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A Tale Of Two Rivers


A tale of two rivers
Delta blues:
The Nile
When it was built the High Aswan Dam was the pride of Egypt’s economic independence
and the joy of a bright development future. But as Karim El-Gawhary discovered,
even the world’s more successful dams come with a price.

'Greetings to you, Nile-God Hapi, who enters this soil to give the gift of life to Egypt. You are the wave which spreads over the fields. You give life to all with thirst, you create wheat and barley and because of you the temples wear their festive dresses. But if you miss your time, people drown in misery; if your water dries up, people waste away and fear spreads among the herds and both big and small suffer the pains of torture.’

The ancient Egyptians believed that Hapi lived in a cave between sand dunes of the Western desert and the rocks of granite of the Eastern bank, just below the southern Egyptian town of Aswan. There, on the walls of the temple of Philae, Hapi is depicted as a human being with the waters of the Nile gushing out of his nipples. Once a year Hapi flooded the fields of the Nile valley and left a muddy fruitful soil in which the farmers could sow their seeds.

Nowadays, a few kilometres further South of Aswan, Hapi’s milk, the yearly flood of the Nile, has been tamed by Africa’s largest engineering feat – the Aswan Dam. It is an artificial mountain into which as many as 17 great Pyramids of Cheops could fit. The ‘Sadd El-Ali’, as the High Dam is called in Arabic, represented the cornerstone of an optimistic development strategy – a modern temple of a new Egyptian civilization. One of the songs known to every child in Egypt at that time proudly announces: ‘We said we would build the Sadd El-Ali and we built it – you colonialists! We built it with our own hands.’

The immediate advantage of the project was obvious – year-round irrigation, three crops where there had been only one and agricultural land expanded by about a quarter.

But the Sadd El-Ali has its downside. Thirty years after its construction and a thousand kilometres to the north, its disadvantages are now being felt by the farmers of the Nile Delta, Egypt’s breadbasket. Asafaz, a village in the northern part of the Delta, is typical – a main asphalt street, small mosques and a 100 or so one- and two-storey buildings surrounded by flat land as far as the eye can see. The village lies in the midst of rice and corn fields. Only a few trees spread along the gently flowing irrigation canals to give shade to hard-working farmers as they take a quiet lunch break.

One old farmer, Hagg Ibrahim Balawi, remembers the time before the High Dam. He says, ‘the soil used to be red like our dates.’ This nutrient-rich red silt was delivered yearly by the Nile’s waters, but is now deposited behind the Dam. Balawi claims that the red mud gave him better results than today’s expensive chemicals. Ministry of Irrigation water-specialist Mahmoud Abu Zeid thinks this is nostalgia. He writes that two-thirds of the silt ended up in the Mediterranean anyway and that today’s high level of productivity requires additional chemical fertilizer – with or without the High Dam.

One of the most severe environmental results of the Dam is the increased salinization of agricultural soil. According to Mohamad Abbas Rasheed of Cairo’s National Research Centre up to 15 per cent of Egypt’s soil faces this problem; other estimates talk about one-third of the soil in the Nile Valley. Without the yearly flood flushing down the valley, the accumulated salt is not washed away any longer. According to Cairo environmentalist Amal Sabri: ‘It was simply not a priority: an adequate field drainage system covering all the agricultural areas was not affordable without international help at that time.’ She points out that: ‘It took until 1974 when Egypt made a political turn towards economic liberalization and became acceptable to financial support from international funding institutions, that funds were made available.’

Since 1975, more than half of Egypt’s farmland has been provided with a new ‘covered drainage system’ – permeable pipes which are laid underground so as not to waste valuable farmland. The rest is scheduled for completion by 2010. But the new system has its maintenance problems. ‘It needs energy to pump it empty and it takes time to unearth any blockages,’ Abbas Rasheed points out. The farmers are constantly complaining.

But the farmers in the northern Delta village of Asafaz do not yet have a new drainage system to complain about. The crops on their fields – even salt-resistant rice – no longer grows with the same productivity. Balawi describes his recent crops as stunted and pale and his fellow-farmers are plainly distressed as they discuss the rising amount of salt in their soil. But Abbas Rasheed thinks the farmers themselves are partly to blame for salination by flooding the water table through overusing freely available water. This accusation is hotly denied by Ibrahim Qishta, a farmer in the northern Delta village of Daraksa. ‘We farmers know out of experience how much water to use for each crop. Too much water might kill the crop.’

