, non-Abyssinian Ethiopian perspectives of the river are different and can be summarized as follows. The Blue Nile drains about sixteen rivers before crossing the border into the Sudan. It is the combination of these rivers that, eventually, forms the Blue Nile, or the Mormor River. Though the river is referred to as blue, it is actually black in color due to the heavy black silt it carries. “Blue” comes from local Sudanese language that uses blue and black interchangeably. As described below, Oromian rivers contribute the biggest share of the Blue Nile water, and the Blue Nile brings the lion’s share of the Nile River. Below are the sixteen rivers that form the Blue Nile with their approximate courses and estimated water contributions.


Figure: The “Blue” Nile River Basin (The Mormor River Basin) (Modified to show Oromian rivers from the original Source)

– Abay originates from the historical Lake Tana. The lake receives three seasonal-type smaller streams: Megech, Ribb and Gumara – from the adjacent Gondar area, and discharges one small and one medium-sized river, called the Little Abay River and the Abay River, respectively. The Little Abay empties into springs of Sakala in Gojjam, and the proper Abay forms the upper course of the Blue Nile River. It contributes about 6% of the Blue Nile water.

– Bashilo drains smaller streams and rivers of the Wallo region, and its tributaries include the Tirgiya, Checheho and the Walano rivers. The confluence of the two rivers, Abay and Bashilo, at the gorge some 30km down from Lake Tana forms the upper course of the Blue Nile. Conventionally, the true source of a river is considered to be whichever tributary is farthest from the mouth. Because it is unclear if the longest river is Abay or Bashilo, it is disputed which river is the true source of the Blue Nile. Like Abay, Bashilo flows in deep canyons and contributes about 4% of the Nile.

– Beto is a small river that drains rivers from the Wallo-Tullama area, like the Kalaka River. It joins the Blue Nile some 40km down the Abay-Bashilo confluence and contributes about 3% of the Nile.

– Jamaa drains the Wanchet and Salale areas and passes close to Fiche town to merge with the Blue Nile. There is an old Portuguese bridge on this river. Jamaa contributes 5% of the Nile.

– Muger is a river that drains streams from Ambo area and receives Labu River as a tributary. It passes alongside the Muger cement factory and contributes 3% of the Nile.

– Gudar drains Gudar area rivers like Dabissa and Taranta, and contributes 3.5% of the Nile.

– Fincha’a is small tributary that originates from Fincha’a Lake. It passes beside the Fincha’a Sugar Factory and contributes 1% of the Nile.

 Dhedhessa is a great river that originates from the tropical rainforest mountains of Gomma and Guma area, where Gabba and Gojeb rivers come from, and drains big rivers of the Jimma, Illubabor and Wallagga areas. Its tributaries include Doggaja, Malka-hidda, Enareya, Dabana, Alet, Wama, and the Angar rivers; it merges with the Blue Nile downstream of the river. Tributaries of the Anger include the Wajja, Alata, and Ukke rivers. The size of the river Dhedhessa at its mouth is comparable to that of the Baro River, and it constitutes about 13% of the Nile. The historical Oromo name of the river that flows from Wallagga areas to the Sudan is called Mormor, and it is this river that actually forms the core of the Blue Nile.

– Dabus, also called the Yabus River, originates from the West Wallagga area and drains rivers and swamps from the western part of the Benishangul-Gumuz region to merge with the Blue Nile just before it crosses the border to the Sudan. This river contributes about 6% of the Nile’s water.

– Temcha, Birr and Fattom are rivers originating from the southern part of Gojjam and they merge, separately, one after the other, with the Blue Nile in the middle of its course, and they each contribute 1% of the Nile, together 3%.

– Dura originates from the Wambara area and contributes about 1% of the Nile.

– Beles is a medium-sized river that originates in Dangur woreda in the Dangur range of mountains in the Metekel and Wembera area to merge with the Blue Nile just at the border of the Sudan. It contributes about 3% of the Nile.

