The drainage basin of the Nile covers 3,254,555 square kilometres (1,256,591 sq mi), about 10% of the area of Africa. There are two great tributaries of the Nile, joining at Khartoum: the White Nile, starting in equatorial East Africa, and the Blue Nile, beginning in Ethiopia. Both branches are on the western flanks of the East African Rift, the southern part of the Great Rift Valley. Below the Blue and White Nile confluence the only remaining major tributary is the Atbara River, which originates in Ethiopia north of Lake Tana, and is around 800 kilometres (500 mi) long. It flows only while there is rain in Ethiopia and dries very fast. It joins the Nile approximately 300 kilometres (200 mi) north of Khartoum. The Nile is unusual in that its last tributary (the Atbara) joins it roughly halfway to the sea. From that point north, the Nile diminishes because of evaporation. The course of the Nile in Sudan is distinctive. It flows over 6 groups of cataracts, from the first at Aswan to the sixth at Sabaloka (just north of Khartoum) and then turns to flow southward for a good portion of its course, before again returning to flow north to the sea. This is called the “Great Bend of the Nile.” North of Cairo, the Nile splits into two branches (or distributaries) that feed the Mediterranean: the Rosetta Branch to the west and the Damietta to the east, forming the Nile Delta.
The White Nile
The source of the Nile is sometimes considered to be Lake Victoria, but the lake itself has feeder rivers of considerable size. The most distant stream—and thus the ultimate source of the Nile—emerges from Nyungwe Forest in Rwanda, via the Rukarara, Mwogo, Nyabarongo and Kagera rivers, before flowing into Lake Victoria in Tanzania near the town of Bukoba. The Nile leaves Lake Victoria at Ripon Falls near Jinja, Uganda, as the Victoria Nile. It flows for approximately 500 kilometres (300 mi) farther, through Lake Kyoga, until it reaches Lake Albert. After leaving Lake Albert, the river is known as the Albert Nile. It then flows into Sudan, where it becomes known as the Bahr al Jabal (“River of the Mountain”). The Bahr al Ghazal, itself 716 kilometres (445 mi) long, joins the Bahr al Jabal at a small lagoon called Lake No, after which the Nile becomes known as the Bahr al Abyad, or the White Nile, from the whitish clay suspended in its waters. When the Nile flooded it left this rich material named silt. The Ancient Egyptians used this soil to farm. From Lake No, the river flows to Khartoum. An anabranch river called Bahr el Zeraf flows out of the Nile’s Bahr al Jabal section and rejoins the White Nile. The term “White Nile” is used in both a general sense, referring to the entire river above Khartoum, and a limited sense, the section between Lake No and Khartoum. The Blue Nile springs from Lake Tana in the Ethiopian Highlands.
The Blue Nile
The Blue Nile flows about 1,400 kilometres (870 mi) to Khartoum, where the Blue Nile and White Nile join to form the “Nile proper”. 90% of the water and 96% of the transported sediment carried by the Nile originates in Ethiopia, with 59% of the water from the Blue Nile alone (the rest being from the Tekezé, Atbarah, Sobat, and small tributaries). The erosion and transportation of silt only occurs during the Ethiopian rainy season in the summer, however, when rainfall is especially high on the Ethiopian Plateau; the rest of the year, the great rivers draining Ethiopia into the Nile (Sobat, Blue Nile, Tekezé, and Atbarah) flow weakly.