Small but Critical / Our Invertebrates

This blog contains several references to invertebrates in northern Kenya’s Lake Turkana Basin, the arid terminus of Ethiopia’s Omo River and world’s largest desert lake.  Within this “Cradle of Humankind,” species continually adapt, as explained in our NWNL Interview with Dino Martins, entomologist at Turkana Basin Institute.

Animal species in our watersheds quietly enhance and protect the health of our water resources.  Yet, rarely do we give our fauna – from wolves to woodpeckers – enough credit. This is especially true of our smaller invertebrate species, which include butterflies, bees, beetles, spiders, worms, starfish, crabs and mollusks.  Invertebrates span the globe in habitats ranging from streams, forests, prairies, and deserts to lakes, gardens and even glaciers. Sadly, these unsung heroes are often called “pests.”

Jones_031026_ARG_0471.jpgInvertebrate atop Perito Moreno Glacier, Argentina

Invertebrates are defined by their lack of backbone, yet ironically, they are “the backbone” of our land- and water-based ecosystems.  Comprising 95-97% of animal species, they keep our ecosystems healthy; and although spineless, they are a critical base of the food chains for many species, from fish to humans.  Fly fishermen carefully study the macro-invertebrates in their streams and rivers before choosing lures of mayflies, worms and caddisflies that appear in different stages, in different seasons, on different streams.

Invertebrates benefit our world in numerous ways:

  • pollination – of fruit, grain, and native plants
  • seed dispersal – a job shared with birds  
  • recycling of waste, nutrients and food for other species, including humans
  • production of nectar and honey as a healing resource and immunity booster
  • purification of water and the environment
  • creation of reefs by mollusks, especially oysters
  • being useful research specimens (Think of fruit flies in biology class…)

One of the most valuable contributions of invertebrates is the pollination of our orchards and fields by bees and bumblebees.  Without this, human food sources would be quickly and greatly diminished. Bees also pollinate riverine vegetation needed to retain water and prevent erosion. It is as simple as “No bees – No vegetation – No water!”  

Jones_090615_NJ_0817.jpgHoney bee pollinating spring blooms in Raritan River Basin, NJ

Ancient and contemporary Mayans have known that invertebrates are the foundation of the living world. Thus mosaics of mosquitoes, still today in Guatemala, are the symbolic woven foundations of women’s huipiles (blouses).  Worldwide, mosquitoes and macro invertebrates provide food for other invertebrates, notably juvenile fish – locally called “cradle fish” – in northern Kenya’s Lake Turkana gulfs and bays.

However, Lake Turkana fish populations have been greatly reduced recently due to overfishing and upstream Ethiopian dams.  Fortunately, the Lake Turkana invertebrate bee population’s honey production has provided a needed alternative source of calories.  Fewer fish, combined with drought-afflicted livestock and maize, have led the Turkana people to turn to bee-keeping as their new livelihood.  

Jones_130114_K_9644.jpg     Jones_130115_K_0027.jpg
Honey production by CABESI a nonprofit in Kapenguria Kenya

Author Sue Stolberger describes another oft-overlooked role of  invertebrates in her Tanzanian guidebook. She explains that many invertebrates are “expert at natural waste disposal. Beetle larvae dispose of leaf litter. Maggots, blowflies and others play a role in the disposal of carrion; and dung beetles dispose of excrement, which cleans up the excreta and fertilizes the soil.”  [Stolberger, p 197.]

In tidal estuaries, purification of water by mollusks is much cheaper route to addressing pollution than governmental SuperFund Site cleanups.  Oysters very effectively filter our rivers and bays. Today the New York-New Jersey Harbor & Estuary Program is reintroducing oysters into the Hudson and Raritan Bays to clean those waters and stabilize their shorelines and riverbanks.  [See NWNL Blog on Oyster Restoration in Raritan Bay by NY-NJ Baykeeper]

jones_050323_arg_0021.jpg
A “living wall” of oyster shells in the South Atlantic

Few people are aware of the endurance and numbers of invertebrates.  The dragonfly story is amazing. Known for accomplished gliding and crossing oceans, dragonflies form one of the world’s largest migrations.  Due to their large numbers, they’re among the most ecologically important insects and are voracious consumers of mosquitoes, worms, crustaceans and even small fish.  Kenyan entomologist Dino Martins explained to NWNL that dragonflies are also great bio-indicators of ecosystems’ health. The presence or absence of “different types of dragonflies and/or macroinvertebrates [that] tolerate different stream conditions and levels of pollution… indicates clean or polluted water.” [Utah State University]  

Jones_090906_NJ_1634.jpg

Shimmering dragonflies and damselflies, butterflies and even snails have inspired beautiful art, poetry and other creative expressions.  In Japan, generations of haiku authors have compressed the unique qualities of these special creatures into 17 concise syllables, as in this by Issa:

The night was hot… stripped to the waist the snail enjoyed the moonlight

                             —The Four Seasons:  Japanese Haiku.  NY: The Peter Pauper Press, 1958.

