Egyptian Reflections: The Nile is Life

The Nile is Life*

Rebecca J. Romsdahl

This is the third of four essays reflecting on Egypt. Please also read the introduction to see how they are all linked. Enjoy!

The Nile River is considered the longest river in the world.  The Nile is formed by the merging of its two major tributaries, the White Nile and the Blue Nile. “The White Nile is considered to be the headwaters and primary stream of the Nile itself. The Blue Nile, however, is the source of most of the water and silt.” Similar to our Red River of the North, the Nile is one of those oddities that flows from south to north where it empties into the Mediterranean Sea. From hot-air balloon, we were able to see how the Nile creates a bright green line weaving through the desert. When we commented on this to our guide, Robert, he smiled: “we say in Egypt that the Nile is life”.

To experience the romantic history of the Nile, we booked a seven-day cruise on a sailboat. The cruise sailed upstream, traveling south from the city of Luxor to Aswan. In a conversation with Mamdouh, our guide, he described the sailboat as a dahabiya, the ‘Rolls Royce’ of Nile cruise ships. These dahabiyas are modernized replicas of luxury sailboats first used by European tourists in the early 1900s. They generally have five or six crew cabins, plus four cabins and a suite, for tourists. When we arrived to check-in, we were surprised to learn that the captain had bumped our reservation up to the suite because we would be joined by a party of four other couples traveling together. We were delighted because the suite gave us a private balcony at the back of the boat from which we enjoyed the centuries-old romance of afternoon tea while watching the changing Nile scenery drift by.

Relaxing, refreshing, decadent, this was how we felt many afternoons on our private porch. Some days the front sail was up, other days we would be towed by a small tug-boat. From our porch we would listen to the breaking waves in our small wake and allow this lazy music to transport us out of time while we jotted notes in our journals. I felt immersed in a pleasant daze of pure enjoyment. Every few minutes, one of us would break the trance with a comment about the world around us:

the rise of hills in the near distance seem to plateau into mountains, their sandy, barren dryness such a striking contrast with lush-greenery of bullrushes and palm tress along the shoreline;

the soothing whine of a call to prayer from the local mosque draws our eyes to its lovely minaret just visible above the palm trees;

verdant floating mats of vegetation, some four-feet wide, drift by now and again with varieties of birds hunting through them: small black birds with red and yellow beaks and pretty long-legged egrets with light blue beaks and feet;

there are boys swimming noisy and naked near shore and more birds where the boys are not;

eventually, the sound of sparse traffic on the road paralleling the river brought our attention back to modernity.

A significant problem for the “Nile Delta and Egypt as a whole: the country most closely associated with the world’s longest river is suffering from an acute shortage of water, and its deficit is only likely to get worse.” …”two main explanations were usually proffered: population growth and global climate change. Both are relevant. The Delta was once nourished by the water and silt that washed in with Egypt’s seasonal floods; since the construction of the High Dam at Aswan in the 1960’s those floods have ceased, and in their place a network of irrigation canals has ferried gallons of freshwater from the Nile’s two tributary branches across to where it’s needed. But increased water use upstream [in other developing nations like Ethiopia, etc.]… have taken a toll. Egypt currently has only 700 cubic meters of freshwater per person, well short of the 1,000 cubic meters per person the United Nations believes is the minimum need for water security.” (Shenker p. 180).

By contrast, America had the world’s highest per capita water footprint, at 2,842 cubic meters per person in 2012, with the world’s average being 1,385 cubic meters per person. This difference in living standards really struck me the day we walked through the ‘village’ of Esna to view the local ancient temple. To reach the temple, we walked through a section of the city. The temple was lost, but now recovered from being buried in the flood-silt and sand for generations; it seemed to be sunk 10 feet below ground level. Although Esna is roughly the same size population (around 50,000) as our city of Grand Forks, ND, I believe most Americans would say the people of Esna live in abject poverty. The streets were packed dirt. Although the market vendors had a wide variety of goods (fruits, veggies, beans, clothes, luggage, cloth, even a cobbler) the stalls and tables seemed haphazardly constructed, there was litter strewn about, and many people seemed to show signs of poor-health, such as missing teeth or being extremely thin. Our guide, Robert, laughed in surprise when we told him that our city, where we lived and worked, was the same size as Esna: “what?! you have a university in your village?!” He shook is head in amazement of such a contrast because he had attended university in the mega-city of Cairo (around 18 million population).