‘The farmers have their own logic,’ says Amal Sabri. For centuries they relied on traditional flush-irrigation practices. They are very insecure about the new centrally controlled water supply: ‘If a farmer senses that the water delivery can’t be guaranteed in the time he needs it, he will use as much as he can when he gets it,’ explains Sabri. ‘One can’t take serious local action regarding salinization and water-logging if there is no security or control.’ She believes that the same policy of economic liberalization which brought funds for the new drainage system is undermining the farmers’ sense of security. Several years ago the Government withdrew its subsidy of chemical fertilizer. The farmers of Asafaz say that the price has shot up 400 per cent. So they have had to go from not needing fertilizer at all, to getting it at subsidized rates, to having to pay expensive market prices. Now a new tenant law is deregulating the lease of land. It is no wonder farmers feel insecure.

Further north on the coast, erosion is part of the legacy of the High Dam. It started when the British finished a smaller dam in Aswan at the beginning of the century, to store the after-flood of the Nile. The problem was exacerbated by the High Dam. With all waterborne silt deposited behind the Dam, an important feature of coastal protection disappeared. Before the dams a huge yearly river supply of sediment reached the sea and deflected offshore currents. Today this no longer happens and erosion has not merely been measured in centimetres. In the town of Rosetta the sea advanced 240 metres a year – until expensive sea defences were built. Rosetta’s old lighthouse now lies several kilometres out to sea.

Resort town of Baltim is tumbling into the Mediterranean without the Nile's renewing silt.

Some 50 kilometres along the coast towards the West, dozens of villas have fallen victim to the incoming surf and are now surrounded by water. Twenty-five-year -old Abdel Satar al-Zurbi is now putting the blocks of a new sea wall in place. ‘The old people tell us that they used to grow watermelons out there, where the waves break now.’ He points to one of the breakwaters a good hundred metres out to sea.

A few kilometres away in the fishing village of El-Burg there is an enormous cement levee which was built six years ago to save the village from being sucked into the sea. Some gravestones spookily stick out from the edges of the dunes just where the sea ate into them. Half the village’s cemetery was washed away by the sea. ‘Thank God,’ says one old man, ‘We buried our father high up in the dune, so he is still there. Others were less lucky.’ The descendants of the buried, mostly fisherfolk, face their own problems. Before the Dam, the village relied heavily on sardines which swarmed along the coast in the months from September to November. The sardines disappeared when there was no Nile sediment to feed on. Abdel Satar al-Zurbi comes from a fishing family. Five years ago they sold their boat. Now he is a worker at the coastal protection project.

Despite the environmental problems, hardly anyone in Egypt condemns the Sadd El-Ali – Egypt’s modern temple. Nearly everyone reminds potential dam critics of the same story. At the beginning of the 1980s, seven consecutive dry years hit the Sahel Zone and Ethiopia, the main sources of the Nile. Water behind the High Dam fell to its lowest level ever. Egypt was forced to draw from its vital reserves behind the Dam. The Nile God Hapi ‘missed his time’ and without the High Dam, people would have died.

Karim El-Gawhary is a Cairo-based journalist.

Spirit trap: The Mekong
The fisherfolk of the Lee Pee are worried for the health of their river.
Gráinne Ryder visits the tiny islands of Laos to take the pulse of the Mekong.

Before sunrise the men have collected the night’s catch from the large lee traps scaffolded over the rushing water. Women sit gutting and chopping the silver-white fish, to get them ready for smoking. ‘Not a great catch, but good enough,’ says one man, placing his fish on the scales. ‘Last season, one of these traps caught over a ton of fish in just one night.’

To many people Laos brings to mind covert bombings, hilltribe refugees and the Ho Chi Minh trail. Twenty years after the war, global institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) now describe this one-time enemy of the West as poor, little and land-locked. This latter-day imagery is more economic than anything else. In fact, Laos is bigger than Korea or Bangladesh and still has a wealth of forests and rivers – the envy of its newly-industrialized neighbour, Thailand.