– Dinder drains streams and mainly rainfall floods west of Lake Tana in the Semien Gonder zone, in Alefa woreda. It has a short course within Ethiopia. It contributes about 2.5% of the Blue Nile after the river passes Rosiers and Sennar dams around 130kms from Ethio-Sudan border. It is a seasonal river that dries up during dry seasons.

– Rahad, like the river Dinder, is a seasonal river that drains streams and mainly rainy season arid highlands floods of western Gondar. Rahad is its Sudanese name and the river has no properly recognized name in Ethiopia. Like Dinder, the river does not form part of the proper Blue Nile as it does not meet the river within Ethiopian border, but joins the Blue Nile before the confluence of the White and the Blue Niles at Khartoum. The river passes Rosiers and Sennar dams 150kms from Ethio-Sudan border and contributes about 2% to the Nile. Like Dinder, it dries up at lower course during dry seasons.

The interesting point here is that it is the amalgamations of all the sixteen rivers that form the proper Blue Nile that contribute 52% of the Nile. Also, it is with the addition of the Black Nile (Barya or Baro River) that Ethiopian rivers’ share of the Nile becomes 86%. This means that, despite the little and yet disguised acknowledgment given to Ethiopian rivers by the national authorities, the facts on the ground confirm that Oromian rivers alone contribute about 80% of the Black Nile and 60% of the Blue Nile. In other words, Oromian rivers contribute about 60% of the 86% of the Ethiopian water share of the Nile River. Overall, this accounts for approximately 50% of the Nile River water. Unfortunately, this fact is played down rather than admitted. For example, the creators of the IMAX film “Mystery of the Nile” were remiss in showing the spectacular scenes created by the confluence of the great Blue Nile tributaries.

For the most part, the Blue Nile forms the boundary between Gojjam and Wallagga. As a result, it has different names at different places. Habeshas confusingly call one of the tributaries of the Blue Nile, Abay, and the Blue Nile itself by same name, while some Oromos call it Abbayyaa. The true historical name of the river that includes all the tributaries is Mormor, named during the historical Gadaa Mormor of Ethiopia. The river gets the name Mormor specifically at or after the great confluence of Dhedhessa with upstream rivers.

It should be noted here that, despite the Abyssinian political invention of a 16th century “Galla Migration,” the Oromo are one of the indigenous Cushitic people of Africa who originally settled alongside the Nile River. On the other hand, the Abyssinian false presentation of the Abay River as one and the same with the Blue Nile, and the interchangeable use of the same word for two distinct entities, is analogous with the Abyssinia-Ethiopia political confusion. It is not appropriate to say it, but their claim feels as if the Blue Nile will not exist if, for example, the shallow Lake Tana dries up in 20 to 25 years time period.

 Tekeze or Setit River

It is a northern river that originates from Ras Dejen Mountain in Gondar and drains streams from the arid Semien Massif Mountains. The tributaries of Tekeze include Balagas, Wari and Shinfa rivers. The river continues towards the Tigray region, where it is called Tekeze and then Setit when it reaches the Humera area. Two other rivers of Begemdir, the Angereb and Atbara rivers, merge with Tekeze inside the Sudan to form the river Atbara. Then, this river passes through Kassala, the Sudan, and flows in a northwest direction to merge, only during flood season, with the great Nile river on its way downstream of Khartoum, Sudan.

Tekeze River is totally outside the proper Blue Nile drainage system. Compared to the major Ethiopian rivers, such as Dhedhessa, Gabba and Gibe, Tekeze is a small river, but, politically, as strong as the TPLF, with the capacity to drag Ethiopia into a major war. Though it is a perennial river, the amount of water discharged by the river fluctuates significantly during short rainy and long dry seasons. During short flood time, the river discharges a considerable amount of water like the Dachatu River of Dire-Dawa. During the long dry season, however, it ends up in the Sudanese desert before reaching the Egyptian Nile. On average, it contributes about 3% to the Nile. It is on this river that the highly political and most expensive Tekeze Dam had been constructed. However, the small amount of the yearly flow of this water, high seepage rate and other reasons put the effective formation of the large lake to serve the dam’s purpose in doubt.

