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Pollution of the Nile River Print E-mail


The Nile in Cairo, with the Smog

Egyptian civilization that flourished for about five millennia sustained itself by the River Nile. The Egyptians were experts in basin irrigation, developed especially to suit the natural rise and fall of the Nile River. As early as 3000 B.C., the Egyptians had learnt to construct earthen banks to form flood basins of various sizes; these were regulated by sluices to redirect floodwater into the basins to be saturated by soil. After the soil was saturated, the water was drained, and crops planted. By this, they avoided depletion of the nutrients from the soil. The growth of population in the region and development of agriculture and industry on modern lines have wreaked havoc on the Nile River.

One cannot think of Egypt without simultaneously thinking of the river Nile. Egyptians are fond of saying a truth, ‘Without Nile, there is no Egypt’. This is understandable because the Nile fulfils about 95% of water needs of Egypt. But for the Nile’s network of canals and channels that helps irrigate the Egypt’s farmlands, Egypt would be nothing but a desert, instead of a densely populated nation as it is now.

But the river Nile goes beyond Egypt. At least eight other countries are associated with this major African river; next to Egypt, we should mention Sudan; and then the Nile is beneficent to Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, and the DR Congo.

These countries are often engaged in usual bickering about how to share the Nile’s waters; but the subject how well they should use it, hardly receives the attention it deserves.

The Nile water is presently very unclean. Recently Mahmoud Abu Zeid, President of the Arab Water Council and a former Minister of Water, has said, "Water is a basic right for every human being and, once we all agree that it is a basic right, we all should work to providing this basic right in a decent way.  I mean better quality, good quantity and so on." He has pointed out that though both industrial pollution and agricultural run-off harm the quality of Nile water, more pressing issue is the wholesale dumping of human waste.1

It has been estimated that only 60% of human waste goes to sewage system in the cities; and it is less than 40% in rural areas. No wonder about 17000 children die of dysentery every year.

Causes of Pollution (agricultural, industrial, and domestic)

Development of agriculture and industry are positive aspects of a growing economy. Urbanization is a universal phenomenon wherever industries grow in number and size. The mobility of rural population to the industrial centers and the resultant increase in density of population have become very common.

Increasing use of chemical manures in agriculture leads to accumulation of agrochemical pollutants. Industries contribute several types of wastages including heavy metals. The growing population worsens pollution by dumping human wastes.

Agricultural runoff with pollutants such as salts, nutrients like phosphorous and nitrogen, pesticide residue etc., often is a ‘non-point’ pollutant, i.e. it can originate from anywhere in a region, and not from a specific drain. Agricultural runoff seeping into the groundwater as well creates additional problems.

Treatment of drainage water can prevent environmental pollution to a great extent. But this is expensive. Many impoverished cities on the banks of the Nile could not afford to spend on these projects. They dump untreated drainage water into the river.

The following table shows a projection of the proportion between treatment of wastewater and population.2


Even as water treatment capabilities rise, future projections show that the population will continue to increase beyond those capabilities.Wastewater from the majority of people will be left untreated. (Ezzat et al., 2002)

The Nile River in Egypt supports a vast region, that is highly urbanized and industrialized region. Alongside the river are more than 700 industrial organizations. This means an outflow of highly toxic industrial waste water that contains heavy metals, changing as unmanageable sludge after mixing with the suspended solids of domestic waste water. The ‘dark zones’ in the river, near the places where major drains join it, are particularly unhealthy; in the absence of effective steps, they threaten to become major crises.3

The air pollution created by the industries is very substantial. The cities like Cairo and Alexandria are noted for the smog covering them, thanks to the industries.

Some Salient Features

On March 12, 2007, a symposium was held in the Hall of the National Democratic Party, in Mahalla (Gharbia Governorate) under the auspices of the Minister General Governor El Shafei El Dakrory, The theme was ‘The “Integrated Management Symposium for Eradication of Nile water pollution”. It was also attended by Prof. Dr Magdy Abou Rayan, President of the Mansoura University and project partner in INECO, Dr. Mohammed Hamed Shabouri, Mansoura University Vice President on Community Service and Environmental Issues, Prof. Dr. Samy Fellaly, Professor of the Agricultural Research Center and Secretary of the Symposium, the president of the Mahalla local council, by the General Taha Zaghloul, the General Secretary of the National Democratic Party and other local leaders, with adequate representation of cultural and educational authorities of the Gharbia Governorate and the area’s city and village authorities.

The symposium analyzed the seriousness of the problem of pollution of the Nile River and its tributaries. The symposium ended with three recommendations, agreed upon by the participants.4

There is need for continuing the organization of similar events targeting all social groups, in order to introduce a behavioral change on water pollution issues.

  1. There is need for continuing the organization of similar events targeting all social groups, in order to introduce a behavioral change on water pollution issues.
  2. There is need for providing guidance and recommendations to consumers on the preservation and protection of water resources.
  3. Radical solutions should be introduced for dealing with the discharge of untreated industrial effluents from textile industries, most of which lack appropriate infrastructure for safe wastewater and solid waste treatment and disposal.

If these broad policy suggestions had been followed up with reasonable seriousness, the position would have improved a lot. But nothing much has been done. It is not enough if the rivers are praised as ‘Mother of Civilization’, ‘Life-giver of the People’ and so on. It is also necessary to maintain them clean and usable.


1. http://www.voanews.com/english/news/africa/Nile-States-Work-to-Improve-Quantity-Quality-of-Waters-101981938.html

2. http://sitemaker.umich.edu/sec004_gp5/pollution

3. http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20081108051251AANqngB

4. http://environ.chemeng.ntua.gr/ineco/Default.aspx?t=355


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