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Despite these pressures, many farmers use an unproportionate amount of water by continuing to employ outdated and inefficient irrigation techniques.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.

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.



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.