Even the descriptive names given to our butterflies evoke a sense of poetry: Pearl Crescent, Red Admiral, Question Mark, Mourning Cloak, Silver Spotted Skipper….  Seeing the opalescent Mother of Pearl Butterfly (Protogoniomorpha parhassus) and the electric Blue Pansy Butterfly (Junonia oenone oenone) in Kenyan forests could turn anyone into a lepidopterist and an artist.

Mother-of-pearl_Butterfly_(Protogoniomorpha_parhassus)_(8368125628).jpgMother of Pearl Butterfly (Creative Commons)

Despite these valuable attributes, invertebrates are slapped at; often seen as bothersome and unwanted; and most dangerously, ignored in environmental policies and land use practices.  Sadly, we now have many at-risk species: from bumble bees to tiger beetles and butterflies. Caddisflies that live solely in one stream are becoming extinct. To understand their role in stream ecosystems, talk to a fly-fisherman or visit a riverside tackle shop.  

On land, herbicides are sprayed in fields and along our roadsides through the summer, killing large swaths of milkweed, the sole food of monarch butterflies.  In Michoacan Mexico, the winter retreat for all monarchs east of the Mississippi, illegal deforestation now leaves tens of thousands of monarchs frozen to death annually.  Their small pale carcasses silently pile up on the ground where there used to be dense oyamel pine forests protecting them from freezing temperatures.

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When frozen, monarchs fall to the ground, folding their wings as they die 

The biggest threat to invertebrates is the loss of native habitat to development and agriculture.  Native bugs, butterflies, beetles and bees need native wildflowers. Flying insects in the US Midwest now lack the succession of wildflowers since midwestern prairies have been reduced to mere fragments, called “remnant prairies.” In 2013, entomologist Dino Martins told NWNL, “Farmers need to understand why leaving a little space for nature isn’t a luxury, but a necessity for productive, sustainable agriculture.”  

The importance of wildflower habitat for invertebrates was publicized in the 1970’s by Lady Bird Johnson, wife of former President Lyndon Johnson, and actress Helen Hayes..  Now many municipalities, organizations and gardening groups are publicizing the importance of replanting native wildflowers (milkweed for monarchs!) and eliminating invasive species.  Farmers, land managers, environmental regulatory agencies, park managers and home gardeners need to become more aware. They can help protect the soil and water quality of our rivers, streams, ponds, wetlands in many ways.  Funding for that research is critical, as is promoting citizen-science training programs. We can all pitch in to weed out invasive species if we learn what to look for.

Jones_080810_BC_6882.jpgSignage identifying invasive species in British Columbia

Small critter stewardship is growing.  There is good news.  The use of “Integrated Pest Management” and reduction of pesticides and herbicides is spreading; awareness of the consequences of killing our invertebrates grows.  Commercial and small farmers are learning to supply water in their fields for bees so they don’t waste energy looking for rivers. The Endangered Species Act supports the many organizations resisting the overuse of chemicals and unregulated land development.  

  • NYC Butterfly Group uses citizen scientist to map NYC’s butterfly distribution.
  • Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation [www.xerces.org), begun in 1971 trains farmers and land managers to save forest, prairie, desert and river habitat for these invertebrates via newsletters, books, guidelines, fact sheets and identification guides.  
  • National Wildflower Research Center,founded by Lady Bird Johnson in Texas, preserves N. American native plants and natural landscape
  • BuzzAboutBees.Net  www.buzzaboutbees.net/why-are-invertebrates-important.html website offers in-depth facts and advice on bees and bumblebees, as well as books, advice on stings and best garden practices.

