Day Zero – A Water Warning

By Stephanie Sheng for No Water No Life (NWNL)
Edited by NWNL Director, Alison Jones

Stephanie Sheng is a passionate strategist for environmental and cultural conservation. Having worked in private and commercial sectors, she now uses her branding and communications expertise to drive behavior change that will help protect our natural resources. Inspired by conservation photographers, The Part We Play is her current project.  Her goal is to find how best to engage people and encourage them to take action. 

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I was horrified when I first heard the news from South Africa of Cape Town’s water crisis and impending ‘Day Zero’ – the day their taps would run dry. Originally forecasted for April 16, then pushed out to May, the apocalyptic-sounding day has now successfully been pushed out to next year. Had Day Zero remained slated for April or May, Cape Town would have been the first major city to run out of water. Although postponed, the threat still remains, and thus restrictions on water usage to 13.2 gallons (50 liters) per day for residents and visitors. Water rationing and a newly-heightened awareness around water use is now the new, legally-enforced normal in Cape Town.

Two things struck me as I read about this situation. First, the seemingly unthinkable felt very close. My visit to Cape Town a few years ago reminded me of San Francisco, my home before New York. Suddenly I was reading that this seemingly-similar city was on the brink of having no water coming out of their taps. As that hit me, I considered what modern, urban life would be like when water is scarce.

ClimateChange-ColumbiaBC.jpgCape Town’s restriction of 13.2 gal (50 L) per day is miniscule in comparison to the 39.6 gal (150 L) per day used by the average UK consumer[1] and the 79.3 to 99 gal (300 to 375 L) per day used by the average US consumer.[2] Unsurprisingly, Cape Town had to undergo drastic changes. It is now illegal to wash a car or fill a swimming pool. Hotel televisions blare messages to guests to take short 90-second showers. Washroom taps are shut off in restaurants and bars. Signs around bathroom stalls say, “If it’s yellow, let it mellow.” Hand sanitizer is now the normal method of hand cleaning.WASH-Tanzania.jpgShocked by the harsh realities of what water shortage could look like here at home, I was inspired to walk through my day comparing my water habits to the new realities being faced by those in the Cape Town facing a severe crisis. I wanted to discover opportunities where I could cut back, even though I consider myself on the more conscious end of the usage spectrum.

Here is a breakdown of my average water usage per day while living and working in NY, based on faucets spewing 2.6 gal (10 L) per minute[3], and a toilet flush using 2.3 gal (9L).[4]

  • Faucet use for brushing teeth and washing face for 4 min/day: 6 gal (40L)
  • Faucet use for dish washing and rinsing food for 7 min/day:5 gal (70L)
  • Toilet flushes, 4/day: 5 gal (36 L)
  • Drinking water: 4 gal (1.5 L)
  • Showering for 9 min/day — 8 gal (90 L)

My water usage totaled roughly 62.8 gal (237.5 L) per day. That is lower than the average American’s usage, but still more than four times the new water rations for Capetonians!

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Living in an urban city that isn’t facing an impending water shortage, it may be more difficult to control certain uses than others (e.g. not flushing the toilet at work). However, there are some simple, yet significant ways to lower our daily water use:

  • Turn off the faucet while you brush your teeth and wash your face.
  • Use the dishwasher instead of washing dishes by hand. Only run it when full.
  • Only run the laundry with full loads.
  • When showering, shut off the water while you soap up and shave. Put a time in your shower to remind you not to linger.
  • Recycle water when possible. If you need to wait for hot water from the faucet, capture the cold water and use it for pets, plants, hand washing clothes, and such.

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Water use discussed thus far includes obvious personal contributors to our water footprint. But the biggest contributor is actually our diet. Agriculture accounts for roughly 80% of the world’s freshwater consumption[5]. Different foods vary greatly in the amount of water consumed in their growth and production. Meat, especially from livestock with long life cycles, contains a high “virtural water” content per serving. For example, 792.5 gal (3,000 L) of water are required for a ⅓ lb. beef burger[6] – representing four times as much water as required for the same amount of chicken. That virtual water content ratio is even greater when red meat is compared to vegetables.