The Mekong flows through or borders Lao People’s Democratic Republic (PDR) for about 1,800 kilometres – from China’s Yunnan province in the North to the Khone Falls in the South. Most of the country is mountainous and lies within the Mekong watershed, one of the large Himalayan river basins shared with Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Dotting the river and stream valleys are an estimated 7,000 irrigation systems, built, owned and managed by local communities. Some of these systems are several hundred years old – and still work. Small weirs, typically several metres in height, are built across the streams using a lattice of hardwood and bamboo, and filled with rocks and brush. After every rainy season the villagers repair the weirs, using materials gathered free of charge from the surrounding forests.

During the critical time when rice seedlings are transplanted, the elected head of the irrigation system will walk the length of the canals and back every day to ensure that water is rotating from field to field properly, so that every family gets enough water for their crop. But when the forests disappear these irrigation systems start to break down. Then the streams run dry for much of the year and flash floods wash out the weirs.

In southern Laos, where the Mekong swells to 14 kilometres in width every rainy season, the land is surrounded by a sea of water. This stretch of the Mekong is known as See Phan Done (Four Thousand Islands) because in between monsoons the river recedes, revealing thousands of islets. Before the Pathet Lao Revolutionary Party came to power in 1975, See Phan Done was a province in its own right. One of its islands, situated below the great waterfalls of the Mekong, is known as Khone Falls or Lee Pee (meaning Spirit Trap). It used to be the last inland port of call in Laos for French cargo ships. A pier and a railway line across the island, built during the French colonial era, still remain.

Today, See Phan Done is a district within Champasak province and the Prime Minister himself, Khamtay Siphandone, is a son of the Mekong, born on the island of Khong. Through the years of war and revolutionary struggle, fishing has remained the way of life for Mekong islanders. Older islanders remember the days when fish were so plentiful that they would put the rice on to boil before casting their net to catch dinner. The wisest fishermen of See Phan Done know the habits and habitat of about 40 different species of carp, 20 species of catfish and an assortment of other aquatic creatures including stingrays, snakeheads, eels, threadfins, croakers, pufferfish, crocodiles and the legendary river dolphins.

The Mekong fish that local people are most familiar with have complex migratory patterns both for spawning and feeding. Movements with or against the current can be triggered by heavy rains, rapid changes in water level, or the light of the moon. During the high-water season, July to October, many types of fish move into the flooded forests along the Mekong and its tributaries where they gorge on insects, worms, leaves, seeds, fruits and other fish.

For the people of Don Khone, the May and June migrations are the most important because that is when they catch the adult pangasius krempfii, a Mekong catfish which is salted and sold in bulk at the market. Weighing up to 14 kilograms, this catfish is believed to migrate over 700 kilometres from the South China Sea to spawn above the Khone Falls.

Fishermen report a gradual decline of fish catches since 1970 and a more rapid decline within the last four years. They believe it may have to do with the introduction of modern fishing gear and the growing market for wild Mekong fish.

In the old days, one village may have had only two or three cast nets made from jute and shared between families. As a local fish-trader recalls: ‘When I was young there was one trader, a Chinese, in the district. My father was the first person ever to sell him fish but he had no idea how much the fish were eventually sold for at the market. On the days the trader didn’t want any fish, my father would just dump them into the water because he didn’t know what else to do. Everyone already had plenty of fish to eat.’

Today one family might have as many as seven small-meshed gill nets made of nylon. People no longer fish just to eat, they also fish for income to buy things like boat motors, televisions and rice mills. ‘I earn 300,000 to 500,000 kip [$400 to $660] a year from fishing,’ says a father of four. ‘We need this money to buy basic things for the family such as medicine and fuel.’

A Don Beng islander comments on the changes in recent years. ‘In the past we never fished the deepwater pools because we were afraid to disturb the spirits. But now with modern fishing gear people are greedier, fishing everywhere, disturbing the fish when they spawn.’ People on Don Som blame outsiders for part of the problem. ‘People come by boat from way upstream to camp on the banks of our island. They use many gill nets, hunt frogs and spear fish using lights. Some even steal from our vegetable gardens!’