It is time for us all to identify and weed out invasive species; help monitor monarch migrations; support local land trusts preserving open space; and advocate for more wildflower preserves.  Baba Dioum, a Senegalese ecologist wrote, “In the end, we will conserve only what we love. We will only love what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.”

Jones_100522_NJ_1065.jpgA caddisfly in the hand of a New Jersey fisherman 

SOURCES

The Four Seasons: Japanese Haiku.  NY: The Peter Pauper Press, 1958.
Stolberger, Sue. Ruaha National Park:  An Intimate View: A field guide to the common trees, flowers and small creatures of central Tanzania.  Iringa TZ: Jacana Media, 2012.
“What Are Aquatic Macroinvertebrates?” Utah State University Extension. www.extension.usu.edu/waterquality/learnaboutsurfacewater/propertiesofwater/aquaticmacros, accessed 4/30/18

All photos © Alison M. Jones.

 

Happy Earth Day 2018!

Every year, Earth Day is celebrated internationally on April 22.  In 1970, the first Earth Day was celebrated across thousands of college campuses, primary & secondary schools and communities in the United States. Millions of people participated in demonstrations in favor of environmental reform. In 1990 Earth Day became an international event, that is now celebrated in 192 countries and organized by the nonprofit Earth Day Network.

No Water No Life wishes everyone a Happy Earth Day. While we celebrate the beautiful and diverse Great Outdoors, never forget to preserve and protect all forms of nature, including rivers! For more information about Earth Day visit, https://www.earthday.org.

 

All photos © Alison M. Jones.

50 Years of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act

Written by NWNL Project Manager, Sarah Kearns
with Research by Jenna Petrone

An unspoiled river is a very rare thing in this Nation today. Their flow and vitality have been harnessed by dams and too often they have been turned into open sewers by communities and by industries. It makes us all very fearful that all rivers will go this way unless somebody acts now to try to balance our river development.” — Lyndon B. Johnson, on signing the US Wild & Scenic Rivers Act in 1968.1

Jones_171027_OR_6986McKenzie River, Oregon, Columbia River Basin

On October 2 this year, the US will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act established to preserve rivers with outstanding natural, cultural and recreational values in their free-flowing condition for the enjoyment of present and future generations.2

At the time of enactment in 1968, eight rivers were given the designation of Wild & Scenic Rivers: Clearwater, Eleven Point, Feather, Rio Grande, Rogue, St. Croix, Salmon, and Wolf. As of December 2014, this National System, under the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management, protects 12,734 miles of 208 rivers in 40 states and Puerto Rico. The total mileage of this system represents about .35% of US rivers, compared to the 17% of US rivers totaling 600,000 miles, that are currently dammed or modified by 75,000 large dams.3

While .35% is a shockingly small percentage, the official anniversary website reminds us to celebrate the Act’s accomplishments over the past fifty years. The growth from protecting only 8 rivers to protecting 208 rivers spanning 12,000 miles is a huge accomplishment. We encourage all to celebrate in order to look positively to the future when another 12,000 miles could be designated!

Jones_170617_NE_5263Missouri River, Nebraska, Mississippi River Basin

What exactly is a “Wild & Scenic River?”

Under this Act, Congress can designate a river under one of three classifications: wild, scenic, or recreational. A designated river can be a segment or stretch of a river, not only its entire length, and can also include tributaries. 

How does a river get classified?

“Wild” River Classification: Rivers (or sections of rivers) that are “free of impoundments and generally inaccessible except by trail, with watersheds or shorelines essentially primitive and waters unpolluted.”

“Scenic” River Classification: Rivers (or sections of rivers) that are “free of impoundments, with shorelines or watersheds still largely primitive and shorelines largely undeveloped, but accessible in places by roads.”

“Recreational” River Classification: Rivers (or sections of rivers) that are “readily accessible by road or railroad, that may have some development along their shorelines, and that may have undergone some impoundment or diversion in the past.”4

Jones_140510_WA_0743Snake River, Washington, Columbia River Basin

It is important to note that the type of classification doesn’t change the type of protection each river or segment receives! All rivers/segments designated under the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act are administered with the goal of protecting and enhancing the values that caused it to be designated to begin with. This protection is administered by federal or state agencies, which is provided through voluntary stewardship.5

Of the 208 rivers & river segments, 23 are located in NWNL’s US Case-Study Watersheds and Spotlights:  Columbia River Basin, Mississippi River Basin and California. Between now and the official October 2 anniversary, we will post several more blogs with photographs of many of these designated rivers.

