Saturday, June 2, 2012

Pure Life

Nestle's "Pure Life" bottled water.  The label reminds us that water is the only fluid essential for life, as if we needed reminding of this fact.

Swimming in the delightfully blue, cool salt water of the Red Sea, we see a profusion of life along the reefs—a myriad of brilliantly colored fish in all shapes and sizes feeding off the “marine pasture” of the coral and its symbiotic algae.  If left undisturbed, this “pure life” is a beautiful example of sustainability—a self-sufficient, biodiverse ecosystem in which the sun and nutrients in the salt water provide all the energy and nutritional inputs needed for all the creatures there.  It is a great relief to see that the reefs and water quality here are still excellent.  Even with all the mega-resorts and boats on the water, the reefs are mostly alive, and fish still fairly abundant.  We heard from local marine conservationists that the fish numbers are still decreasing, mainly due to fishing, and the subtle disturbances from all the divers and boats.  So it was better in the past, but I was half expecting it to be worse.  Lionfish, squid, dolphins, rays, parrot and angel fish, flute fish, and many more.

Part of what makes the water quality so good is that there is virtually no run-off from the land, because there are no rivers and no rain around the Red Sea.  So whatever happens on the land tends to stay on the land.  This boon for the Red Sea however is part of what creates such challenges for 90 million people living in the rest of Egypt.  At the Valley of the Kings I happened upon an elderly gentleman who stood out as the only person wearing a hard hat there amongst all the tourists.  It turned out he was a hydrogeologist and environmental engineer from Penn State, doing survey work on the fractures in the rocks around the tombs.  Apparently, during the rare rain events they do get here, some of the tombs flood, or at least get wet, and they are working with the Supreme Council on Antiquities (SCA) to try to seal up the cracks and otherwise waterproof the tombs.  He’s been coming here for years, working on various projects.  Interestingly he said that most of the funding they get is for more “hard science” projects that have little applicability in terms of the local, immediate problems.  The need here (a sentiment repeated by other scientists and practioners we encountered here) is for applied science with policy relevance, and which can be applied directly to the very basic, but pressing issues facing local communities.  These include a whole raft of water management problems, and as the geologist put it, with a bit of a smile, “The water dynamics around here are incredibly complex.” 

Just down the hill from where we stood is “New Gurna” a model community designed by Hassan Fathy.  They were relocated, like the Nubians upstream around Aswan, to make way for progress.  Their original homes were up on the ridges adjoining the Theban Necropolis, but the state did not like having them so close to these historical sites.  Their new homes, which Fathy attempted to make in a style that reflected local values and used local material, we initially hailed as a great success, but, as with so many well-meaning development projects, ran into a number of obstacles.  One was that the home were not designed to be expanded, and almost all the houses we see in Egypt are built with partially completed additional floors, for the families of their children.  And there were water problems.  When the British and then Nasser built the Aswan Dams, one of the many unintended consequences was that by raising the average water level in the Nile, the riparian water table rose as well.  In New Qurna, this weakened the buildings, which were constructed of hand-made bricks, and some of the buildings have collapsed. 

We saw the same problems in some of the other sites we have visited, most poignantly in one of the old Coptic churches in Cairo, the basement of which was believed to have been a refuge for the Holy family during their sojourn in Egypt.  USAID had funded a project to de-water the basement, with drains and sump pumps, but communities all over Egypt are faced with this challenge.

Nowhere are the importance and complexity of water dynamics greater than in Egypt, and on this trip we are getting a sense of a range of challenges and problems currently facing the Egypt’s water managers.  We are getting a sense as well of how none of the solutions or practices are without some downsides or risks.  For Egypt to move along the path toward sustainable development, it is going to have to work very carefully on managing the Nile.  The ankh is a sign of never-ending life, and one interpretation of it is the Nile itself with the Delta represented by the loop on top and the straight vertical line representing the Upper Nile.  The Nile, ceaselessly flowing seems about a good an example of a sustainable resource as one can find, and it is being stretched to its limit.
The god of the flood, Honum, at the temple in Kom Ombo.

At Kom Ombo, the Egyptians worshiped Honum, the ram-headed god of the flood.  In Luxor, and elsewhere, and in Ancient Egypt the river was seen as a god—Hapi—uncontrollable and in need of careful monitoring.  It was interesting to see a few examples of the “Nilometers” used by the priests to carefully track the water levels to get a sense of how large the annual flooding of the Nile would be in a given year.  
The Nilometer at Aswan.  Water would rise up these steps, with careful measurements marked at each level.   No longer necessary because Lake Nasser supplies a steady flow year round.

