Squandering the gift of the Nile Lifeline: The world's longest river has defined Egypt since before the pharaohs, but modern management threatens to transform its fountain of fertility into a bed of pestilence.

Sun Journal

August 04, 1996|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ASWAN, Egypt -- The Nile rests here in languid meditation, pondering the 600 miles ahead in its journey to give life to Egypt.

The silvery water hosts a butterfly brigade of sails, as feluccas and fisher boats exploit the river's pause before it begins its mission of nurture to the scorched land ahead.

"Egypt is the Nile," a London Daily Mail reporter, G. W. Steevens, said a century ago.

No other river so defines a place as the Nile does Egypt, from Egypt's creation to its daily existence. Brazil has its Amazon, Africa its Congo, China its Yangtze, and North America its mighty Mississippi.

But they are features in wider landscapes. There is no place else fit for man in Egypt but the Nile. To be Egyptian is to feel the Nile daily -- 95 percent of the country's 60 million people live astride the river on less than 4 percent of the land.

Without the Nile, Egypt would surrender to the barren sands and the fiery sun.

"The river is part of our blood," said Farkhonda Hassan, a geologist at the American University of Cairo. "The very first time I went to Sudan, I went by train and boat. As long as I saw the Nile, I never felt a stranger. That was 45 years ago, and I still feel that way."

For years, people have been captivated by this bold river, the world's longest, and by the ancient civilizations spawned on its shores.

Europe is littered with the artifacts that Westerners stole from the riverside. Many of Rome's famous squares are anchored with Egyptian obelisks. Many of Egypt's greatest treasures are found in European museums.

The adventurers overlooked the true treasure of the Nile -- the silty sediment it brought with each flood that cleansed the shores and fertilized the fields for 30 or 35 days each year. It was on this that Egypt and its agriculture flourished for 7,000 years.

The floods were not always benign. They swept away houses and livestock and sometimes people.

"In the past, it was a very rich, full river. In the flood time, it was very dangerous," said Sami Fayed, a scientist at the National Research Center in Cairo.

He recalls walking with his father, an irrigation engineer, to inspect the banks during the high floods, looking for weak spots to be bolstered quickly with sandbags and later with stones when the water receded in the summer.

Under President Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt chose to end the river's annual rampage. The government added to a series of old barrages at Aswan, and finished the Aswan High Dam in 1964 in a triumph of nationalistic fever.

The huge rock-fill dam -- 17 times higher than the Great Pyramid -- stopped the natural cycle of floods and created a constant flow during the course of the year. It provided hydroelectric power and allowed for steady irrigation.

But in taming the Nile's spirit, the dam robbed the river of its health and many of its gifts. No longer does the river fertilize the farmlands, nor scour salts and other pollutants out to sea.

"When I see the river now, I see it as I walked along the banks 40 or 50 years ago with my father," said Fayed. "In the summer, it was brick brown because of the silt and the clay. In the winter it was greenish. Now it's gray.

"Now you go down to the water, and you find insects that thrive in the stagnant water. In the past, it was too strong, too alive for that. It's still alive, but not as it was in the past," he said.

Now, 100 drainage canals pour agricultural runoff, domestic wastewater, and industrial discharges into the Nile as it wends northward from Aswan to the Mediterranean.

Heavy chemicals nestle in the sediment, a nasty gift for future generations. Organic wastes slip through the unsophisticated filters of downriver water plants, and bring suspicion to the flow from kitchen faucets.

Fayed recalls the huge, fleshy fish that were lured so easily to the dinner table when he was a boy. Now, only distorted little fish emerge from the waters.

"We have laws on pollution, but they are just paper. The laws are not very strong, and there is a lot of talk," said Fayed.

It is dangerous even to touch the water. Small parasitic worms find willing hosts in snails along the banks, and emerge in the water. They enter the legs of fishermen, the hands of women washing clothes, the backs of swimming children.

The worms cause an intestinal disease called bilharzia that eventually can cause liver and kidney damage.

Before the Aswan Dam was built, bilharzia was confined to the slow shallows of the Nile Delta near the Mediterranean Sea. Now tourists in Cairo taking a felucca sailboat ride are advised to keep their hands dry, and the occasional water skier risks more than clucks of disapproval.

In the ultimate irony of this land the ancient Greek traveler Herodotus called "the gift of the Nile," the government now makes commercials urging Egyptians not to go into the river. The ads have little effect.

"If you don't go into the Nile, where do you go?" asked Kamal Ewida, head of the International Center for Environment and Development, a Cairo think tank.

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