Day Zero – A Water Warning

By Stephanie Sheng for No Water No Life (NWNL)
Edited by NWNL Director, Alison Jones

Stephanie Sheng is a passionate strategist for environmental and cultural conservation. Having worked in private and commercial sectors, she now uses her branding and communications expertise to drive behavior change that will help protect our natural resources. Inspired by conservation photographers, The Part We Play is her current project.  Her goal is to find how best to engage people and encourage them to take action. 


I was horrified when I first heard the news from South Africa of Cape Town’s water crisis and impending ‘Day Zero’ – the day their taps would run dry. Originally forecasted for April 16, then pushed out to May, the apocalyptic-sounding day has now successfully been pushed out to next year. Had Day Zero remained slated for April or May, Cape Town would have been the first major city to run out of water. Although postponed, the threat still remains, and thus restrictions on water usage to 13.2 gallons (50 liters) per day for residents and visitors. Water rationing and a newly-heightened awareness around water use is now the new, legally-enforced normal in Cape Town.

Two things struck me as I read about this situation. First, the seemingly unthinkable felt very close. My visit to Cape Town a few years ago reminded me of San Francisco, my home before New York. Suddenly I was reading that this seemingly-similar city was on the brink of having no water coming out of their taps. As that hit me, I considered what modern, urban life would be like when water is scarce.

ClimateChange-ColumbiaBC.jpgCape Town’s restriction of 13.2 gal (50 L) per day is miniscule in comparison to the 39.6 gal (150 L) per day used by the average UK consumer[1] and the 79.3 to 99 gal (300 to 375 L) per day used by the average US consumer.[2] Unsurprisingly, Cape Town had to undergo drastic changes. It is now illegal to wash a car or fill a swimming pool. Hotel televisions blare messages to guests to take short 90-second showers. Washroom taps are shut off in restaurants and bars. Signs around bathroom stalls say, “If it’s yellow, let it mellow.” Hand sanitizer is now the normal method of hand cleaning.WASH-Tanzania.jpgShocked by the harsh realities of what water shortage could look like here at home, I was inspired to walk through my day comparing my water habits to the new realities being faced by those in the Cape Town facing a severe crisis. I wanted to discover opportunities where I could cut back, even though I consider myself on the more conscious end of the usage spectrum.

Here is a breakdown of my average water usage per day while living and working in NY, based on faucets spewing 2.6 gal (10 L) per minute[3], and a toilet flush using 2.3 gal (9L).[4]

  • Faucet use for brushing teeth and washing face for 4 min/day: 6 gal (40L)
  • Faucet use for dish washing and rinsing food for 7 min/day:5 gal (70L)
  • Toilet flushes, 4/day: 5 gal (36 L)
  • Drinking water: 4 gal (1.5 L)
  • Showering for 9 min/day — 8 gal (90 L)

My water usage totaled roughly 62.8 gal (237.5 L) per day. That is lower than the average American’s usage, but still more than four times the new water rations for Capetonians!


Living in an urban city that isn’t facing an impending water shortage, it may be more difficult to control certain uses than others (e.g. not flushing the toilet at work). However, there are some simple, yet significant ways to lower our daily water use:

  • Turn off the faucet while you brush your teeth and wash your face.
  • Use the dishwasher instead of washing dishes by hand. Only run it when full.
  • Only run the laundry with full loads.
  • When showering, shut off the water while you soap up and shave. Put a time in your shower to remind you not to linger.
  • Recycle water when possible. If you need to wait for hot water from the faucet, capture the cold water and use it for pets, plants, hand washing clothes, and such.


Water use discussed thus far includes obvious personal contributors to our water footprint. But the biggest contributor is actually our diet. Agriculture accounts for roughly 80% of the world’s freshwater consumption[5]. Different foods vary greatly in the amount of water consumed in their growth and production. Meat, especially from livestock with long life cycles, contains a high “virtural water” content per serving. For example, 792.5 gal (3,000 L) of water are required for a ⅓ lb. beef burger[6] – representing four times as much water as required for the same amount of chicken. That virtual water content ratio is even greater when red meat is compared to vegetables.

We don’t have to become vegetarians, but we can cut down on meat and choose meats other than beef and lamb. That change alone would save hundreds of thousands of gallons (or liters) consumed in a year, which is much greater than the 18,069.4 gal (68,400 L) I’d save by reducing my current water usage to that of a Capetonian. Consideration of virtual water content offers some food for thought!