The river in its natural form had this annual pulse which is characteristic of most undammed rivers, and delivered a rich supply of natural fertilizer in the silt from its headwaters.  This enabled Egypt to produce the abundant harvest that was the foundation for its millennia of imperial greatness, and then rendered it such an appealing target for conquest for the last 2500 years. 
The god of the Nile, Hapi, a hermaphroditic figure of the life-giving waters.  I think this was at Edfu, but they do begin to blur together after awhile. 
In the modern era, beginning first with the agricultural reforms of Mohamed Ali, and then kicked into high gear during the British regency, this natural productivity of the Nile River was not deemed adequate.  The extensive irrigation system and cash cropping initiated by Mohamed Ali, formed the basis for an agricultural export economy (cotton and sugar) but by the turn of the century in order to increase production, more water was needed, and the annual fluctuations and irregularity of the river’s flow was a problem.  To address this the British succeeded in both colonizing most of the Upper Nile watershed, and in constructing the first Aswan Dam.  Nasser, embracing this modern conception of the river, with the help of the Soviets, built the mammoth high dam.  At Abu Simbel, the pharaoh Ramses II, is depicted making an offer to himself, Ramses the God.  It is a sign of his ego and hubris that was unsurpassed, at least architecturally, by any other pharaoh.  In a way, Nasser was like Ramses, with the government taking on the power of the god of the flood, Honum.  In damming the river, the Egyptian state became the gods, or at least tamed them.  It is quite fitting that his project submerged the old statue of Ramses, and that the restored temple now looks out over Lake Nasser—a monument so large even Ramses would be in awe of it. 
Our students "in awe" of the modern pyramid of the Aswan high dam, with its huge hydroelectric generators.
Lake Nasser, still the largest man-made reservoir in the world.  The Toshka pumping station would draw water from the lake to irrigate the Western dessert.

But these stories don’t usually end well—and in this case the High Dam has had all sorts of adverse effects down stream.  Most directly, it displaced thousands of Nubians living along that stretch of the Nile, and submerged dozens of temples and historic sites.  From an ecological standpoint the dam choked off the flow of nutrients down the river.  Driving north from Aswan we followed huge truck loads of “Prilled Porous ammonia nitrate” in trucks heading north to the Delta region, the artificial and costly replacement for the “ecological service” previously provided by the river.
One of many trucks we saw hauling fertilizer north to the farm country in lower Egypt.

In Cairo, the water issues mainly have to do with incredible pollution.  The press of humanity, and lack of trash collection mean that many of the irrigation canals around Cairo are literally choked with garbage and untreated sewage.  This was what the Mississippi was like in the 1920s through the 60s (although it was a somewhat set of circumstances to led to the dire state of the river then).  The fact that the Mississippi is much cleaner now than it was fifty years ago bodes well for the Nile eventually, but it will take billions of dollars in infrastructure expenditures to get there.
The partially finished, and truly enormous canal bed for the "New Valley" project at Toshka.  Stay tuned for stories about problems with this one.
The completed "feeder canal" that will provide water to the New Valley project.

With the increasing population and demand for food both in Egypt and globally, there plans afoot to irrigate a huge swath of the western desert.  The power lines from the High Dam stretch south to the Toshka pumping station, where the new canal project is still in progress.  Named after one of the now submerged Nubian villages, the first stage of the canal system is complete, and the second massive component well under way.  The canal bed is enormous, capable of truly creating a second Nile to the west of the first one.  Now it is a race to see whether this project gets finished first, or the huge new dam that Ethiopia has started building on the headwaters.  The project is backed by oil money, including from Walid bin Talal, Saudi prince who has invested heavily in the Toshka pumping station.  It sounds like an Egyptian version of Chinatown in the making with oil money now gravitating to the new wealth to be generated by food production and rising real estate prices in newly irrigated lands.  People have been coming to Egypt for their wheat since Alexander conquered the place and the idea still has great appeal, with modern machinery and engineering opening up new possibilities for new irrigation projects.  One can only imagine the huge unintended consequences of these grand plan.

In Egypt, a large percentage of the arable land has shifted over to cash crops for export, and the country now has to import wheat, which must also be heavily subsidized to keep the people quiet.  People who know they can at least get their bread each day are much more likely to remain quiescent than those who find themselves unable to afford bread and the government uses this as a political tool.  But the challenge of producing enough food will only get greater, as the population continues to climb.  As well, countries upstream like Ethiopia are in the process of building dams that have the potential to decrease the flow of water in the Nile.  The demands for this water, for all the uses to which it is put are steadily increasing throughout the watershed.

The drinking water then gets increasingly contaminated, particularly in Cairo and the Delta, leading then to the rapid increase in the sale of bottled water, and here we find a different for of “pure life” than that we encountered on the coral reefs off Hurghada.  This is the commodified version—bottled water—pumped from the nonrewable sources of deep aquifers in Lower Egypt.  Nestles’ “Pure Life” and Coke’s “Dasani” are everywhere, and we’ve been consuming bottles of their produces at an alarming rate.  The importance of water in this place is no more evident than in Aswan, where going for even an hour without drinking leaves at least me parched and slightly dizzy.  The high temperature hovers around 115 there, but everywhere we go we are chugging bottled water.  Add to the heat, the problem of contamination (which has wrecked havoc with all of our digestive systems at some point on the trip), and you have a golden opportunity for bottled water sales.  The multinationals have responded, and as long as government spending on upgrading the municipal drinking water supplies stays low, they will have steady business. 
A typical day's trash in our van.  Recycling is mostly non-existent here, except at some of the higher end hotels, and via the zebeleem (the people who make a living by collecting and sorting trash).

Add this all up, and you have a situation that appears to be increasingly unsustainable.  The river keeps flowing, but its flow is decreasing, the costs of cleaning it, controlling it, fertilizing it, and diverting it increase, as the upstream countries increase their use.  Should the revolution succeed, the water management agenda should provide a great set of projects for the new generation of Egyptian rulers to tackle.  For a country that produced the Pyramids and Al Karnak, and is full of so many bright, energetic, and dedicated people, I am confident they will be able to face the challenge, as long as the new government has a genuine interest in taking on projects that truly benefit everyone rather than line their own pockets.  And there is little time to waste.

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