We don’t have to become vegetarians, but we can cut down on meat and choose meats other than beef and lamb. That change alone would save hundreds of thousands of gallons (or liters) consumed in a year, which is much greater than the 18,069.4 gal (68,400 L) I’d save by reducing my current water usage to that of a Capetonian. Consideration of virtual water content offers some food for thought!

Sources

[1] BBC News
[2] United States Geological Survey
[3] US Green Building Council: Water Reduction Use
[4] US Green Building Council: Water Reduction Use
[5] Food Matters Environment Reports
[6] National Geographic
All images/”hydrographics” are © Alison Jones, No Water No Life®.
For more “hydrographics” visit our
website.

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.
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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

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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.

Sources

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.” WaterHistory.org. 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.

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.

 

Footnotes:

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.

Amboseli Wetlands

by Pongpol Adireksarn for No Water No Life
Edited by Alison Jones, NWNL Director

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Kilimanjaro is Africa’s highest and most well-known mountain. The Maasai call it “Ol Dolnyo Oibor” (The White Mountain) because of its snow-capped top, a symbolic landmark for centuries. Besides being picturesque, Kilimanjaro has lived up to its reputation as “The Life-giving Mountain.” It has provided water for millions of wildlife, people and their livestock in a semi-desert area with less than 340 mm [13.3 in] of rainfall annually. Amboseli National Park, a popular Kenyan safari destination, lies below the lower northern shoulders of this “Rooftop of Africa.”

In 1991 an effort began to conserve the biodiversity of Amboseli; support development of local human populations; and improve the park’s infrastructure. UNESCO and the Government of Kenya designated Amboseli National Park and its surrounding area as a “Man and the Biosphere Reserve.”

[Editor’s Note: The Man and the Biosphere Programme is an intergovernmental, scientific program launched in 1971 by UNESCO. Using science, education and economics, this program establishes benefits to human communities while safeguarding surrounding ecosystems and wildlife. Its World Network of Biosphere Reserves currently counts 669 sites in 120 countries]

Amboseli Elephant 1.jpg

On a 2005 visit to Amboseli, I saw the toll climate change is taking on Kilimanjaro: the alarming sight of less snow on the mountaintop. My most recent visit in October 2017 was disheartening. From a distance I saw only a small area of snow remaining on top of Kilimanjaro. I recalled the assessment that Kilimanjaro has lost 80 % of its snow cover since 1912; and that by 2033 the snows of Kilimanjaro would no longer exist.

Amboseli Great White Pelican.jpg

I drove deeper into the park, remembering that 12 years ago I saw a mirage of water everywhere I looked. However the mirage I saw on this drive started to disappear. Instead, what I saw before me were wide wetlands filled with water on both sides of the road. As I continued on, there were bulldozers and heavy equipment dredging these wetlands and laying large concrete pipes on both sides of the road. My local guide explained that the park is expanding the wetlands by filling existing swamps with more of the water that flows down from Kilimanjaro via underground channels.

Amboseli Elephant 3.jpg

This development fulfills the objectives set for Amboseli National Park by the Man and the Biosphere Programme. In a land of world-famous elephant matriarchs, this program is creating biodiversity havens to benefit wildlife in the immediate area of the park, while also supporting Maasai and their livestock living near the park.

Amboseli Hippo 1.jpg

The next morning, passing through an arid area with Kilimanjaro in the background, I saw a large herd of elephants walking towards the wetlands to drink and bathe. An hour later as I went closer to a wetlands, I saw several elephants and ungulates enjoying their time in the swamp. More wildlife arrived at the wetlands as the day continued. A family of hippopotamus occasionally left the swamp to graze, Hundreds of great white pelicans, winter migrants from Eastern Europe, were enjoying pleasant weather on an island in the swamp under sunny skies.