Jones_160927_CA_6002Merced River, California

How can you celebrate?  NWNL encourages everyone to support all of our rivers and freshwater waterways, particularly the ones protected under the Wild & Scenic Rivers Acts. Swim in your local recreational river; go boating; organize a “Bioblitz;” join your local river stewardship organization; and most importantly, talk to your friends and families about why our river are so vital to our country!  This interactive story map shows whether you live near a designated river or river segment! For more information about 50th Anniversary events, view the official National Wild and Scenic Rivers System toolkit.

USA: Wisconsin, Upper Mississippi River Basin and St Croix River Basin,St Croix River, Wisconsin, Mississippi River Basin

Sources

1http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=29150
2https://www.nps.gov/orgs/1912/index.htm
3https://www.rivers.gov/wsr-act.php
4https://www.rivers.gov/wsr-act.php
5https://www.rivers.gov/wsr-act.php

All photos © Alison M. Jones.

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.
Shaduf2

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_from_the_palace_of_Ramesses_II;__Fish_in_a_Canal__MET_DT226146
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.

Sources

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.” WaterHistory.org. 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.

Lake Erie: A Solution to Vulnerability

By Judy Shaw, with Wil Hemker and John Blakeman for NWNL
(Edited by NWNL Director, Alison Jones)

Judy Shaw, professional planner and NWNL Advisor, and Wil Hemker, entrepreneurial chemist, are partnering with John Blakeman to promote prairie nutrient-retention strips as a proven way to protect Lake Erie’s water. They are encouraging schools and farmers in northwest Ohio to install demonstration strips and teach this effective means to stop harmful runoff from damaging our waterways. NWNL has documented this runoff problem in all its case-study watersheds and applauds this natural solution to chemical pollution of our waterways.

Untitled.jpgUpland prairie nutrient-retention strip. Photo by John Blakeman.

Imagine a very large body of fresh water supplying residents along 799 miles of shoreline with the very essence of their natural health. Lake Erie is such a vessel; carrying over 126 trillion gallons of precious water and serving millions of people in cities both in the USA and Canada. One such city is Toledo, Ohio. There, water from the Maumee River, which flows directly into the Western Basin of Lake Erie, provides fresh water to many in the region. Up to 80 million gallons of water is drawn from Lake Erie every day to supply Toledo and other municipalities with treated drinking water. 2

However, runoff from agricultural lands taints the water with phosphorous. In 2014 runoff caused extensive blooms of green algae, creating toxic microcystins – toxins produced by freshwater cyanobacteria, also called blue-green algae.3 This rendered the water on which the city relied as undrinkable. Today, four years later, continued flows of phosphorus-laden water still make this treasured natural resource vulnerable.

So what can be done? 

Many scientists have studied the problem. They’ve universally agreed that rainfall runoff from row-crop fields, suburban and urban land, and roadways is the root of the problem. As the City of Toledo rushes into a $500 million upgrade to its water treatment plant, the source remains completely uncontrolled.4

Jones_130520_IL_8783.jpgRunoff from row-crop fields after rain, Illinois.

Fortunately, solutions to manage rainfall runoff pollution are at hand. 

Through the work of many dedicated Midwest scientists, it has been determined that the presence of tallgrass prairies and seasonal, agricultural “cover crops”5 can arrest the phosphorous and nitrogen that historically has streamed directly into feeder streams and large watersheds like the Maumee River Basin.

On the matter of cover crops, it is important to note that wheat is planted in closely-spaced rows. Non-row crops include hay and alfalfa, planted en masse, not in rows. Alfalfa, because it is grown as a crop and is harvested, is not generally regarded as a cover crop. Cover crops are seldom, if ever, “cropped,” or harvested. Instead they are killed, or die, and left on the soil surface. Generally, cover crops are not true cash crops in the sense of harvesting and marketing.

Ohio prairie researcher John Blakeman found that edge-of-field strips of perennial tallgrass prairies can absorb algal nutrients in storm-water runoff, thus protecting the waterway while also enriching the prairie plants, or forbs. The tallgrasses and forbs (“wildflowers”) of native tallgrass prairies include big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), switch grass (Panicum virgatum) and a dozen or more species. All of these once grew naturally in northwest Ohio and exist today in a few “remnant prairie” ecosystems. Thus tallgrass prairies can be commercially planted with success in Ohio.

