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Despite these pressures, many farmers use an unproportionate amount of water by continuing to employ outdated and inefficient irrigation techniques.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

Floods: A Photo Essay

In honor of those devastated by the recent flooding all over the world, including Texas and Florida in the United States, the Caribbean, Africa and across Southeast Asia, NWNL takes a look at photos from our archives of flooding in our case study watersheds.

Columbia River Basin

Jones_070607_BCa_0058In British Columbia, Columbia River flooding from melting snow pack and storms, threatens barns and farmlands.  (2007)

Jones_070607_BC_1989Barn and truck underwater in British Columbia from Columbia River flooding due to melting snow pack and storms.  (2007)


Mississippi River Basin

MO-STG-411Mississippi River flood of 1993, St Genevieve, Missouri.

USA:  Missouri, West Alton, road flooded in the Mississippi River flood of 1993Road flooded in West Alton, Missouri during the Mississippi River flood of 1993.


Raritan River Basin

Jones_110311_NJ_7383 A submerged park bench during the spring floods in Clinton, New Jersey, part of the South Branch of the Raritan River Basin. (2011)

Jones_110311_NJ_7451 Hamden Road flooded near Melick’s bridge in Clinton, New Jersey, part of the South Branch of the Raritan River Basin. (2011)


Omo River Basin

Jones_070919_ET_0261_MDassenech village, located on the Omo Delta in Ethiopia, flooded by the Omo River and polluted by livestock effluent. (2007)

Jones_070919_ET_0289_MGranary hut built on stilts on a flooded plain in the Dassenech village in Ethiopia. (2007)


Posted by Sarah Kearns, NWNL Project Manager.

All photos © Alison M. Jones.

USGS Studies Pharmaceuticals in our Streams

CA: Santa Barbara, Medicines


Blog by Christina Belasco, Project Manager

The USGS just released a study of 59 streams in the Southeastern United States ranging from Georgia to Virginia. Alarmingly, the study showed that every single one of these streams tested positive for pollution by pharmaceutical compounds.

These compounds have a wide variety of negative impacts on the entire aquatic ecosystem including altering the base of the food web, affecting neurotransmitters for many aquatic insects, and affecting the reproductive health of fish.

One of the main causes of this pollution is homeowners’ tendency to flush unused medications down the toilet. There are alternatives to this harmful habit.

There are many community based drug “take-back” programs you may use to dispose of your medicine – call your local government to find out more information. Otherwise disposing your medicine in the trash is the best option. Take action today to prevent your medicine from polluting local waterways.

Share this information with your friends, and let us know how you help keep your streams clean.

Screen Shot 2016-06-03 at 1.02.45 PM

Map of tested streams courtesy of USGS

We all live downstream

USA:  New Jersey, Lower Raritan River, NY/NJ Baykeeper headed downstream towards Middlesex County Landfill
USA: New Jersey, Lower Raritan River, NY/NJ Baykeeper headed downstream towards Middlesex County Landfill


USA: Washington, Palouse,  downstream of Little Goose Lock and Dam, USACE hydro and run-of-the-river dam on the Snake River
USA: Washington, Palouse, downstream of Little Goose Lock and Dam, USACE hydro and run-of-the-river dam on the Snake River


USA:  Mississippi, Natchez, downstream view of the Natchez MS-Vidalia LA bridge over the MIssissippi River
USA: Mississippi, Natchez, downstream view of the Natchez MS-Vidalia LA bridge over the MIssissippi River

Posted by Jasmine Graf, Associate Director of No Water No Life.

Offshore oil spills contaminate fresh water, too

The NWNL website has added a video trailer for “The Great Invisible”, a new documentary on Louisiana Coast damages caused by oil and gas extraction. NWNL research and our Lower Mississippi River Delta expedition in Sept 2014 have focused on this subject, and we highly recommend this documentary of personal stories that highlight the nexus of Mississippi Delta ecosystem functions and the oil and gas industry. Below is expanded commentary on this issue.

Oil rig in Atchafalaya Bay, Louisiana
Oil rig in Atchafalaya Bay, Louisiana

“The Great Invisible”, a new documentary by filmmaker Margaret Brown reviewed recently by the New York Times, explores the aftermath of the world’s largest oil spill. The blowout and explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform, operated by BP, in April of 2010 resulted in the discharge of millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico over a period of 87 days, contaminating hundreds of miles of beaches. Extensive damage to marine and wildlife habitats and to the fishing and tourism industries resulted not only from the oil but also from adverse effects of the cleanup activities. Chemicals from the oil and the dispersant used during cleanup also led to a public health crisis along the Gulf Coast.

The use of offshore oil wells goes back to the 1890s. The first submerged oil wells in salt water were drilled in the Santa Barbara Channel around 1896. After the first federal offshore lease sale was held in 1954 for oil production rights off the coast of Louisiana, the Gulf Coast became the heart of the U.S. petrochemical industry. However, the safety of offshore drilling came into question with the Santa Barbara Oil Spill in 1969. It was the largest oil spill in United States waters at the time, with consequences similar to those in the Gulf four decades later. It was one of the most dramatic and visible events that led to the the regulatory and legislative framework of the environmental movement.

Spills in the ocean wash ashore and affect the quality of nutrient rich river estuaries where salt water meets fresh water and support spawning grounds and nurseries of our greatest fisheries. In the BP spill, the combination of oil, water, dispersant, weathering and natural organic matter has created an emulsion thicker than peanut butter.

An oil industry executive claims “Regulations block innovation, so government needs to get out of the way of business,” yet to date BP has cleaned up less than 1/3 of the spilled oil, according to the film.

Meanwhile, BP has been in Federal District Court in New Orleans along with Transocean, the owner of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, and Halliburton, the contractor responsible for an unstable cement slurry used in the well. In September BP was found to be the primary culprit and that it had acted with “conscious disregard of known risks.” A trial scheduled to begin in January will determine penalties under the Clean Water Act.

Forty-five years after the Santa Barbara oil spill and four years after the Deepwater Horizon, Congress has yet to pass any safety legislation for the petroleum industry.

What will it take to prevent such an accident happening again? More regulation? A change in oil industry culture? Whatever it takes, we hope that “The Great Invisible” will help that conversation along.

— RW

Platform C oil rig in the Barbara Channel
Platform C oil rig in the Barbara Channel

Massive cleanup of coal ash spill continues

Exactly one year ago today, NWNL documented the clean up of the Nation’s largest coal fly ash spill at Kingston Fossil Plant, TN.  In 2008, over 1 billion gallons of coal ash slurry leaked into the Emory and Clinch Rivers, part of the Mississippi River basin. The recovery will continue into 2015.

Did you know you can take a tour of the site?

– Posted by Jasmine Graf, NWNL Associate Director