Black Nile or Barya or Shankila or Baro River

This river is one of the biggest rivers that contribute a large quantity of water to the Nile. The river originates from the tropical rainforest mountain regions of Ethiopia, and drains numerous streams and many rivers of the Illubabor, Wallagga, Benishangul-Gumuz, Gambella and South Sudan regions. Little is mentioned or known about the drainage areas of this great river, as Robert O. Collins admitted in his book entitled “The Nile.” The main contributories are Gabba, Sor and Birbir. The confluence of these rivers, a few miles away from the town of Gore, forms the Black Nile, a name which is derived from the black silt in the river. Geographically, the Black Nile flows hundreds of kilometers apart from the Blue Nile. After Gore, it flows to the direction of Gambella. Downstream, it receives another great river called the Pibor River as a tributary, which is itself formed by the confluence of the Gilo, Jikawo, Akoba and Veveno rivers from Gambella and South Sudan areas. Finally, it merges with a proportional amount of the Equatorial River coming from the Sudd region in the upper part of South Sudan to jointly form the White Nile.

– Gabba is a considerably great river – the same size as the Gibe River. It originates from the dense tropical, nine-month rainforest highlands of Sigmo woreda of the Jimma zone bordering Illubabor – more specifically, at the center of the Mocha-Sigmo-Gabba forest area. Eighty percent of these areas are covered by forests and swamps.

– Sor is a big river, with a size comparable to that of Gabba. It originates from Sayo woreda in the West Wallagga zone and passes 5km below the town of Mattu, forming the spectacular Sor Falls 18km from Mattu in a place called Bacho, then making a great confluence with the Gabba River a few kilometers away from Gore.

– Birbir originates from the Benishangul-Gumuz area, drains most rivers of Wallagga and Illubabor, and then meets with the Gabba and Sor rivers before reaching Gambella to form Openu River, or the Black Nile. The size of the river is bigger than northern rivers. Its course defines part of the boundary between the West Wellega and Illubabor Zones of the Oromia Region.

– Pibor is formed by various streams that come together at Pibor post. The Pibor, Baro, Gilo, and Akobo rivers all drain the Ethiopian highlands. The Baro River is by far the largest, contributing 83% of the total water flowing into the Sobat River.

The Black Nile has different native names at different points along its course. The Oromos call it Nanno River, whereas the Anuak call it Openu River. The Abyssinians, however, call it by the derogatory names of BaryaShankila or Baro River. The Black Nile contributes about 14% of the Nile after it loses a certain amount of its water and its silts in the hot swampy Gambella woreda of the Machar Marshes. The great crimes committed against the Black Nile are three fold: firstly, the river and its tributaries are not well acknowledged by the Abyssinian rulers, almost as if they were non-Ethiopian rivers; secondly, it has been given derogatory terms; and thirdly, despite its proportional amount of water contribution to the White Nile, it is considered, like the Blue Nile tributaries, as simply a tributary of the White Nile.

The White Nile has numerous streams and rivers in Brundi, Ruwanda Congo, Zaire, Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya. It contributes water to the great Lakes of Victoria, Kivu, Edwards, Albert and Kyoga and then flows to a vast swampy region, where it loses much of the water to evaporation. The purified water coming out of the Sudd forms the upper While Nile that contributes fourteen percent of the Nile. Had it not been for the lakes, reservoirs and huge evaporation loss in the vast Sudd swamps, the contribution of the rivers from this region to the While Nile would have been more than double in quantity.

