Looted Resources Egypt – The Nile River

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The Nile is famous as the longest river in the world. The river got its name from the Greek word Neilos, which means valley. The Nile floods the lands in Egypt, leaving behind black sediment. That’s why the ancient Egyptians named the river Ar, meaning black.

The river is 6695 kilometers (4184 miles) long and it winds from Uganda to Ethiopia, flowing through a total of nine countries. While the Nile River is often associated with Egypt, it actually touches Ethiopia, Zaire, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi and Sudan, as well as Egypt. It’s only recent that the first known navigation team successfully followed the river from beginning to its end.

The Nile River has played an extremely important role in the civilization, life and history of the Egyptian nation. One of the most well known river Nile facts is the river’s ability to produce extremely fertile soil, which made it easy for cities and civilizations to spring up alongside the banks of the Nile. The fertile soil is contributed by the annual spring floods, when the Nile River overflows onto the banks. Much of the Egyptian nation consists of dry desert land. Throughout most of the year, very little rain falls on Egyptian deserts. This has remained true for thousands of years. The abundant Nile River provided much needed irrigation, even in ancient times. This waterway also provided a source of drinking water, and source of irrigation for farming as well as papyrus reeds that could be used for a variety of purposes such as paper and building materials.

Three rivers flowed into the Nile from the south and thus served as its sources: the Blue Nile, the White Nile and the Arbara. Within the southern section between Aswan and Khartoum, land which was called Nubia, the River passes through formations of hard igneous rock, resulting in a series of rapids, or cataracts, which form a natural boundary to the south. Between the first and second cataracts lay Lower Nubia, and between the second and sixth cataracts lay upper Nubia.


Along most of its length through Egypt, the Nile has scoured a deep, wide gorge in the desert plateau. At Aswan North of the first cataract the Nile is deeper and its surface smoother. Downstream from Aswan the Nile flows northerly to Armant before taking a sharp bend, called the Qena. From Armant to Hu, the River extends about 180 kilometers and divides the narrow southern valley from the wider northern valley.


Southern Egypt, thus being upstream, is called Upper Egypt, and northern Egypt, being downstream and the Delta, is called Lower Egypt. In addition to the Valley and the Delta, the Nile also divided Egypt into the Eastern and Western Deserts.

The Nile Valley is a canyon running 660 miles long with a floodplain occupying 4,250 square miles. The Delta spans some 8,500 square miles and is fringed in its coastal regions by lagoons, wetlands, lakes and sand dunes.

The Delta represented 63 percent of the inhabited area of Egypt, extending about 200 kilometers from south to north and roughly 400 kilometers from east to west. While today the Nile flows through the Delta in only two principal branches, the Damietta and the Rosetta, in ancient times there were three principal channels, known as the water of Pre, the water of Ptah and the water of Amun. In classical or GraecoRoman times, these were called the Pelusiac, the Sebennytic, and the Canopic branches. There were additionally subsidiary branches or artificially cut channels.

 The most dominant features of the Delta as the sandy mounds of clay and silt that appear as islands rising 1-12 meters above the surrounding area. Since these mounds would not be submerged by the inundation, they were ideal sites for Predynastic and Early Dynastic settlements, and indeed evidence of human habitation have been found. Perhaps these mounds rising above the water table inspired the ancient belief of creation as having begun on a mound of earth that emerged from the primordial waters of Nun (Pyramid Text 600).

 The ancient Egyptian calendar, made up of twelve months of 30 days each, was divided into three seasons, based upon the cycles of the Nile. The three seasons were: akhet, Inundation, peret, the growing season, and shemu, the drought or harvest season. During the season of the Inundation, layers of fertile soil were annually deposited on the flood-plain. Chemical analysis has shown how fertile the Nile mud is. It contains about 0.1 percent of combined nitrogen, 0.2 percent of phosphorus anhydrides and 0.6 percent of potassium.

When one cruises on the Nile, one might pass by the ancient and significant sites of Karnak itself, Luxor, on the other side of the river from Karnak,Dendera, with its grand temple to the goddess HathorAbydos, with its marvelous temple built by Seti I as well as being the site of Earlier Dynastic tombs,Esna, with its temple to the potter and creator-god Khnum, lord of the region who was credited as having the power over the river and its richness, Edfu, with its temple to Horus, Kom Ombo, with its double temple to Sobek and a form of Horus called Haroeris, and Aswan itself, with its mighty modern dam. Truly, the Nile is the Heart of the ancient and modern land of Egypt.