To tackle the problems, the fisheries division of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests is encouraging communities to take action. Starting in Khone district, over 20 communities have worked out their own rules for fishing practices and seasons. The aim is to eliminate the most destructive practices – such as the blocking of streams when fish need to move out of the big river to spawn and feed — or the use of landmine explosives to catch fish. They encourage signposting of special habitats, such as deepwater pools, as off-limits to fishers in the low-water season.

As one local school headmaster put it: ‘With our rules for conservation and management recognized by the district authorities, we are adapting our ways to protect the fisheries for our children.’

But the future of Mekong fisheries is not entirely in the hands of local communities. Following the advice of global financing institutions such as the World Bank, the IMF and the Asian Development Bank, the Government is offering its Mekong tributaries to foreign investors interested in building hydroelectric dams to export electricity to Thailand. Twenty per cent of the total Mekong flow originates in China where the first mainstream dam was completed in 1993 and the Yunnan authorities plan to build at least five more further upstream.

Mekong fish expert Dr Tyson Roberts warns:‘Engineering projects such as mainstream dams, upstream or downstream of Lee Pee, or canalization of the Mekong for shipping may soon destroy the rapids and the fish in them.’ Out of 11 dams proposed for the lower Mekong by French and Canadian dam consultants, the smallest is a 238-megawatt diversion scheme at Hoo Sahong, the river channel between Don Saddam and Don Sahong. Currently, there are 58 families living on Don Sahong. Some had heard of the plans, others had not.

‘How can they think of touching Hoo Sahong – it is one of two most important channels for fish moving upstream!’ exclaimed one man, surrounded by children and fishing gear. ‘If they harm the fish, we will die’ says one woman with a baby in her lap. ‘Everyone here depends on fish.’ A woman standing nearby adds: ‘We have nothing without the river.’

Gráinne Ryder is a Canadian who works with the Bangkok-based environmental group TERRA – Towards Ecological Recovery and Regional Alliances.    

The Rivers Movement

The single best source for keeping in touch with what is happening with the movement in defense of rivers is the International Rivers Network (see interview page 14) at 1857 Berkeley Way, Berkeley, California 94703 USA. They publish World Rivers Review ($35), the newsletter BankCheck Quarterly ($25) about the World Bank and Riverworks, a directory of organizations worldwide who work on river issues ($15) as well as occasional papers and much else. Two other important organizations are the Bangkok-based Towards Ecological Recovery and Region Alliances (TERRA) 409 Pracharatbampen Rd, Huay Kwang, Bangkok 10310, Thailand, who published the book The Mekong Currency, and Canadian-based Probe International (225 Brunswick Ave Toronto Ont. M5S 2M6) who keep a close watch on boondoggle projects and those behind them.

There are several excellent books on hydraulic society and its discontents. One very amusing account is Mark Reisner’s Cadillac Desert (Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, 1993). Reisner takes apart the short-sighted mythologies that underpin river engineering in the American West and looks at its looming water crisis. Donald Worster tackles the same subject with a slightly more theoretical and broader sweep in his classic Rivers of Empire (Oxford University Press, New York, 1985). In The Dammed (Bodley Head, London, 1994) Fred Pearce provides perceptive journalism about the global reach of river engineering. In Last Oasis (WW Norton, New York, 1992) Sandra Postel of the WorldWatch Institute provides a frightening analysis of global water scarcity but concludes with some hopeful ideas about what to do. In an entirely different vein the popular British historian Simon Schama uses the middle section of his fascinating Landscape and Memory (Random House, Toronto, 1995) to explore the metaphorical and imaginative effect rivers have had on the human mind.

Ali Kazimi’s gripping documentary The Narmada: a valley rises captures the drama of the confrontation between the forces bent on destroying the Narmada valley and the poor valley dwellers who march to save their homes. A good campaigning tool. Information regarding distribution can be obtained from Peripheral Visions, Suite 8, 60 St. Clair Ave.West, Toronto, Ont.M4V 1M7. Tel: 416-925-5423. The folks at Save Our Rivers Inc, PO Box 122, Franklin, North Carolina 28734 USA have a good tape of Appalachian-style mountain music that celebrates the river and those who fight for it. Cost is $9.50.

©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995

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