[1] BBC News
[2] United States Geological Survey
[3] US Green Building Council: Water Reduction Use
[4] US Green Building Council: Water Reduction Use
[5] Food Matters Environment Reports
[6] National Geographic
All images/”hydrographics” are © Alison Jones, No Water No Life®.
For more “hydrographics” visit our

The Great Giver: The Nile River

By Joannah Otis for No Water No Life (NWNL)

This is the 9th and final blog in the NWNL series on the Nile River in Egypt by NWNL Researcher Joannah Otis, a sophomore at Georgetown University. This essay addresses the human uses of the Nile River.  [NWNL expeditions have covered the Upper Nile, but due to current challenges for US photojournalists in Egypt and Sudan, NWNL is using literary and online resources to investigate the Lower Nile.]

The Nile River was vital to the lives and livelihoods of Ancient Egyptians and continues to play a significant role in modern Egyptian life. Egypt, as well as other countries in the Nile River Basin, rely entirely on this great river for fresh water. This reliance places great pressure on the river, especially Egypt’s extraction of the maximum amount of water it can according to international treaties.From aquaculture and fishing to drinking water and transport, Egypt uses the Nile for a wide variety of purposes. The Nile River also has considerable economic value since the Egyptian agriculture relies heavily on the Nile’s water. The human uses and values of the Nile River reflect its importance to the people who live along it.

Illustration of a shaduf

A large portion of the water drawn from the Nile is for agriculture, a source of income for about 55% of the Egyptian population.2 In Ancient Egypt, farmers used a water-lifting device known as a “shaduf,” used to collect and disseminate water. This technology, developed around 1500 BCE, allowed farmers to irrigate their fields even during dry spells. It was so effective that the acreage of cultivable land expanded by 10-15%. Today, farmers use electric pumps and canals to transport water to their fields.3

Fish are a staple of the Egyptian diet and the fishing industry has thrived accordingly. However, unfortunately, overexploitation and high fishing pressures have stressed the natural fish populations. The river’s carrying capacity has been stretched to its limit and struggles to support the stocked fish. Such high stocking levels can result in poor water quality and an altered ecosystem.  To increase fish production, exotic species have been introduced to the Nile, but they have caused an imbalanced ecosystem and threatened native species. Illegal fishing continues to be a concern as well.4 

Compared to today, commercial fishing was of relative unimportance to the Ancient Egyptians. Although fish not consumed by the catcher were often sold for profit, trade of luxury goods and produce was a much more significant source of revenue. Nubia in particular was an important trading point as it provided ivory, slaves, incense, and gold, the riches that pharaohs and high society prized. Wadi al-Jarf was also a bustling trading town along the river. Since the Nile River flows to the north, boats could easily float downstream with their wares. At the same time, reliable southerly winds allowed vessels to sail upstream.5

Tile illustrating a fish in a canal c. 1279-1213 BCE Lower Egypt

For millions of years, the Nile River has continued steadily along its northward course. For thousands of years, it has given its people livelihoods and a precious source of water. Although excessive irrigation and overexploitation of fish threaten its flow, the Nile remains resilient. With proper care and environmental attention, the Nile can continue to thrive for years to come.


Turnbull, March. “Africa’s Mighty Dribble.” Africa Geographic. April 2005.
2 El-Nahrawy, Mohamed, A. “Country Pasture/Forage Resource Profile: Egypt.” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. 2011. Web.
Postel, Sandra. “Egypt’s Nile Valley Basin Irrigation.” 1999. Web.
4 “The Environmental Resources of the Nile Basin.” p 57-98. Web.
The ancient Egyptian economy.” The Saylor Foundation. Web.
All photos used based on fair use of Creative Commons and Public Domain.

Water Issues Along Egypt’s Nile River

By Joannah Otis for No Water No Life

This is the 8th blog in our series on the Nile River in Egypt by NWNL Researcher Joannah Otis, sophomore at Georgetown University. This essay addresses some of today’s most pressing water issues in the Nile River Basin. [NWNL expeditions have covered the Upper Nile, but due to current challenges for US photojournalists in Egypt and Sudan, NWNL is using literary and online resources to investigate the Lower Nile.]