In spite of its great length and large drainage basin (3,000,000 km2, or about 10% of Africa, and affecting 9 nations), it carriers relatively little water. Yearly flows over the past century ranged from a low of 42 km3 in the drought year of 1984 to a high of 120 km3 for 1916. This relatively low flow for such a long river is because no water is added to it north of its confluence with the Atbara River, and much is lost by evaporation. Most other great rivers join with other large streams as they approach the sea, joining their waters into an ever-swelling stream. Instead, the Nile wanders through the largest and most arid region on earth, the Sahara Desert.


The Nile plays a prominent role in both the Old and New Testaments. The Hebrew captives made bricks with its mud and Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus sought refuge on its banks. Two of of the most interesting Biblical stories about the Nile are Joseph’s interpretation of Pharoah’s dream and how Pharoah’s daughter found the baby Moses.

And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I have had a dream, but no one can interpret it; and I have heard it said about you, that when you hear a dream you can interpret it.” Joseph answered Pharaoh, saying, “It is not in me; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer.” So Pharaoh spoke to Joseph, “In my dream, behold, I was standing on the bank of the Nile; and behold, seven cows, fat and sleek came up out of the Nile; and they grazed in the marsh grass. “And lo, seven other cows came up after them, poor and very ugly and gaunt, such as I had never seen for ugliness in all the land of Egypt; and the lean and ugly cows ate up the first seven fat cows. Yet when they devoured them, it could not be detected that they had devoured them; for they were just as ugly as before. Then I awoke.

I saw also in my dream, and behold, seven ears, full and good, came up on a single stalk; and lo, seven ears, withered, thin, and scorched by the east wind, sprouted up after them; and the thin ears swallowed the seven good ears. Then I told it to the magicians, but there was no one who could explain it to me.”

Now Joseph said to Pharaoh, “Pharaoh’s dreams are one and the same; God has told to Pharaoh what He is about to do. The seven good cows are seven years; and the seven good ears are seven years; the dreams are one and the same. And the seven lean and ugly cows that came up after them are seven years, and the seven thin ears scorched by the east wind shall be seven years of famine. It is as I have spoken to Pharaoh: God has shown to Pharaoh what He is about to do. Behold, seven years of great abundance are coming in all the land of Egypt; and after them seven years of famine will come, and all the abundance will be forgotten in the land of Egypt; and the famine will ravage the land. So the abundance will be unknown in the land because of that subsequent famine; for it will be very severe.” (Genesis41:15-31, New American Standard Bible)

The Baby Moses

Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, saying, “Every son who is born you are to cast into the Nile, and every daughter you are to keep alive.”

Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a daughter of Levi. And the woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was beautiful, she hid him for three months. But when she could hide him no longer, she got him a wicker basket and covered it over with tar and pitch. Then she put the child into it, and set it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile. And his sister stood at a distance to find out what would happen to him. Then the daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the Nile, with her maidens walking alongside the Nile; and she saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid, and she brought it to her. When she opened it, she saw the child, and behold, the boy was crying. And she had pity on him and said, “This is one of the Hebrews’ children.” Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and call a nurse for you from the Hebrew women, that she may nurse the child for you?” And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Go ahead.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. Then Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child away and nurse him for me and I shall give you wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed him. And the child grew, and she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became her son. And she named him Moses, and said, “Because I drew him out of the water.” (Exodus 1:22, 2:1-10, New American Standard Bible)


Water: An Increasingly Scarce Resource in the Nile Basin

In ancient Egypt, the flooding of the Nile was predictable enough for the Egyptians to plan their yearly crops around it. It flooded annually some time from June to September, as a result of monsoons in Ethiopia. Famine resulted when there was inadequate or surplus flooding. The ancient Egyptians learned partial control of the flood waters of the Nile by means of irrigation.

In addition to being a source of water for their crops, the Nile River was a source of fish and a major artery linking parts of Egypt as well as linking Egypt to its neighbors.

References include:

  • “The Dynamics of a Riverine Civilization: A Geoarchaeological Perspective on the Nile Valley, Egypt”
    Fekri A. Hassan;
    World Archaeology Vol. 29, No. 1, Riverine Archaeology (Jun., 1997), pp. 51-74
  • The Nile perch. <www2.dpi.qld.gov.au/fishweb/2374.html>

    In recent history, and especially during the last one hundred years, the Nile River ecosystem has seen a radical decrease in the diversity of its fish populations (Getabu, Tumwebaze, & MacLennan, 2002). This oversimplification of the river’s and its various lake’s fish populations has, of course, ramifications that threaten not only the stability of the ecosystem, but perhaps the human populations around the river as well. This section of our research delves into what the likely causes are for this decrease in biodiversity, as well as what effects this may have further on into the future.

