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Despite these pressures, many farmers use an unproportionate amount of water by continuing to employ outdated and inefficient irrigation techniques.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

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.” WaterHistory.org. 1999. Web. Accessed 16 October 2017.
5 “The Nilometer in Cairo.” WaterHistory.org. Web. Accessed 16 October 2017.
6 Miller, Mark. “Ancient structure that measured the Nile for tax purposes uncovered in Egypt.” Ancient-Origins.net. 20 May 2016. Web. Accessed 16 October 2017.
7 Caputo, Robert. “Journey up the Nile.” National Geographic. p 582. May 1985.


The Forgotten Forests of Egypt

By Joannah Otis for NWNL

This is the sixth of our blog series on the Nile River in Egypt by NWNL Researcher Joannah Otis, sophomore at Georgetown University. Following her blogs on the Nile in Ancient Egypt, this essay addresses the importance of trees and indigenous flora to Ancient Egyptians. [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.]

2nd blog 2Willow Tree

Trees played a symbolic role in early Egyptian life as they were associated with both Ra, the sun god, and Osiris, god of the afterlife. Sycamore trees were thought to stand at the gates of heaven while the persea tree was considered a sacred plant. According to ancient myths, the willow tree protected Osiris’s body after he was killed by his brother Set. These trees and others served as physical manifestations of the gods that Egyptians worshipped. Their importance speaks to the dependence this civilization had on the indigenous flora of the Nile River Basin.1

Historic records indicate that Ancient Egypt developed a forest management system in the 11th century CE, but later tree harvesting eliminated much of these forests. This, along with the gradual transition to a dryer climate in Egypt, spelled the demise of the sacred persea tree.2  Sometimes referred to as the ished tree, it was first grown and worshipped in Heliopolis during the Old Kingdom, but later spread its roots in Memphis and Edfu. It is a small evergreen tree with yellow fruit that grew throughout Upper Egypt. Egyptians held that the tree was protected by Ra in the form of a cat and closely associated it with the rising run.3 The persea was believed to hold the divine plan within its fruit, which would give eternal life and knowledge of destiny to those who ate it. To the Egyptians, the tree’s trunk represented the world pillar around which the heavens revolved. It was also considered a symbol of resurrection and many used its branches in funerary bouquets. The persea tree no longer grows in Africa, likely because the climate is dryer today than it was in the time of the Ancient Egyptians.4

EGDP007693Persea fruit pendant from Upper Egypt c. 1390-1353 BCE


The willow tree has grown in Egypt since prehistoric times and is usually found in wet environments or near water. Today, its timber is used for carving small items, but centuries ago, its branches were strung together to form garlands for the gods. Willow leaf garlands in the shape of crowns have also been found in the tombs of pharaohs, including Ahmose I, Amenhotep I, and Tutankhamen, to align them with Osiris.5 After being murdered by his brother Set, Osiris’s body was placed into a coffin and thrown into the Nile River. Around this coffin, a willow tree sprang up to protect the godly body. Towns with groves of willow trees were believed to house one of the dismembered parts of Osiris and thus became sacred spaces.6

Although of lesser importance, the sycamore tree was also considered a sacred plant. It was generally thought of in relation to the goddesses Nut, Hathor, and Isis who were sometimes depicted reaching out from the tree to offer provisions to the deceased. As a result, sycamores were often planted near graves or used to make coffins so the dead could return to the mother tree goddess.7 Other significant trees include the Tamarisk, which was sacred to Wepwawet, and the Acacia tree, which was associated with Horus.8 Each of these trees contribute to the great biodiversity of the Nile River Basin and served religious purposes for the Ancient Egyptian people.

2nd blog 3Model of a Porch and Garden with Sycamore Trees from Upper Egypt c. 1981-1975 BCE


1 “Tree (nehet).” EgyptianMyths.net. Web.
2“Country Report – Egypt.” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Web.
3“Ancient Egyptian Plants: The Persea Tree.” reshafim.org. 2002. Web.
4 “The Tree of Life.” LandOfPyramids.org. 2015. Web.
5“Ancient Egyptian Plants: The Willow.” reshafim.org. 2002. Web.
6Witcombe, Christopher. “Trees and the Sacred.” Sweet Briar College. Web.
7Witcombe, Christopher. “Trees and the Sacred.” Sweet Briar College. Web.
8“Tree (nehet).” EgyptianMyths.net. Web.
All photos used based on fair use of Creative Commons and Public Domain.

Finding Hapi-ness on the Nile

By Joannah Otis for No Water No Life 

As the Nile River Basin is one of  6 NWNL case-study watersheds, NWNL has documented Ethiopia’s Blue Nile and Uganda’s White Nile.  Due however to current challenges faced by photojournalists visiting Egypt and Sudan, NWNL is using other resources to analyze the availability, quality and usage of the Nile from Khartoum north through Egypt.