Amboseli Elephant 4.jpg

My local guide took me to Observation Hill, overlooking the vast Amboseli wetlands. As we walked up the hill, I noticed two large signs put up by International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS). One sign coined two apt phrases, “Kilimanjaro, The Life-Giving Mountain,” and “Without Kilimanjaro, Many Lives would Cease!” The other sign read, “Where Life Springs Up In A Desert.” Addressing national – and indeed global – issues, it noted, “While many wetlands in Kenya dwindle and lose biodiversity because of destructive and unchecked human activities, this protected oasis will remain a source of life. Only if man does not adversely affect it.”

 

Pongpol Adireksarn was born in Bangkok, Thailand, and received a Bachelor Degree in International Relations from Lehigh University, USA, and a Master Degree in the same field from American University, USA. Elected four times as a Member of Parliament from Saraburi Province, he was appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister of Tourism and Sports, Minister of Agriculture and Cooperatives, Minister of Education, and Deputy Prime Minister. Pongpol wrote several novels in Thai and English using his real name and the pen name “Paul Adirex”.  In the past nine years, Pongpol has been producer and host of a television documentary program on world heritage sites which has led him to many national parks and wildlife reserves all over the world, prompting him to become seriously interested in wildlife threatened species.
All photos © Pongpol Adireksarn.

The Water Scarcity Problem That’s Destroying Countries Pt. 1: The Situation

Guest Blog by John Hawthorne

Clean water. It’s something almost all of us take for granted. We turn on the tap, fill our cup, let some spill over, and then guzzle it down. It’s a privilege we fail to recognize. There is a colossal water scarcity problem in the world. Millions of people struggle to find enough clean water to survive. In order to move toward a solution, we need to first understand the problem. In this post, we’re going to help you understand the how, what, and why of the water scarcity problem.

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The Staggering Lack Of Clean Water In The World

Over 884 million people worldwide live without clean water. In order to better comprehend that staggering number, that’s the equivalent of:

  • 1 in every 10 people on the planet’s surface.
  • Twice the population of the United States.
  • The whole of Europe.

And as the years fly by and overpopulation becomes an increasingly difficult problem to solve, that number continues trending upward, inflating and growing, but never going down. Water scarcity is a harsh reality.

By the year 2018, some 1.1 billion people worldwide will lack access to any sort of water, and a total of 2.7 billion will find water scarce for at least one month of the year. Out of those figures, 2.4 billion will have inadequate water sources and have to deal with a series of life threatening diseases. A vast majority of the world population will regularly experience outbreaks of typhoid, cholera, malaria, zika, and dozens of other water borne illnesses and parasites.

In the year 2014, two million people died from diarrheal viruses and the ensuing complications. Out of those numbers, 43 percent were pre-adolescent children, most under the age of five. Access to basic sanitation and clean affordable water, can save over 17 thousands folks a week. The majority of people afflicted by this problem live in desolate, isolated, poor regions. These are often rural places that in often find themselves embroiled in some sort of political challenges.

In many cases, water, not oil, is the most precious commodity for these disenfranchised citizens, with warlords and local mafias using the resource as a means of power and political pressure. Access to clean water is of paramount importance for those without it. There are millions of people risking their lives and spending hours just for a clean gallon of water. Children go without any education, their sole responsibility trodding dozens of miles a day and fetching water.

In essence, a community without a viable source of clean water is destined for extinction. Clean water means economic growth, education, better income and healthy neighborhoods. And the outlook isn’t any better:

By 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population may face water shortages. Although the surface of our planet is covered mainly by water, over 73 percent to be exact, only 3 percent of it is considered drinkable. And, to complicate matters, only ⅓ of that scant number is accessible to humans (the rest is tucked away in glaciers, and remote regions). Finding fresh water sources is an incredibly rare thing.

Overpopulation and consumption has put a strain on an already depleted ecosystem. Many water systems, like lakes, rivers and aquifers are drying up an alarming rate or, due to our meddling, becoming far too polluted to use. Agriculture, above all other practices, consumes enormous amounts of water, more than any other industry. These precious resources are consumed in an ineffective manner.