    Biodiversity in the Past
    The Nile, and especially Lake Victoria, were once home an extremely diverse population of fish species, with more than 300 different variants (Ogutu-Ohwayo, 1993). These fish were by and large haplochromine cichlids, but other species of fish including mormyrids were common as well. More than 99% of the haplochromines were endemic to the region, making this population not only diverse but unique to the area as well.
    Introduction of a New Species
    Despite the wide array of fish, the region’s fishing industries struggled to grow because the fish that did live in the river and lakes were predominately small-bodied and bony, not the best sort of fish for commercial enterprise (Kitchell, Schindler, Ogutu-Ohwayo, & Reinthal, 1997). A larger, more commercially viable fish was clearly needed if the fishing economy was to expand. This fish was the Nile perch, Lates niloticus. The Nile perch can grow far larger than many of the other Nile fish, and was perfect for commercial fishing purposes. In the eyes of the human fishers, it was seen as “the saviour.”
    Introduced at an undetermined time during the middle of the twentieth century, the Nile perch adapted to its new home extremely successfully. Its population grew slowly at first, but soon exploded into exponential growth during the 1960s and 70s (Kitchell, Schindler, Ogutu-Ohwayo, & Reinthal, 1997). Yields for the fisheries increased up to four times their previous maximums.
    Impacts on Biodiversity
    The Nile perch, while a boon for the fishing industry, proved to be devastating on the varied fish population. Being a carnivorous fish, the Nile perch made the smaller native fish its prey. As the population of the Nile perch grew, the populations of the other species plummeted. Many of the endemic species went extinct entirely, with many specialists saying that 150-200 of the native species have vanished entirely (Kitchell, Schindler, Ogutu-Ohwayo, & Reinthal, 1997). The Nile perch quickly ascended to become the dominant species in the Nile by a wide margin.
    Presently, this system that was once so diverse has now been simplified to an extreme degree. Nile perch constitute most of the fish population, and their growth is only encouraged by local humans. Based on the impacts of foreign species seen in other waterways worldwide, this simplified ecosystem cannot remain stable indefinitely.

    Human Impacts on the Nile River

    The past one hundred years have marked a period of incredible human advancement. However, these advancements have wrought enormous negative impacts on the environment. One such region that has been impacted is the Nile river. The Nile is a crucial resource for all of the surrounding communities, and the pollution of the area does not only affect the natural landscape, but the African people also. Being used by humans for so long has changed this noble river in many ways, and it is these changes we will be looking at for our presentation. We shall look into the history of human life along this river and see what the human presence has wrought.

    Human developments along the river have, as noted before, been going on for millennia. All cultures that have moved through the area have left their mark upon the river. Whether they wish to use it for transportation, take the fish that dwell in its depths, or even try to harness its mighty power, humans have indelibly made their impact on the river for better or for worse.

    The fishing industry has made a heavy impact on the river, and the introduction of the Nile perch to the river and Lake Victoria is one of the most harmful events that have occurred in the waterways to date. The carnivorous fish was introduced to the river ecosystem sometime in the mid-1900s, though the precise date is not known. The species originates from Lake Turkana, and was introduced to the area primarily to support the fishing industry. Lake Victoria is home to an incredibly diverse fish population, but the fish that lived in the lake were mostly small-bodied and did not provide the burgeoning fish industries with all that they needed, so the heftier Nile perch seemed like a godsend. The perch adapted quickly to the environment, and its population grew exponentially during the 1970s and 80s. The fish, being carnivorous, swiftly consumed vast quantities of the lake’s native species, and many varieties of fish went extinct as a result while others experienced population fallouts. The Nile perch has since become a dominant species in the river, and the once diverse ecosystem has been simplified.