From John’s research with colleagues and published supportive findings from Iowa State University, he developed methods of planting a robust mix of native Ohio prairie species. He has planted them in several sites, including the NASA Glenn Research Center’s large Plum Brook Station near Sandusky, Ohio. Iowa State University has proved the ability of the prairie plants to absorb the renegade nutrients. The critical step is to persuade those engaged in Ohio agriculture to plant 30–60’ strips of tallgrass prairie species along the downslope edges of row-crop fields, where runoff water percolates before draining downstream to Lake Erie.

Jones_130520_IA_8937.jpgTallgrass Prairie, University of Southern Iowa.

Criticality? High. 

With these strips, Iowa research shows that up to 84% of the nitrogen runoff and 90% of the phosphorous can be captured by the plants, and the water running into the river is virtually clean. The levels of nitrogen and phosphorus exiting the field can no longer foster blooms of toxic green algae, such as those that crippled Toledo’s water supply in 2014.

Vulnerability beyond Lake Erie?

Non-point source pollution (i.e. sediment and nutrient runoff from ever-more-intense rainfall events onto rural row-crop fields, suburban fertilized lawns, and massive expanses of roadway and urban pavement) lies at the root of Lake Erie’s problem. This problem however extends beyond harmful algal blooms in streams, lakes, and Toledo’s drinking water source. It is the cause of huge hypoxic zones in the Great Lakes, the Gulf of Mexico (from the Mississippi River drainage), and North American eastern coastal waters.

Some good news?

Several Ohio farmland stakeholders are listening and learning about prairie grass strips at field edges. They are considering how to research and demonstrate upland prairie nutrient-retention strips so more farmers, in time, might use this algal nutrient-suppression practice. Expansive adoption of these strips will reduce phosphorous and nitrogen runoff from agricultural lands, helping obviate harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie.

Jones_130520_IA_8938.jpgTallgrass Prairie, University of Southern Iowa.

All communities need to reduce non-point source pollution. There are many ecological practices communities can practice, including:

  • decreasing suburban and urban pavement
  • increasing tallgrass and forb plantings
  • designing prairie and wetland drainage swales
  • conserving water use

If we all understand the sources of pollution and commit to take action, it will only be a matter of time before other watersheds in Ohio and across the country increase their water quality by using upland prairie nutrient-retention strips and thus also expand green spaces.

How can you be part of the solution?

First, become informed. Many US federal, state and community governments are measuring and attempting to act on non-point source pollution. Learn more about your state and community programs.

Second, take action by changing your and your family’s personal water use. Change your home and neighborhood water and rainwater practices. Here are some suggestions from The Nature Conservancy.

Jones_130520_IA_8935.jpgTallgrass Prairie, University of Southern Iowa.

Lastly, connect back with No Water No Life. Let us know how you and your neighbors outreach to community, state, and federal government leaders is changing infrastructure and community water resource practices.

The strongest governments on earth cannot clean up pollution by themselves. They must rely on each ordinary person, like you and me, on our choices, and on our will.  –2015 Chai Jing, Chinese investigative reporter, and documentary film maker.

 

Footnotes:

1The capacity, over 127 trillion gallons, is extrapolated from USEPA Lake Erie Water Quality report, which notes the water volume as 484 cm3.
2 Toledo Division of Water Treatment.
3 The Florida DEP states, “Microcystins are nerve toxins that may lead to nausea, vomiting, headaches, seizures and long-term liver disease if ingested in drinking water.”
4 US News.
5 Cover crops are quick-growing, short-lived, low-height plants planted to give full coverage of bare soil, in the dormant seasons, (fall, winter, early spring). They are short-lived; serve only to cover the soil to reduce erosion; and retard growth of weeds before row-crops are planted.

 

All photos © Alison M. Jones unless otherwise stated.

World Conservation Day 2017

In honor of World Conservation Day, NWNL wants to share some of it’s favorite photographs from over the years of each of our case-study watersheds.

Trout Lake in the Columbia River Basin
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Aerial view of the largest tributary of the Lower Omo River
Ethiopia: aerial of Mago River, largest tributary of Lower Omo River

 

Canoeing on the Mississippi River
Jones_140920_LA_3950-2

 

Fisherman with his canoe on the shore of Lake Tana, source of the Nile River
Ethiopia: Lake Tana, source of the blue Nile, fisherman and canoe on the shore.