This is the first in a blog series by NWNL Researcher Joannah Otis on the Nile River through Egypt, from 5000 BCE’s Ancient Egypt to today’s modern Egypt.  Joannah is a Georgetown University sophomore, focusing on Environmental Studies, Art History and Psychology.  Her home is in N.J.’s Upper Raritan River Basin, another NWNL case study watershed.   

The Ancient Egyptian pantheon of gods existed to explain the inexplicable for a people with little knowledge of the earth’s natural processes. Such faith in otherworldly figures resulted in elaborate rituals, impressive temples dedicated to specific deities, and intricate family trees. Among the most important of these gods was Hapi, also spelled Hapy, the Nile River God. Hapi’s significance in Ancient Egyptian culture indicates the vitality of the Nile River and reveals the extent of Egypt’s dependence on it.1

800px-Funerary_figure_of_Hapy_MET_LC-26_7_1195_EGDP023652Funerary Figure of Hapi 

Since the early Nile River people never ventured far enough upstream to find the river’s true source, they turned towards their faith for an explanation of seasonal flooding and the natural flow of the nutrient-rich waters they depended upon for agriculture. It was believed that the Nile originated beneath the island Philae whose waters came from an underwater cave where Hapi resided.2  In the pyramid texts, he was said to have lived in caverns near the first cataract. As the god of fertility and fecundity, Hapi was responsible for the seasonal floods as well as the success of farms and the availability of water. As the flood waters came rushing down the Nile, Ancient Egyptians would begin presenting their offerings and sacrifices to Hapi in hopes that the flood would neither be too high nor too low. Although Hapi was worshipped throughout Egypt, he was especially revered at Aswan, today the site of a 364 foot hydro-dam, and Gebel el-Silisila, once an ancient quarry.3

NileThe Nile River (Attribution: Ian Sewell)

In Ancient Egyptian depictions of Hapi, the god appears as a well-fed, blue or green man sporting the pharaoh’s false beard and a pair of large breasts because the Nile’s whitish waters were often associated with milk. There are no remains of temples dedicated solely to Hapi, but remnants of statues and reliefs in his likeness have been uncovered. Hapi was considered the god of both Upper and Lower Egypt, which was demonstrated by the existence of twin Hapi deities. The Hapi of Upper Egypt was known as ‘Hap-Meht’ and wore a lotus headdress while the Lower Egyptian Hapi was called ‘Hap-Reset’ and wore a papyrus headdress.

Egypt.ColossiMemnon.02Detail of Hapi from the side panel of a throne at the Colossi of Memnon

Hapi was often referred to as the ‘Lord of the Fishes and Birds of the Marshes’ and was at times worshipped over the sun god Ra.4 The Nile River God was associated with Osiris who was also linked to the Nile through his role in introducing the cultivation of wheat to the Egyptian people.5 Hapi’s wives were believed to be the cobra goddess Wadjet of Lower Egypt and the vulture goddess Nekhbet of Upper Egypt, both of whom were considered forms of Osiris’s wife Isis.6 It was Isis’s tears that were thought to replenish the Nile waters.7 Hapi’s importance in Egyptian culture and his relation to the other gods make him one of the most significant, if least well-known, gods.

1Holmes, Martha; Maxwell, Gavin; Scoones, Tim. Nile. BBC Books. 2004.
2Pavan, Aldo. The Nile From the Mountains to the Mediterranean. Thames and Hudson Ltd. 2006.
3Seawright, Caroline. “Hapi, God of the Nile, Fertility, the North and South.” 21 August 2001. Web.
4Seawright, Caroline. “Hapi, God of the Nile, Fertility, the North and South.” 21 August 2001. Web.
5Holmes, Martha; Maxwell, Gavin; Scoones, Tim. Nile. BBC Books. 2004.
6Seawright, Caroline. “Hapi, God of the Nile, Fertility, the North and South.” 21 August 2001. Web.
7Holmes, Martha; Maxwell, Gavin; Scoones, Tim. Nile. BBC Books. 2004.
All photos used based on fair use of Creative Commons.

the art of addressing water conservation

NWNL would like to spotlight artists utilizing art as a platform to raise awareness of water issues.

Currently on view at Pace Gallery in NYC -Maya Lin creates sculptural topographies of disappearing watersheds. With recycled silver, steel pins, marble and wood, Lin presents aerial views of waterways exploring environmental issues. Watch a 5 minute video of Lin discussing this body of work.

Photographer Ian Teh exhibits Traces: Landscapes in Transition on the Yellow River Basin at Open Society Foundations on view until Dec 13, 2013. “Few rivers have captured the soul of a nation more deeply than the Yellow River in China. The river’s plight also underlines the dark side of China’s economic miracle, an environmental crisis leading to scarcity of the one resource no nation can live without: water. ~ Ian Teh

Lauren Rosenthal depicts numerous watersheds in drawings, prints, and sculpture. “By giving priority to rivers, not as resources to be exploited, but as an integral part of a social/biological system, I hope to provoke dialogue and stimulate change around how we understand ourselves in relationship to the hydrological world.” ~Lauren Rosenthal

– Posted by Jasmine Graf, NWNL Associate Director