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


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.


1 Holmes, Martha; Maxwell, Gavin; Scoones, Tim. Nile. BBC Books. 2004.
2Bangs, Richard; Scaturro, Pasquale. Mystery of the Nile. G.P. Putnam’s Sons. New York, New York. 2005.
3 Turnbull, March. “The Great Race for the Rivers of Africa.” Africa Geographic. May 2004.
4 “Nile River Facts.” Africa Facts. Web.
5“History of the Nile.” Penn State College of Earth and Mineral Sciences. Web.
6Bangs, Richard; Scaturro, Pasquale. Mystery of the Nile. G.P. Putnam’s Sons. New York, New York. 2005.
7Holmes, Martha; Maxwell, Gavin; Scoones, Tim. Nile. BBC Books. 2004.
8“Nile River Facts.” Africa Facts. Web. September 27, 2017.
9Caputo, Robert. “Journey up the Nile.” National Geographic. May 1985.
10“The Environmental Resources of the Nile Basin.” p 57-98. Web.
11Pavan, Aldo. The Nile From the Mountains to the Mediterranean. Thames and Hudson Ltd. 2006.
12 Holmes, Martha; Maxwell, Gavin; Scoones, Tim. Nile. BBC Books. 2004.
13“The Environmental Resources of the Nile Basin.” p 57-98. Web.
14Holmes, Martha; Maxwell, Gavin; Scoones, Tim. Nile. BBC Books. 2004.

White Nile River Basin Expedition – Jinga 4/10

Welcome to #10 of 11 blogs written by Alison Jones before her departure to Uganda and Kenya as NWNL’s lead photographer. Updated 4/11: Location and text have been updated to reflect revised plans.

The former Rippon Falls, where L. Victoria becomes the Nile and J. H. Speke camped in 1862

Date: Sat–Wed, 10–14 April 2010 /Entry 10
Reporter: Alison M. Jones
Location: Jinga

NWNL will end its White Nile River Basin expedition in Jinga on Lake Victoria, the head of the Victoria Nile. With the guidance of a member of the National Association of Professional Engineers, NWNL will photograph fishing on Lake Victoria, the Bujagali and Owen Falls dams, and a local resettlement village created for those who had to be moved out of the Bujagali Reservoir. Discussions will focus on the processes followed (or not followed) in constructing these hydro dams and on other Nile River Basin projects that NAPE is focused on that impact Nile watershed ecosystems and water supplies, including oil exploration and extraction from protected areas.

From the field: The end of NWNL’s Uganda expedition was the beginning: the source of the Nile at the northern end of Lake Victoria’s Napoleon Bay! In 1862 John Hanning Speke was the first European to see Rippon Falls, submerged when the Owen Falls Dam was built (1954). At this hydrological landmark the Nile River begins its 4000-mile (6400-km), 3-month-long journey north to the Mediterranean Sea.

Our visit to Bujagali Falls, downstream from Rippon Falls, gave us an understanding of the power and drama of the Nile – what Rippon Falls was like before the Owen and Kiira Dams. Bujagali Falls provide nesting sanctuary for many bird species and are home to the spiritual gods of the Busoga Kingdom. Yet these falls will also be submerged when the government, with support of international financial institutions, finishes another large hydropower dam, despite the failed productions of the two immediately upstream.

A villager from Malindi where blasting for the Bujagali Dam has cracked many homes

These losses will be in vain because it is all but certain that the Bujagali dam will never reach its promised production of 250 megawatts. The upstream Owen Falls and Kiira Dams, meant to produce 350–380 megawatts of power, only produce 120 megawatts now – less than half intended! This is because of Lake Victoria’s falling water levels due to climate change, increased extraction by growing populations, and deforestation in the headwaters of rivers entering the lake. Water amounts coming into the Bujagali Dam are no different than that coming into the two upstream dams, as there are no additional tributaries between them and the Bujagali site.

Additionally, there were no proper environmental or social impact studies prior to construction. The government has largely disregarded the effects of the dam on the livelihoods of local stakeholders, whether resettled or suffering from the blast impacts. Surrounding communities (comprising over 8000 people) are struggling with landlessness, food insecurity, declining environmental quality, declining health, collapse of their fishing industry, and uncertain socio-economic futures. Resettled farmers who were moved from the Nile’s riverine flood plains have been struggling for 10 years to live on reassigned land that lacks water, sanitation or trees.

On top of these socio-economic issues, the cost of the dam relative to the amount of power expected will make Bujagali Dam’s hydropower the most expensive in the world – certainly not affordable to the 90% of Ugandans who currently lack electricity. NWNL hopes that the advocacy efforts of its newest partner, NAPE (National Association of Professional Issues), will help raise awareness and mitigate some of the problems being caused by the Bujagali Dam. The World Bank and the European Investment Banks are currently conducting investigations and withholding their critical funding until the reviews are concluded and recommendations initiated.

Alison Jones at the Source of the Nile with flag of NWNL’s fiscal sponsor, WINGS WorldQuest