The next day we had a delightful breakfast on shore in a small grove of mango and banana trees on a local farm. The family has an agreement with the tour company. Its sailboats can tie up on their shore overnight and we get a brief tour of part of their fields and farm life. They showed us their two camels, several donkeys and cows, and about ten sheep. A couple of our travel companions took turns having a ride on one of the donkeys; we declined as we both were recovering from the ill-effects of ‘Tut’s trots’. The farm looked prosperous. I could identify a variety of crops they were growing, including: peppers, okra, sugarcane, wheat, alfalfa, and the grove of mango and banana also had some tangerine trees. We heard that the family rented the use of the tractor and thrasher we saw in the wheat field, for the half day it would take them to harvest and process the crop. The farm seemed to have a nice supplemental income from tourists as well; we noticed another dahabiya had tied up behind our boat during the night. During the ancient floods, the water was likely a muddy brown, the same caramel color of the soil, but now it is not as rich in nutrient-laden silt as it was for centuries before the High Dam was built at Aswan, just far enough over Egypt’s southern border to contain the reservoir, Lake Nasser. The family showed us their irrigation system, which was made more reliable by the dam.

They have a simple system of two cows tethered to a large iron water wheel; the cows were led around in a circle to operate the pump and the water drawn out was dumped into a small channel (1-2 feet wide) from which they could direct it left or right (by removing or replacing mud-dikes) into other channels that lined the fields. The water then flooded the field it was directed to; some of the crops were planted in high mounded rows. It is an ancient and effective system when the Nile water is plentiful, but in dry years and in a desert climate, it seemed to leave too much water exposed to evaporation.

Climate change and increasing populations over the coming decades will only make [Egypt’s] water shortage worse. Any rise in temperatures will result in more Nile water evaporating before it ever gets to the Delta region and “to make matters even worse, Egypt’s northern region (the Delta) – already one of the top three areas on the planet most vulnerable to any rises in global sea levels – is being hit by coastal erosion, enabling the spread of salinity through the fields and damaging soil fertility. Experts…predict that wheat and corn yields could drop by 40-50 percent respectively across the next thirty years, and…flooding from the sea could displace millions of Egyptians from one of the most densely populated regions on Earth.” Under the Mubarak Government, these facts were used as weapons against the poor; the Government blamed Egypt’s ecological problems of “massive population, overcrowding, pollution, cars and agricultural chemicals, and rising sea level” on the very people who suffer most from these challenges and then used that false environmental concern to legitimize government assaults against marginalized peoples and give priority to government schemes for private wealth development under disguises of social responsibility. (Shenker p. 181)

We tied up to shore one afternoon to let a flotilla of hotels (large 75-100 room ships) pass by; we counted 25 in a couple hours before losing track. During our break, we were privileged to tour a nearby family’s home; it felt awkward and a bit intrusive to be tramping through their home. I thought of the few times when extended family or friends of friends had visited my family’s farm to get a tour of the barns, see the animals, and stop in for coffee and cookies; even as a child, it seemed strange to hear their comments about how they had never been to a farm before and they hadn’t known what to expect. The Egyptian family’s mud-brick house had hard-packed dirt floors, a small common living space with a modest television hooked up to satellite dish, a couple of small bedrooms, and a kitchen with a little refrigerator, table, chairs, 5-gallon propane tank stove-top, and a single electric bulb on a string. The walls were painted and there were colorful rag-rugs scattered here and there on the floor. Several children watched us with smiles and wide-eyes. Robert told us there was also sleeping space and mats on the rooftop as we had seen other places. Outside they had a mud-brick oven and a small barn-like enclosure attached to the house where they kept several goats and about a dozen chickens and ducks. Robert told us this was an average working-class family. We greeted the smiling women and children by saying “salaam,” as one led us through their home. Our companion’s guide, Ayman, told us there were four brothers and their families who shared the farm, house, and other outbuildings. We asked about the mix of different construction materials we had seen along our trip, he explained that converting the buildings to cement block structures was a sign of higher wealth and status. But he felt it was an unfortunate decision for families because the cement buildings are more expensive to build and keep because they do not stay naturally cool like the traditional mud-brick structures, so families have to invest in electric A/C cooling.

The Nile is life for Egyptians. The river is the lifeblood of agriculture, which feeds the people; the dam at Aswan provides electricity and drought management; the Nile provides drinking water to the nation. Whoever has access to the Nile has a better life; whoever controls decisions about how to use the Nile has power over the gaps between rich and poor.

Reference: Shenker, J. (2016) The Egyptians: A radical story. Allen Lane of Penguin Books. United Kingdom.


* This series is being reposted here from Rebecca Romsdahl’s blog, Blue Marble Noteswith her generous permission.

Rebecca J. Romsdahl is Associate Professor in the Department of Earth System Science & Policy at the University of North Dakota where she teaches courses on environmental science in policy and communication. Her research examines the human dimensions of global environmental change. Romsdahl earned her PhD in environmental science and public policy from George Mason University, her MS from Michigan State University, and BA from Gustavus Adolphus College. She enjoys global travel adventures, hiking and camping, gardening, and visiting her family farm in Minnesota.

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