The world’s longest river is in trouble


Jonathan Rashad is a photojournalist based in Cairo. March 22, 2018 is the 25th anniversary of World Water Day.

BANHA, Egypt — As I chased the fading daylight on a drive north from Cairo toward the Mediterranean Sea, a farmer in a field off the highway beckoned me over with a welcoming smile. I was investigating the problems facing those who work the land here in Egypt’s Nile Delta. The waterway that fed Ramadan Saad’s field was clogged with garbage.

“There is a main Nile-connected canal nearby that is supposed to flow into the tertiary canal around the farm,” Saad told The WorldPost. “But it does not. The tertiary canal here has been entirely blocked by garbage disposal, and we cannot access the Nile water, which is the most fertile for irrigation.”

The Nile Delta is the final stretch of the world’s longest river, a landscape of fertile soil, farms and a constellation of towns and cities where the river fans out and drains into the Mediterranean. It is one of the largest river deltas in the world and is home to almost half of Egypt’s population.

But due to the country’s rapidly increasing population, climate change, and poor garbage, sewage and pollution management, this verdant region is at risk. Today, the river can barely supply the country’s water needs. Egypt’s population is expected to double by 2050, and with that growth comes increased demand for farms and food. So, too, comes greater pollution of the river and canals, on which farmers rely heavily to irrigate their fields.

Another problem for farmers is the reduction in sediment, which is necessary to maintain a fertile delta, carried downstream by the river; dams, like the two near Egypt’s southern city of Aswan, halt that natural flow and threaten the long-term health of agriculture near the Mediterranean coast. Worse may be to come. Thousands of miles upriver from the Delta, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile, the main river’s principal tributary, is nearly complete; once construction is finished, it will be the largest hydroelectric power plant on the continent and may further restrict the flow of freshwater and essential nutrients that are vital for agriculture in the Delta.

For a farmer like Saad, all of these problems build up. Instead of having access to water from the Nile less than a mile away, he has to rely on hand-dug wells. But the groundwater doesn’t have enough nutrients for his crops. And anyway, Saad said, garbage and pollution have ruined the Nile water around here. “It is full of toxins,” he told me. “That water causes kidney failure.”

In the 1940s, there was an average of around 90,000 cubic feet of water available per person each year. Now, it is less than a third of that, well within the United Nations’ zone of water scarcity. The Egyptian government projects water availability to fall even further over the next few years, to what the U.N. defines as “absolute scarcity.”

All this is happening amidst a changing climate. Taha el-Erian, the head of water resources at the Egyptian Public Authority for Shore Protection, told me that as the sea level rises, parts of the coast are being consumed, and the freshwater that farmers need for their crops is turning increasingly brackish. As the Delta’s agriculture land becomes saltier, farming here may become impossible.

“Even after the seawalls we set up,” Erian said, “the shoreline in the Delta is still retreating gradually, at an average rate of 20 meters [60 feet] per year in some coastal cities.” Reports forecast the sea will rise more than three additional feet this century, which would likely leave much of the northern part of the Delta under water.

In the northern coastal city of Rosetta, where the Nile finally meets the Mediterranean, these dangers are already apparent. Hamada Henidy owns a small farm here, but he cannot grow crops anymore. He does not know why. “I carried out a few tests on my land,” he told me. “I am not sure why it is not fertile anymore. It could be pollution. It could be high level of soil salinity because my land is near the sea.”

Sewage adds to Henidy’s farming troubles. The authorities generally ignore sewage disposal into the river, and the banks of the canal are constantly clogged with garbage. The water is becoming more and more toxic. “Five years ago,” Henidy said, “we started feeling the pollution through the water coming from the main canal nearby, which is contaminated by chemically treated sewage disposal. And that kills our crops. The government does not care. They throw chemical waste into the Nile everywhere.”

About 20 miles away from Henidy’s farm, I met Mohamed el-Sabrout, a day laborer who works on a farm not far from the Mediterranean. Sickle in hand, he talked with me about what it’s been like to work the land here over the years. “There are around 18 clay brickmaking factory towers around the farms here,” he said. “The smoke coming out of these towers laces the plants with smoke exhaust, which eventually stunts the crops here.”

The government controls the amount of water that goes into the canals, Sabrout went on, and many farmers don’t know how the system works. There is competition between some landowners, he said. “It is a matter of who manages to get more water, leaving the other landowner most likely suffering a shortage. Back in the day, there was coordination and respect. There is no water management among us here.”

Eventually, I turned away from the coast and headed back inland. Eighty miles from the sea, in the small town of Tanta, I found that the story for farmers was no different. I met an older woman named Beh Shaaban sitting next to her cattle. She lamented the loss of a bird called the cattle egret that used to be ubiquitous around here.

The birds “have always been friends of the farmer in Egypt,” Shaaban told me. “They always helped by eating pests and insects that kill the crops. They remove the ticks and flies from the cattle as well. Now, the birds are dying because of pollution. They are also transferring diseases after eating from the huge garbage pile near the farm here. There is pollution everywhere.”

Next door to Beh Shaaban, I met Adel Khedr. His farm is only a few dozen feet from a canal, but it no longer supplies enough water for his crops. He dug a well to get to groundwater to supplement the trickle from the canal. But the well water does not have enough nutrients, he told me. He went on: “Its salinity is high, which could kill our crops at any time.”

Years ago, Kheder did not have a problem getting enough water from the canal. That world is long gone. “All the water and canals around us are drying out gradually,” he told me. “It seems like there will not be water here in the future. And that has already happened in other cities in the Delta.”

This was produced by The WorldPost, a partnership of the Berggruen Institute and The Washington Post.