Additionally, in impoverished regions, such as Africa (where thousands die from a result of having zero access to clean water) or in Pakistan (where the shortage has claimed ⅓ of its population), a different set of problems assaults the region: economic water scarcity. In most of these districts, water treatment plants and “soluble” wells and aquifers are nothing more than open holes in dry river beds. In Tanzania, this last practice led to devastating epidemic that slashed their population by 75% in the late 2013.

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What Is Economic Water Scarcity?

In order to understand the water crisis, we need to understand the concept of economic water scarcity. Economic water scarcity is a term that begun having a wide range appeal in mid-2007. It was defined, after a rather long and investigative essay, as a condition caused by the lack of investment in water infrastructure.

The concept first came into play after researchers and policymakers, overseen by the International Water Management Institute in Sri Lanka, conducted a 50 year study to determine the viability of sustaining life on Earth with the growing population problem. Their findings were less than hopeful.

One on the prime symptoms of economic water scarcity is a region’s capacity, both technological as well as human, to satisfy the area’s demand for drinkable water. It is a critical and typical manifestation of underdeveloped countries.

 

John Hawthorne is a health nut from Canada with a passion for travel and taking part in humanitarian efforts. His writing not only solves a creative need it has also lead to many new opportunities when traveling abroad. This article was split into two parts and republished with his permission. 

World Conservation Day 2017

In honor of World Conservation Day, NWNL wants to share some of it’s favorite photographs from over the years of each of our case-study watersheds.

Trout Lake in the Columbia River Basin
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Aerial view of the largest tributary of the Lower Omo River
Ethiopia: aerial of Mago River, largest tributary of Lower Omo River

 

Canoeing on the Mississippi River
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Fisherman with his canoe on the shore of Lake Tana, source of the Nile River
Ethiopia: Lake Tana, source of the blue Nile, fisherman and canoe on the shore.

 

Wildebeests migrating toward water in the Mara Conservancy
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Raritan River at sunset
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All photos © Alison M. Jones.

Seeking Nile River Origins via its Tributaries

By Joannah Otis for No Water No Life

This is the third blog on the Nile River in Egypt by NWNL Researcher Joannah Otis, sophomore at Georgetown University. This essay addresses the sources of the Nile  – lakes, tributaries, and a great swamp. [NWNL has completed documentary expeditions to the White and Blue Nile Rivers, but due to current challenges for photojournalists in Egypt and Sudan, NWNL is using literary and online resources to investigate the main stem of the Nile.]

For centuries, the debate over the source of the Nile River incited explorations and evoked endless questions. The Ancient Egyptians believed that the Nile originated from an underground sea or spring, but never ventured upriver to confirm their theory.  Instead they put their faith in Hapi, god of the Nile River.1 [See NWNL Blog “Finding Hapi-ness on the Nile,” .]

1000px-River_Nile_map.svgMap of the Nile River and its sources. (Attribution: Hel-Hama)

Interest in the elusive source arose again c. 440 BCE when Herodotus wrote in The Histories of the “fountains of the Nile.”  He asserted that melting snow from upstream mountains flooded the headwaters to create the seasonal inundation.2  It was not until 1768 when James Bruce began searching for and ultimately found the source of the Blue Nile at Lake Tana in the Ethiopian Highlands that some light was shed on the issue.  

In 1874, Henry Morton Stanley confirmed an earlier theory by John Hanning Speke that Lake Victoria was the source of the White Nile. These explorers and many others were often sponsored by the Royal Geographical Society in England and driven by their own hopes for fame.3 Today’s satellite technology and advanced resources have enabled us to positively identify Lake Tana as the source of the Blue Nile and Lake Victoria as the source of the White Nile. These two main rivers meet in Khartoum, Egypt to form the great Nile River.

