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.

Egyptian Irrigation Technology Through the Ages

By Joannah Otis, for No Water No Life (NWNL)

This is the 7th blog in the NWNL series on the Nile River in Egypt by NWNL Researcher Joannah Otis, a sophomore at Georgetown University. This essay addresses irrigation techniques used along the Nile River. [NWNL has completed documentary expeditions to the White and Blue Nile Rivers, but due to current challenges for photojournalists visiting Egypt and Sudan, NWNL is using literary and online resources to investigate the availability, quality and usage of the main stem of the Nile.]

For millennia, the Nile River has been vital to the livelihoods and lives of the Egyptian people. From agriculture and livestock to drinking and cleaning, Egypt relies on the Nile for almost all of its freshwater needs.1 Given the importance of this river, it has been necessary for the people living on its banks to understand and control its power. This necessity has manifested in the development and construction of technology designed to maximize agricultural outputs, both in present day Egypt and in Ancient Egypt.

800px-LevelBasinFloodIrrigationModern Basin Irrigation
Attribution: Jeff Vanuga

Beginning in 3000 BCE, irrigation systems became commonplace along the Nile River.Large, flat-bottomed basins and a series of canals were built to irrigate fields. Water was allowed to flow through the manmade ditches by way of simple gates. During the flooding season, water was directed onto the fields so the rich silt carried by the river’s flow could be adequately deposited. Flood water generally laid on the fields for forty to sixty days until is was drained off and sent on its way towards the Mediterranean.3 The earliest depiction of basin irrigation, and therefore the earliest evidence of it, dates from 3,100 BCE in a stone relief that shows one of the final predynastic kings digging a ditch in a grid network with a hoe. Today, one can still see canals snaking along the flanks of the Nile as farmers continue to utilize ancient irrigation techniques.4

Kairo_Nilometer_BW_1Cairo Nilometer
Attribution: Berthold Werner

In an attempt to regulate water distribution and calculate crop taxes, the Ancient Egyptians developed a structure known as the nilometer to measure flood waters. This stone well accessed via limestone steps was engraved with marks that officials used to determine taxation. Two of the best preserved nilometers are located in Cairo and on Elephantine Island at Aswan, although about two dozen have been found in total. The Cairo nilometer is composed of a large pit extending below the Nile’s water level with three tunnels connecting it to the river. Forty-five steps lead down to the well to allow for easy reading, which was determined by marks on a marble octagonal column with a corinthian capital in the center of the structure. Water levels were consistently recorded at this nilometer between 622 CE and 1845 CE.5 The Elephantine Island nilometer was also actively used to record water levels and was likely part of a temple complex dedicated to Hapi, the God of Nile flooding.6 Today, water distribution is regulated by the Aswan High Dam, which was officially opened in 1971.7

Elephantine Island Nilometer
Attribution: Olaf Tausch

The Nile River has been the lifeline of Egypt for thousands of years. In spite of modern technology and irrigation developments, it continues to have a life of its own. Just as the Ancient Egyptians worshipped its powers, so should we respect its ecosystems and natural tendencies because the success of the Nile River Basin is contingent on the health of the mighty Nile River.


1 Holmes, Martha; Maxwell, Gavin; Scoones, Tim. Nile. BBC Books. 2004.
“Nile River.” The Ancient Near East: An Encyclopedia for Students, edited by Ronald Wallenfels and Jack M. Sasson, vol. 3, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2000, pp. 137-138. World History in Context.
“Ancient Irrigation.” University of California Davis. 1999. Web. Accessed 16 October 2017.
4 Postel, Sandra. “Egypt’s Nile Valley Basin Irrigation.” 1999. Web. Accessed 16 October 2017.
5 “The Nilometer in Cairo.” Web. Accessed 16 October 2017.
6 Miller, Mark. “Ancient structure that measured the Nile for tax purposes uncovered in Egypt.” 20 May 2016. Web. Accessed 16 October 2017.
7 Caputo, Robert. “Journey up the Nile.” National Geographic. p 582. May 1985.


Behind the wheel

US: Washington, Columbia River Basin, east side of Hanford Nuclear Site, wheel controlling level of irrigation canal
US: Washington, Columbia River Basin, east side of Hanford Nuclear Site, wheel controlling level of irrigation canal

– Posted by Jasmine Graf, NWNL Associate Director

NWNL Expedition Spotlights California Drought! 

 Chasing California’s Thirst
  March 14-26, 2014 Expedition

No Water No Life will visit the Sacramento Delta from San Francisco Bay to Antioch, the Sacramento River from the Delta north to the Butte Sink region, and the San Joaquin River from the Delta south to Bakersfield to document causes, impacts and solutions of California’s drought with photography, video and stakeholder interviews.

– Increased Population and Growing Irrigation Demands with Finite Water Supplies
– Neither Consumers nor Regulators have sufficiently addressed The Value of Water

– It affects us all!  CA supplies 50% of US veggies, fruits and nuts.
– No Water – No Irrigation – No Farms – No Food – No Jobs = Economic hit for all of the US!
– CA’s Drought Solutions can help solve the global problem of  “More people – Less available clean water.”

NWNL will document causes, impacts and solutions to CA’s Drought.
How will CA move from Water Scarcity to Water Sustainability?

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Tanzania: Mara River Basin, Samson Gesase's cooperative horticultural farming scheme, farmer irrigating plants with water carried bucket by bucket from Lake Victoria
Tanzania: Mara River Basin, Samson Gesase’s cooperative horticultural farming scheme, farmer irrigating plants with water carried bucket by bucket from Lake Victoria

– Posted by Jasmine Graf, NWNL Associate Director

Mau Forest Degradation

Deforestation in the Mara River's headwaters

On September 22, 2009, Alison Jones, NWNL’s lead photographer, and Alison Fast, a NWNL videographer, had an aerial view of the headwaters of the Mara River. Flying over the Mau Forest, they documented the degradation of this “water tower,” source of 12 major rivers in Kenya. Most of these rivers feed Lake Victoria, the source of the White Nile.

Many years of settlement in this forest – legal and illegal – has resulted in farms replacing trees. This change in land use, destroying the forest’s ability to retain and gradually release water, has caused a critical decrease in year-round water supplies to millions of stakeholders throughout Kenya.

NWNL’s one-month expedition traveled the length of the Mara River from these headwaters to its Lake Victoria outlet in Tanzania. En route, NWNL examined other factors that have caused the Mara and other rivers to lose critical water flow and in some cases run dry. In addition to deforestation, commercial and small-scale farmers’ unregulated extraction of water for irrigation and a three-year drought have wrought havoc.

These drastically reduced water supplies have caused human and livestock deaths, created conflict and forced Kenyans to reevaluate their traditional lifestyles and livelihoods. The continuing effects of climate change and future droughts require sustainable solutions.

Most importantly, NWNL will report on very encouraging and bold answers now being worked on by politicians, farmers and stakeholders, as well as by local, regional and international stewardship organizations. NWNL will further describe its Mara River Basin Expedition findings in future blogs.