– Ethiopia is a water-rich country, but lacks a clear and accurate usage policy. Its inaccurate policy emanates from deep-rooted internal political subjugation and obfuscation of the country, including its rivers. Especially neglected are Oromian rivers that contribute the lion’s share of most rivers in Ethiopia: the Blue Nile, Black Nile, Omo, Hawas and Juba. Yet, the main policy issue that has preoccupied successive Ethiopian regimes is whether to give priority to the development of relatively small desert Abyssinian highlands’ rivers at a high cost with low expected productivity, or to the development of big forest non-Abyssinian highlands’ rivers of the South at a much higher rate of return. To survive as a self-sustaining country, Ethiopian leaders need to admit the facts on the ground, tell the truth and develop all rivers according to their economic importance. They need to set the clear objective of meeting food security issues and addressing population growth challenges, rather than boasting about only Abyssinian rivers to maintain the political interests of one ethnic group. Therefore, pushing the country into a potentially devastating war to safeguard Abyssinian rivers in the name of Ethiopia is reminiscent of the unnecessary TPLF-EPLF war over the Badme desert. This unacceptable policy should be denounced and objected by all Ethiopians.

– Studies do show that food security projects can be more successful in the Black Nile, Mormor, Juba, Omo, Awash and Shebele basins than they can in the Dinder, Rahad and Tekeze basins. Therefore, the Ethiopian government should stop beating the war drum, come out of its regionalist mentality of the Abyssinian vs. non-Abyssinian Ethiopia dichotomy. The government should direct proper attention to ascertaining equitable sharing and development of these rivers through policy cooperation.


Figure: Dhedhesa River as one of the major sources of “Blue” Nile River

The false political description of the Abay River as the major contributor of the Blue Nile needs to be corrected. Also, if the source of the river is determined by whichever tributary of the Blue Nile is farthest from the mouth, and not by the number of monasteries, the reality needs to be verified and the credit for the true source of the Blue Nile should go to the Bashilo River instead of Lake Tana.

– As a true source of the three big rivers of Ethiopia (Dhedhessa, Gabba and Gojab), the 80% forest and swampy Sigmo woreda deserves to be named the true “source of Ethiopian rivers” and “The Water Tower of East Africa,” and designated as a destination of tourists and scientific researchers.

– The fact that all the big rivers of Wallagga, Illubabor, Western Jimma, Benishangul and Gambella regions do contribute the lion’s share of the Nile River should be acknowledged and made known to students and people of those regions.

– It is imperative to call our rivers by their true names. First, confusing the names of the tributaries of Blue Nile with the proper Blue Nile should be corrected. Secondly, instead of borrowing the Sudanese word and calling a black river “blue,” it is better to use the original Ethiopian name of “Mormor River” for the Blue Nile.

– Calling the Black Nile names like BaryaShankila or Baro River should be stopped without any precondition and be renamed officially by its true lower stream name, Openu. It should be noted as a proper Ethiopian river, but not as negligible tributary of the equatorial White Nile.

– The fact that the Tekeze River travels in arid mountains of the North makes the river very important for that region. It would have been wise to spend the country’s scarce resources on the construction of three or four dams elsewhere rather than spending all that money in an ineffective dam that contributes little in alleviating the country’s chronic food insecurity.

Finally, the now likely creation of an independent, Christian, South Sudan would have many similarities with the creation the then State of Christian Island Abyssinia that latter transformed into Ethiopia. In the long run, the ramifications of this political action will have immense impact on the politics of the Horn, and will intensify an already complex quarrel over the dwindling water resources of the Nile. Sudan may need to exercise caution not to share the catastrophic fate of Somalia, especially if Al-Bashir adopts the controversial Islamic law as the main source of legislation.

Some books and few learned individuals seldom mention Abyssinian rulers’ historical concern over the utilization of Nile tributaries, and the Egyptians counter involvement in supporting opposition and adversaries to destabilize Ethiopia. For example, during the Badme war, better known as TPLF-EPLF war, Egypt was accused of supporting Eritrea. TPLF supporters considered retaliating against Egypt by either diverting or poisoning the water, or by bombing the Aswan Dam that would cause an Egyptian tsunami. It is, however, strongly advisable to refrain from considering such a terrorizing alternative and focus on real policy cooperation.

* The writer, Tuji Jidda, can be reached at