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.

Sources

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.

 

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

Can’t have a rainbow without a li’l rain

Canada: Columbia River Basin, Creston, farmland views
Canada: Columbia River Basin, Creston, farmland views

Rainbows invoke optimism that the rain has come followed by sun – perfect growing conditions and full rivers for irrigation!

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.

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

JUSTIFICATIONS:
– 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.”

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

Your T-shirt and water consumption

Cotton in bloom, TX, Mississippi River Basin
Cotton in bloom, TX, Mississippi River Basin, © Alison M. Jones

Did you know that the total usable freshwater supply for ecosystems and humans is less than 1 percent of all freshwater resources?

How the world uses freshwater:
• about 70 percent for irrigation
• about 22 percent for industry
• about 8 percent for domestic use
Source: World Water Assessment Programme (WWAP)

Did you know that the t-shirt on your back has a major impact on the planet? Producing it took approximately 710 gallons of water, plus it takes a lot of energy to get it from the cotton fields to your closet. But some of your t-shirt’s biggest impacts are in how you care for it. WWF and National Geographic ask: ‘How much stuff do you need?’ Here’s how you can help reduce its effect on the environment.

– Posted by Jasmine Graf, NWNL Associate Director

Dam and Irrigation Projects Threaten Lake Turkana

Image
Omo River Delta as it enters northern Lake Turkana. © Alison M. Jones

Kenya’s Lake Turkana is the terminus of Ethiopia’s Omo River, which supplies 90% of the lake’s volume. L. Turkana (180 miles long and up to 30 miles wide) is the world’s largest permanent desert lake and largest alkaline lake. At 1,200 feet elevation, the lake is a closed (endorheic) basin, with high evaporation rates of 2.3–2.8 m/yr. Its high salinity ranges from 1.7–2.7%, due to no outlet, lower volume in the last 7,500 years, and recent volcanic activity.

The Omo River and L. Turkana are lifelines to indigenous Ethiopians and Kenyans. Ethiopia’s Gibe 3 hydro-dam, now in construction, will greatly decrease the Omo’s flow into L. Turkana. The Lower Omo Basin supports 200,000 indigenous agro-pastoralists. The Turkana Basin is home to 300 to 500 thousand people who depend on lake water for sustenance.

A new report documents how a dam and series of irrigation projects being built in Ethiopia threaten the world’s largest desert lake, and the hundreds of thousands of people who depend on it. It describes how hydrological changes from the Gibe III Dam and irrigation projects now under construction in the Omo River Basin could turn Lake Turkana in Kenya into East Africa’s Aral Sea (the infamous Central Asia lake that almost disappeared after the diversion of rivers that fed it). Download the full report.

International Rivers and Friends of Lake Turkana are calling for a halt to construction until there is a complete accounting of how the dam and irrigation projects will harm Lake Turkana, and a plan to ensure the lake does not suffer a hydrological collapse.
View photo gallery of Turkana people.

Image
Carrying water and reeds from L. Turkana. © Alison M. Jones