    Another problem that the Nile ecosystem faces is that of pollution, and the majority of this comes from human activity. There are many sources of this pollution. In rural areas, sewage is dumped into the river as a result of poor sanitation conditions. This is a problem because citizens of Egypt, for example,”Consumed more animal protein during the second half of the 20th century than they did previously. As food is metabolized, phosphorus and nitrogen are released as waste products in feces and urine” (Nixon, 1). These increasing amounts of phosphorous and nitrogen, when dumped into the water can create algal blooms which can lead to the suffocation of fish. Many industrial establishments do not follow the law, and drain untreated wastewater into the river or even inject it into the groundwater. Usage of pesticides and fertilizers also pollute the river, as agricultural practices near the river use a lot of chemicals. Most of the river’s water is considered fairly high quality, with only a few “black zones,” and efforts to reduce the number of pollutants entering the river are underway.

    The Aswan High Dam, constructed in 1899, prevented the Nile River from flooding every summer. This flooding provided necessary nutrients and minerals, enriching the soils, but as increasing numbers of people migrated along the river, control of the floods became necessary. Although the dam was principally encouraged, the dam has resulted in many problems such as, “sediment that once accumulated to form a shield against saltwater intrusion is scarce,…commercial and residential sprawl has sealed priceless soil underneath miles of concrete, the discharge of chemicals into delta lakes poses a threat to fishing and drinking water, and the Mediterranean coast is eroding” (Theroux, 25). All of these problems have serious impacts on the environment and on the communities that rely on the Nile River form their livelihoods, for example, the Nile flooded southern Egypt, relocating about 90,000 people.

    Overall, there is overwhelming evidence that both past and present human activities have affected the Nile River. When the Nile River is affected, all of the plants, animals, and humans that depend on the river are also negatively affected. Human activities such as introducing exotic species, pollution the natural land systems, and damming a river that provided essential nutrients and minerals, all have made the Nile River a place of concern. Hopefully enough people will take action to make an improvement, and to undo the adverse effects that humans have created over the past century.

    Water and air pollution continue to be a problem for the river. As development in  the spheres of agriculture, industry, and urbanization have progressed among the human population, so too have the side effects associated with these practices increased, namely in the form of various pollutants. These pollutants range from agrochemicals to heavy metals to human waste products.
    Municipal Pollutants
    In the cities that we are used to, the water going down our drains goes through various treatment processes to make it as healthy as possible before it is finally released back into nature. Treating water keeps the by-products of everyday human water use from negatively affecting the environment it eventually winds up in. Unfortunately, these treatment facilities can be expensive, and for the more impoverished cities along the banks of the Nile, impossible to afford or maintain. The water that the people living here use can only be dumped into the river untreated (Said et al., 1999).
    Human wastewater is largely comprised of  pathogens, nutrients, oxygen demanding compounds, and suspended solids (Ezzat et al., 2002). Diseases and parasites are common in such wastewater. Oxygen demanding compounds are also present, and they leech the oxygen from the water. This, of course, has consequences on living organisms in the water that need oxygen for their natural processes.
    Finding ways to treat municipal wastewater is a pressing challenge. While social programs are being set up in many districts along the Nile to increase their capacity for water treatment, as population in the area continues to rise even these facilities will be unable to meet the demand.
    Agricultural Pollutants
    Runoff from the agricultural sector frequently contains pollutants that may have an adverse effect on the river. Pollutants such as salts, nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen, and pesticide residue can be found in this runoff (Ezzat et al., 2002). Agricultural runoff often is a “non-point” pollutant, in that it can come from anywhere in a region, and not from a specific drain. This can make it difficult to There are also problems associated with agricultural runoff seeping into the groundwater as well.
    There has been some success in mitigating the effects of agricultural runoff as a pollutant. This is a result of increased regulation concerning the use of agrochemicals. A decrease in the use of these chemicals has tended to make the wastewater from this sector considerably healthier.


    Droughts, floods and environmental degradation have caused much concern among the ten African countries that share the River Nile. As they search for ways to minimise damage, researchers are focusing on people, livestock and the land near the source of this mighty river. Everybody needs to manage more with less water, and old habits have to change.
    Industrial Pollutants
    Being a highly urbanized region, the Nile river has its share of industry, and with that industrial pollution. There are about 700 industrial facilities along the river (Ezzat et al., 2002). Industrial wastewater is often highly toxic, containing heavy metals that can combine with the suspended solids in domestic wastewater to form hard to manage sludge. Besides water pollution, industry has been linked to air pollution, and is responsible for much of the smog cloaking major cities such as Cairo and Alexandria.


    Egypt has always depended on the water of the Nile River. The two main tributaries of the Nile River are the White Nile and the Blue Nile. The source of the White Nile are the Sobat River Bahr al-Jabal (The “Mountain Nile”) and the Blue Nile begins in the Ethiopian Highlands. The two tributaries converge in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan where they form the Nile River. The Nile River has a total length of 4,160 miles (6,695 kilometers) from source to sea.

