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.

Future of the Mekong River is at risk

Dam construction along Mekong River, Laos
Dam construction along Mekong River, Laos

The Mekong River in Southesast Asia is one of the world’s longest waterways, and flows through 6 countries: China, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. In November of 2014, NWNL followed the Mekong River from Chiang Khong, Thailand to Luang Prabang, Laos. This is part of the main stem of the river.

Development along the Mekong, Chiang Khong, Thailand, 2014
Development along the Mekong, Chiang Khong, Thailand, 2014
Mekong water used for crop irrigation, Chiang Khong, Thailand
Mekong water used for crop irrigation, Chiang Khong, Thailand
Fishery, Chiang Khong, Thailand
Fishery, Chiang Khong, Thailand

Fish make up 80% of the Southeast Asian diet.

Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia program director for the environmental group International Rivers, says the dam-building rush and climate change have brought the Mekong River Basin close to a “catastrophic tipping point”.

Dam construction in Laos
Dam construction in Laos

The proposal of several hydrodams would be devastating to millions of people who depend on the Mekong River for their livelihoods, food security, crop irrigation and let’s not forget wildlife!

Stay informed! Read more about this in “Cry Me a River.”

Check for updates on International Rivers and Save the Mekong.

Dam construction in Laos
Dam construction in Laos

Shrimpin’ in Louisiana – a waning tradition?

Shrimp boats are a common sight, but shrimpers and oystermen in the Mississippi River Delta are struggling with decreased fisheries due to oil spills, and changes in water salinity and temperatures.

USA:  Louisiana, New Orleans, Gulf Coast, Mississippi River Delta, Shrimp boats in Buras
USA: Louisiana, New Orleans, Gulf Coast, Mississippi River Delta, Shrimp boats in Buras

Related reading: Louisiana oyster and shrimp industries in serious decline after BP oil spill


This Sunday look for the Full Sturgeon Supermoon


This Sunday, August 10, the full Moon will appear as much as 14% closer and 30% brighter than other full Moons of the year.

Why? The August full Moon falls on the same day as perigee.

It is known as the Full Sturgeon Moon of August. Fishing tribes are given credit for the naming of this Moon, since sturgeon, a large fish of the Great Lakes and other major bodies of water, were most readily caught during this month. – Farmer’s Almanac


“Water is a living thing that provides for us – physically and spiritually. – Jessica Koski, mining technical assistant for the Keweenaw Bay Tribe, Upper Peninsula, Michigan
[It’s more than just water at stake]

– Posted by Jasmine Graf, NWNL Associate Director

What are anadromous fish?

Tomorrow is World Fish Migration Day (WFMD). The ancient migration story of fish ascending rivers from oceans to breed is miraculous.  Such fish – called anadromous, from the Greek word  “anadramein” meaning “running upward” – include salmon, steelhead, shad, sturgeon, lamprey in the Pacific Northwest; and shad, sturgeon, alewives and herring along the US East Coast.

USA:  Washington, Columbia River Basin, Ilwaco mural of salmon
USA: Washington, Columbia River Basin, Ilwaco mural of salmon

Anadromous fish swim from the sea inland via open rivers to spawn in small headwater tributaries. In so doing, they bring with them marine nutrients that enrich riverine flora, fauna and forests.  After their long journeys back to where they were born, the adult fish release their eggs in cool, forested waters and then die.  Thus, some hail anadromous fish as the greatest parents of all, because the nutrients of their remains nourish the flies and insects that are eaten by newly-hatched smolt.

This month, our NWNL Snake River Expedition is documenting the dynamics of anadromous fish in the Pacific Northwest and the studies of local fish biologists, fishermen, watershed managers and the Nez Perce tribal nation.  Today, NWNL joins them and the world in honoring the ecosystem services and sustenance values provided by anadromous fish.

Canada:  British Columbia, Winlaw, Slocan River Valley, salmon mural
Canada: British Columbia, Winlaw, Slocan River Valley, salmon mural

*Check out 10 (very interesting!) Things You Might Not Know About Migratory Fish.

will work for clean water


Have a few laughs and check out more of T. McCracken’s witty water quality cartoons and ecology cartoons!!!

Images of Ferguson Gulf Fish Market, Kenya

Kenya’s Lake Turkana is the terminus of Ethiopia’s Omo River, one of the 6 NWNL case-study watersheds. This January a NWNL expedition spent 4 weeks in Kenya investigating serious upstream threats (of dams and irrigation needs for massive new agricultural plantations) to Lake Turkana, the world’s largest desert lake. The impact of these new schemes could drastically reduce the levels of the lake by half, or more, thus killing off Kenya’s largest fishery.

NWNL returned from this expedition with compelling imagery and interviews from the Lake Turkana’s Ferguson’s Gulf fishing villages; commercial fishing ventures in Kalokol; and Lodwar, Turkana County’s capitol – all on the western shores of Lake Turkana. Ferguson’s Gulf is the major Nile tilapia breeding ground in this lake of 47 fish species, but these shallow waters will quickly dry up when Ethiopia starts filling the reservoir of its Gibe III dam next year.

NWNL spent two days with Ikal Angelei, Director of Friends of Lake Turkana, and her colleague Billy Kapua, visiting various sites for interviews with locals and filming opportunities for NWNL.

“We want people to focus on this region’s ecological dependence on this lake, the conflict potential if water levels fall and the national pride for this resource-rich lake that produces 30–40 tons of fish per year for Kenya,” stated Ikal Angelei.

Angelei and Kapua shared with NWNL the most up-to-date details of the challenges facing Lake Turkana, as well as possible actions that could prevent the lake’s water levels from dropping, thus protecting the livelihood of 1/2 million people in the Lower Omo Basin and Lake Turkana Basin. On a broader level, the loss of Lake Turkana’s fisheries would significantly impact the fish-market economy of Kenya. And furthermore, displacement of local indigenous communities from agricultural plantations will cause over-crowding and most likely great conflict in the Ilemi Triangle on the borders of Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya. In this region, where boundaries have never been demarcated, over 12 tribes are dependent on access to water and green grazing lands for their livestock.

To study alternative options for the local indigenous pastoralists and fishermen, NWNL visited development projects west of the lake in Kapenguria and along Muruni River (a tributary of the Turkwell River which flows into Lake Turkana). CABESI projects, visited with directors Rolf Gloor, Mercy Kinyapyap and Paul Losute, included bee-keeping for many honey products, camel husbandry as a more drought-appropriate replacement for cattle and goats, and wild silk production from moths on local acacia. However, if the Lake Turkana water levels drop, that could affect weather in the entire region, adding to the increasing droughts being caused by climate change – and all of these alternative livelihoods depend on at least some water! No Water – No Livelihoods!

Photos taken on NWNL’s recent Omo River Basin Expedition.

All images © Alison M. Jones for