ET Bar 0125D.JPGTissiat Falls, from L. Tana, source  of the Blue Nile.  (© Alison M. Jones)

The Blue Nile is the source of about 85% of the Nile’s water.4 Beginning in the Ethiopian Highlands where a plateau of basalt lava receives rain from seasonal monsoons from May to October, the Blue Nile stretches over 900 miles into Sudan. This origin point lies 2,500 meters above sea level.  Beginning its northbound route, this river flows through Lake Tana, as well as the Blue Nile Gorge.5 Lake Tana is a shallow body of water measuring 1,400 square miles, surrounded by the Amhara tribe’s ancestral lands.6 The Blue Nile Gorge, lying on the edge of Africa’s Great Rift Valley, guides the Blue Nile for 370 miles into the middle of the Ethiopian Highlands.7

While the White Nile contributes only 15% of the Nile River’s water, it is still an important ecological and hydrological presence.8 Originating in Lake Victoria and fed by the Ruvubu, Nyabarongo, Mara and other rivers, the White Nile flows through Lake Kyoga, Lake Albert, and the Sudd.9 The White Nile flows through much of the Albertine Rift Region.  It spans from the northernmost point of Uganda’s Lake Albert to the southern tip of Lake Tanganyika.10  This rift is home to a plethora of diverse wildlife, including 5,793 plant species, which brings profitable tourism to Uganda. Between Juba, Ethiopia and Khartoum, the river in Sudan drops just 75 meters. To the east and west of the river, the floodplains become savannah and then desert as lush growth that adorns the Nile’s banks disappears.11

White_Nile_Bridge,_Omdurman_to_Khartoum,_SudanThe White Nile Bridge in Sudan. (Attribution: David Stanley)

Just south of Khartoum, lies the vast Sudd, covering most of  South Sudan. Meaning ‘obstacle’ in Arabic. the Sudd is one of the world’s largest wetlands and the Nile Basin’s largest freshwater wetland.  The Sudd is a 12,355 square-mile practically impenetrable swamp of complex channels and lagoons –  an explorer’s challenge.  Fed by heavy rainfall from April to October,12 it provides floodwater storage and water habitat for 350 plant species, 470 migratory bird species, and 100 fish species.  Antelope migrations from the surrounding arid Sahel retreat annually to the Sudd in astonishing numbers.  Around 1.2 million white-eared kob, Nile Lechwe, and tiang, as well as wild dogs, crocodiles and hippos in the Sudd are best viewed by air.   The Sudd is also the home to pastoralist Nuer, Dinka and Shilluk tribes, Nilotic peoples who practice subsistence semi-nomadic cattle breeding and some grain farming.

Jones_040826_ET_0160Lake Tana, Ethiopia’s source of the Blue Nile. (© Alison M. Jones)

Ecosystems within the swamp include open waters with submerged vegetation, floodplain shrubland, surface-floating fringe vegetation, seasonally flooded grassland and woodland.13 Since most of the water that enters the Sudd evaporates due to high temperatures in Sudan, the White Nile leaves this swamp with half the power with which it enters.14  Since the 1930’s, there’ve been proposals to build a canal, today referred to as the Jonglei Canal Project, east out of the Sudd directly to the main stem of the Nile River.  It is said such a canal could increase Egypt’s water supply by five to seven percent. While Sudan and Egypt would benefit, South Sudan would see its fisheries die, grazing lands dry out and groundwater lowered.

Uganda:Lake Victoria, Uganda’s source of the White Nile. (© Alison M. Jones)

After years of searching, the sources of the Blue and White Nile River are no longer mysteries. The number of plant and animal species who depend on them are staggering, but they also serve as important lifelines for the humans living on their banks. From water for irrigation to water for domestic use, the Nile River tributaries are vital to North African survival of all species, including humans. It would be a human and environmental tragedy if these Nile tributaries or the great Sudd were drained and disappeared, as has Africa’s Lake Chad. Thus, these waterways deserve the respect and care owed to such treasured and vital resources.

Sources

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14Holmes, Martha; Maxwell, Gavin; Scoones, Tim. Nile. BBC Books. 2004.