 

Wildebeests migrating toward water in the Mara Conservancy
K-WIB-410.tif

 

Raritan River at sunset
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All photos © Alison M. Jones.

Aswan High Dam Leaves an Environmental Legacy

by Joannah Otis for No Water No Life

This is the second our blog series on “The Nile River in Egypt” by NWNL Researcher Joannah Otis, sophomore at Georgetown University. Following her blog “Finding Hapi-ness on the Nile,” this essay addresses perhaps the greatest elements of change created thus far by humans along the Nile. [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 Nile in those regions.]

Aswan_DamAswan Dam on the Nile River in Aswan, Egypt

Background on Aswan High Dam

The Nile River snakes south to north for 4,160 miles through ten North African countries until it reaches the Mediterranean Ocean.1 Its path is interrupted only by the great Aswan High Dam, which has brought both good and bad to the Egyptian people. Towering 364 feet tall and stretching 12,565 feet along its crest, the Aswan High Dam is impressive.2 This dam was opened in 1971 after a decade of construction and seeking funds from the Soviet Union.3 Its transboundary reservoir, Lake Nasser, which backs up into Sudan for 300 miles, holds nearly two years’ worth of water from the Nile River.

Benefits of the Aswan High Dam & Lake Nasser

The High Dam, replacing a 1902 Low Dam, annually generates more than 10 billion kilowatt hours of electricity, facilitating Egypt’s path to industrialization. This new dam also marked a major shift in Egypt’s agricultural prospects. Previously, Nile River Basin farmers were forced to depend on fickle seasonal flooding, which could bring appropriate levels of water one year and often completely washed away soil the next. Such unpredictability made it hard to grow a reliable crop; and the Nile’s single flooding season precluded farmers from having more than one harvest per year.

Lake Nasser’s surplus of water has well served the irrigation needs of Egypt and Sudan, since water availability is especially critical, given Egypt’s growing population and increasing water needs. (NB:  NWNL is studying these trends that portend dire water scarcity in the near future.) The Aswan Dam now allows for two to three crop cycles annually.  Nearby aquifers are inundated by increased amounts of water due to year long, rather than seasonal irrigation.  Water levels are carefully monitored and extra water is saved for times of drought. There has been huge economic benefit to the fact that the dams has allowed Egypt to triple the output of its most important and profitable crops, wheat and cotton.5  

Lake-nasserLake Nasser in Egypt.

Thus, the Aswan High Dam created a new future of irrigation water, flood control and electricity – but came with disconcerting drawbacks. Its story and continued influence on the Nile River illustrate how human ingenuity can inadvertently take a toll on the environments and ecosystems we so rely on.  The degradation of Nile ecosystems and the influx of increasing chemical runoff are reminders of the negative impacts that infrastructure, intended to improve quality of life, can have on nearby environments and habitats for all species, including humans.

Consequences of the Aswan High Dam & Lake Nasser

While Lake Nasser reservoir has allowed for controlled downstream flows into northern Egypt, that backlog of Nile water forced the relocation about 100,000 people to other lands in Sudan and Egypt.6 Abu Simbel Temple and 22 historical structures fortunately were moved under UNESCO’s watchful eye, yet Buhen Fort, the Fadrus Cemetery and other archeological sites (whose relocation would have been too costly) were submerged.

Stagnant waters in Lake Nasser have threatened the health of people using or residing near the Nile River waters. Downstream, the dam promotes the presence of schistosomiasis, a parasitic disease also known as bilharzia or “snail fever.” Schistosomiasis kills more than 200,000 Africans annually; and 20 million sufferers develop disfiguring disabilities from complications, kidney and liver diseases, and bladder cancer.

Egyptian_harvest.jpgTomb Painting of Peasants Harvesting Papyrus

Seasonal flooding once brought thick layers of dark silt to farms, which farmers used a natural fertilizer. Unfortunately, the Aswan High Dam almost completely blocks the movement of nutrient-rich sediment downstream. (NB:  NWNL has seen similar impacts of Ethiopia’s new Gibe Dams, ending 6,000 years of flood-recession agriculture practiced by pastoralists in the Lower Omo River Basin.) As rich Upper Nile sediments collected behind the dam, Egyptian farmers resorted to toxic chemical fertilizers that drain into the Nile. These pollutants can cause liver disease and renal failure in humans.7 