Over the past few years, water shortages, river pollution and saltwater intrusion have increasingly plagued Egypt. These issues are exacerbated by a population that’s grown by 41% since the early 1990’s.  In the next 50 years, the population is expected to double, yet Egypt has a very limited water supply. Egypt receives only 80 millimeters of rain per year, and so the Nile River provides 97% of its freshwater. This increasingly industrialized nation also faces a profusion of pollution in the Nile River coming from chemical runoff and industrial waste.1 As well, the Nile River Delta is experiencing saltwater intrusion due to its sinking northern corners.2 These three issues – among others – demand changes if Egypt and its Nile River are to continue to be healthy, functioning entities.

13_Nile_River_in_AswanThe Nile River near Aswan. Attribution: Sherif Ali Yousef

With one of the world’s lowest per capita water shares, Egypt barely meets its water needs today – and yet it also needs to prepare for millions of additional people in coming years. Only 6% of Egypt is arable agricultural land, with the rest being desert.  Inefficient water irrigation, uneven water distribution, and misuse of water resources have all contributed to Egypt’s current dire situation.The country faces a yearly water deficit of about 7 billion cubic meters. Its water comes from nonrenewable aquifers, meaning they cannot be recharged or reused once they are dry.

Despite these pressures, many farmers use an unproportionate amount of water by continuing to employ outdated and inefficient irrigation techniques. One of these is “basin irrigation,” where entire fields are flooded with water that evaporates or is later drained off. Ancient Egyptians used the same practice to water their crops, but then the population was much lower and as a result, water was more plentiful. The approximately 18,000 miles of canals supplying today’s farmers also contribute to water waste, because evaporation in the canals absorbs about 3 billion cubic meters of Nile River water per year.4

Env_contamination1.ifThe Pesticide Runoff Process
Attribution: Roy Bateman

Water pollution is particularly significant in the Nile River Delta where factories and industrial plants have sprung up. These companies often drain dangerous chemicals and hazardous materials into the river, causing fish and other aquatic wildlife to suffer. A large number of fish deaths, due to high levels of lead and ammonia, has been reported. Bacteria and metals in the water are particularly harmful. The agriculture sector also contributes to water pollution via pesticide and herbicide runoff.5 This toxic combination of pollutants has been known to cause liver disease and renal failure in humans.6

Saltwater intrusion is another large concern for the Nile River Delta, which is slowly sinking at a rate of 8 millimeters per year. This is an alarming amount since the Mediterranean Sea is rising about 3 millimeters per year and the Delta plain is only one meter above sea level. Although only the northern third of the delta is affected, saltwater intrusion could spell disaster for area crops if they do not adapt to soil with a high salinity.7  Further crop threats come from the lack of silt filtering downriver. This silt once provided enough nutrients to the fields that farmers did not have to apply synthetic fertilizers. With the construction of the Aswan High Dam, however, silt was blocked upstream and the Nile Delta suffers as a result.8

egypt_tmo_2014290_lrgAerial view of the Nile River Delta

The Nile River Basin is facing a plethora of largely human-driven issues from pollution to water overuse. In order to preserve the Nile River and its people, various steps are needed to protect its environs. Solutions include passing legislation to prevent industries from dumping hazardous waste, building more sewage treatment plants, and transferring silt downstream as natural fertilizer. Action is needed to save Egypt’s famous Nile, and it needs to be done with haste.


1 Dakkak, Amir. “Egypt’s Water Crisis – Recipe for Disaster.” EcoMENA. 22 July 2017. Web.
2 Theroux, Peter. “The Imperiled.” National Geographic Magazine. January 1997.
3 Kuo, Lily. “The Nile River Delta, once the bread basket of the world, may soon be uninhabitable.” Quartz Africa. 16 March 2017. Web.
4 Dakkak, Amir. “Egypt’s Water Crisis – Recipe for Disaster.” EcoMENA. 22 July 2017. Web.
5 Dakkak, Amir. “Egypt’s Water Crisis – Recipe for Disaster.” EcoMENA. 22 July 2017. Web.
6 Theroux, Peter. “The Imperiled.” National Geographic Magazine. January 1997.
7 Kuo, Lily. “The Nile River Delta, once the bread basket of the world, may soon be uninhabitable.” Quartz Africa. 16 March 2017. Web.
8World Wildlife Foundation. “Nile Delta flooded savanna.” October 3, 2017. Web.