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.

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