    Nile Flooding

    Before the building of a dam at Aswan, Egypt experienced annual floods from the Nile River that deposited four million tons of nutrient-rich sediment which enabled agricultural production. This process began millions of years before Egyptian civilization began in the Nile River valley and continued until the first dam at Aswan was built in 1889. This dam was insufficient to hold back the water of the Nile and was subsequently raised in 1912 and 1933. In 1946, the true danger was revealed when the water in the reservoir peaked near the top of the dam.

    In 1952, the interim Revolutionary Council government of Egypt decided to build a High Dam at Aswan, about four miles upstream of the old dam. In 1954, Egypt requested loans from the World Bank to help pay for the cost of the dam (which eventually added up to one billion dollars). Initially, the United States agreed to loan Egypt money but then withdrew their offer for unknown reasons. Some speculate that it may have been due to Egyptian and Israeli conflict. The United Kingdom, France, and Israel had invaded Egypt in 1956, soon after Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal to help pay for the dam.

    The Soviet Union offered to help and Egypt accepted. The Soviet Union’s support was not unconditional, however. Along with the money, they also sent military advisers and other workers to help enhance Egyptian-Soviet ties and relations.

    Building of the Aswan Dam

    In order to build the Aswan Dam both people and artifacts had to be moved. Over 90,000 Nubians had to be relocated. Those who had been living in Egypt were moved about 28 miles (45 km) away but the Sudanese Nubians were relocated 370 miles (600 km) from their homes. The government was also forced to develop one of the largest Abu Simel temple and dig for artifacts before the future lake would drown the land of the Nubians.

    After years of construction (the material in the dam is the equivalent to 17 of the great pyramid at Giza), the resulting reservoir was named for the former president of Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser, who died in 1970. The lake holds 137 million acre-feet of water (169 billion cubic meters). About 17 percent of the lake is in Sudan and the two countries have an agreement for distribution of the water.

    Aswan Dam Benefits

    The Aswan Dam benefits Egypt by controlling the annual floods on the Nile River and prevents the damage which used to occur along the floodplain. The Aswan High Dam provides about a half of Egypt’s power supply and has improved navigation along the river by keeping the water flow consistent.

    There are several problems associated with the dam as well. Seepage and evaporation accounts for a loss of about 12-14% of the annual input into the reservoir. The sediments of the Nile River, as with all river and dam systems, has been filling the reservoir and thus decreasing its storage capacity. This has also resulted in problems downstream.

    Farmers have been forced to use about a million tons of artificial fertilizer as a substitute for the nutrients which no longer fill the flood plain. Further downstream, the Nile delta is having problems due to the lack of sediment as well since there is no additional agglomeration of sediment to keep erosion of the delta at bay so it slowly shrinks. Even the shrimp catch in the Mediterranean Sea has decreased due to the change in water flow.

    Poor drainage of the newly irrigated lands has led to saturation and increased salinity. Over one half of Egypt’s farmland in now rated medium to poor soils.

    The parasitic disease schistosomiasis has been associated with the stagnant water of the fields and the reservoir. Some studies indicate that the number of individuals affected has increased since the opening of the Aswan Dam.

    The Nile River and now the Aswan High Dam are Egypt’s lifeline. About 95% of Egypt’s population live within twelve miles from the river. Were it not for the river and its sediment, the grand civilization of ancient Egypt probably would have never existed.

    Though pollution in the Nile river is certainly a large concern, it should be noted that much of the river water is acceptably healthy and free of toxins. It is only in “black zones” near major drains that the water becomes unhealthy. Still, future measures should certainly be sought out to solve this problem before it does develop into a crisis.


    Film & Animation

    Standard YouTube Licence


    Uploaded by AlJazeeraEnglish on 15 Jul 2007

    The Nile Delta in Egypt is suffering from a severe shortage of clean water – a shortage which is affecting hundreds of thousands of people, forced to drink heavily polluted water everyday.


From the Dictionary of Ancient Egypt by Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson

From Egypt and the Egyptians by Doug Brewer and Emily Teeter

From Ancient Egypt edited by David Silverman

From Life in Ancient Egypt by Eugen Strouhal

From Ancient Egypt Uncovered by Vivian Davies and Renee Friedman

Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vols. I and III, by Miriam Lichtheim



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