Farming phosphates running into the river increase algae growth. Algae blooms, elicited by excess nutrients (eutrophication), produce cyanotoxins, which affect the health of fish and may poison humans.At the same time, fish populations no longer benefit from nutrients that used to be in upstream Nile sediments. Aquatic species in the Mediterranean Sea near the Nile Delta have suffered similarly from decreased natural nutrients and increased chemicals.9

Riverbanks also suffer from a lack of replenishing sediments as their erosion continues unchecked.  Prior to the dam’s construction, the average suspended silt load was 3,000 parts per million (ppm). Post-construction silt levels have declined to 50 ppm.10 Further downstream, the Nile Delta suffers from a lack of silt replenishment. [NB:  NWNL has documented parallel deltaic losses and damage in the U. S., as  levees along the Mississippi River withhold sediment that used to rebuild storm erosion in the Mississippi Delta.]

Silt-free water along with a lower current velocity and steady water levels have enabled invasive aquatic weeds to infest the Nile River and its irrigation canals. Large volumes of aquatic weeds, water hyacinths in particular, create stagnant water conditions, impair water flow, provide breeding grounds for malaria-carrying mosquitoes and prevent the passage of boats whose propellers become clogged with invasive weeds.  Prior to the dam’s construction, these weeds were unable to flourish due to the Nile’s varying water levels and the force of its flow.11

Eichhornia_crassipes_C.jpgWater Hyacinth  (Credit: Wouter Hagens)

Erosion in the Nile Delta is especially threatening because it has led to saltwater intrusion.   (NB: Again, this is another issue also occurring in the Mississippi River Delta.)  Increased groundwater salinity from the encroaching Mediterranean Sea is decreasing cotton and rice yields.12 Additionally, fertilizers have further heightened saline levels.13

Beyond Aswan:  Footnote by NWNL Director Alison Jones

In 2009, Egypt was the most populous, agricultural and industrial country in the Nile Basin.14 The Aswan Dam has been a major factor in this march by Egypt to progress and prosperity.  However, just as the Aswan Dam came with a price – so will the upstream Grand Renaissance Dam, now under construction in Ethiopia on the Blue Nile River.  It is likely the impacts of this new Ethiopian dam – the largest ever on the African continent – will be even more consequential to Egypt than those of the Aswan High Dam.  It seems a new chapter is about to be written regarding settlement of transboundary conflicts spawned from disputes over dam impacts and upstream-downstream water rights.

Sources

1“Nile River Facts.” Africa Facts. Web. 2017
2Caputo, Robert. “Journey up the Nile.” National Geographic. May 1985. p 602
3Caputo, Robert. “Journey up the Nile.” National Geographic. May 1985. p 602
4Caputo, Robert. “Journey up the Nile.” National Geographic. May 1985. p 600
5Biswas, Asit K.; Tortajada, Cecilia. “Impacts of the High Aswan Dam.” Third World Centre for Water Management. 2012. p 389
6Caputo, Robert. “Journey up the Nile.” National Geographic. May 1985. p 602
7Theroux, Peter. “The Imperiled.” National Geographic Magazine. January 1997.
8El-Sheekh M. “River Nile Pollutants and Their Effect on Life Forms and Water Quality,” in “The Nile.” (Dumont H.J, Monographiae Biologicae, Vol 89. Springer, Dordrecht)
9Biswas, Asit K.; Tortajada, Cecilia. “Impacts of the High Aswan Dam.” Third World Centre for Water Management. P 389. 2012.
10Biswas, Asit K.; Tortajada, Cecilia. “Impacts of the High Aswan Dam.” Third World Centre for Water Management. P 385. 2012.
11El-Shinnawy, Ibrahim A.; Abdel-Meguid, Mohamed; Nour Eldin, Mohamed M.; Bakry, Mohamed F. “Impact of Aswan High Dam on the Aquatic Weed Ecosystem.” Cairo University. September 2000. p 535-538.
12Theroux, Peter. “The Imperiled.” National Geographic Magazine. January 1997.
13World Wildlife Foundation. “Nile Delta flooded savanna.” Web. 2017.
14El-Sheekh M. “River Nile Pollutants and Their Effect on Life Forms and Water Quality,” in “The Nile.” (Dumont H.J, Monographiae Biologicae, Vol 89. Springer, Dordrecht)
All photos used based on fair use of Creative Commons and Public Domain.