CAIRO – Early one morning in Cairo, volunteers paddle their kayaks across the Nile, fishing out garbage from the mighty waterway, which gave birth to Egyptian civilization but now faces multiple threats.
Egypt’s lifeline since pharaonic days and the source of 97 percent of its water is under massive strain from pollution and climate change — and now also the threat of a colossal dam being built far upstream in Ethiopia.
Undeterred, the flotilla of some 300 environmental activists do what they can — in the past three years they have picked 37 tons of cans, plastic bottles, disposable bags and other trash from the waters and shores along the Nile in Egypt.
“People have to understand that the Nile is as important — if not more — than the pyramids,” said Mostafa Habib, 29, co-founder of the environmental group Very Nile. “The generations coming after us will depend on it.”
His fears echo those that millions worldwide share about other overtaxed and polluted rivers from the Mekong to the Mississippi.
Few waterways face greater strain than the 6,600-kilometer (4,100-mile) Nile, the basin of which stretches across 11 countries: Burundi, Congo, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda.
No country is more reliant on the Nile than Egypt, whose teeming population has just passed 100 million people, over 90 percent of whom live along the river’s banks.
Surrounded by a green valley full of palm trees, the north-flowing river is awash with boats of all sizes for tourism, fishing and leisure.
“All of us Egyptians benefit from the Nile, so cleaning it up is a way of giving back to my country,” said one of the volunteers, Walied Mohamed, a 21-year-old university student. “The Nile is the main source of drinking water for Egypt. We have no other major rivers flowing in our country.”
Despite its importance, the Nile is still heavily polluted in Egypt by wastewater and rubbish poured directly in to it, as well as agricultural runoff and industrial waste, with consequences for biodiversity — especially fishing — and for human health, experts say.
Around 150 million tons of industrial waste are dumped into it every year, according to the state-run Environmental Affairs Agency.
Climate change spells another threat; rising sea levels will to push Mediterranean salt water deep into the fertile Nile delta, the nation’s bread basket.
Researchers predict the country’s already-stretched agricultural sector could shrink by as much as 47 percent by 2060 as a result of saltwater intrusion.
Cotton, one of the most widely cultivated plants along the Nile, requires a lot of water.
Egypt also faces a nationwide shortage of fresh water by 2025, according to the U.N.
Already around 7 percent of Egyptians lack access to clean drinking water, and over 8 million go without proper sanitation.
Hydrologists say people face water scarcity when their supply drops below 1,000 cubic meters (35,300 cubic feet) per person annually.
Egyptian officials say the individual share was 570 cubic meters in 2018, and this is expected to further drop to 500 cubic meters by 2025.
There is another issue that terrifies Egypt’s national planners and has even sparked fears of war.
More than 3,000 kilometers (2,000 miles) upstream on the Blue Nile, the main tributary, thousands of workers have toiled for almost a decade to build the $4.5 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, set to be Africa’s largest.
Downstream countries — mainly Egypt but also drought-plagued Sudan — fear that the dam’s 145-meter-high (475-foot) wall will trap their essential water supplies once the giant reservoir, the size of London, starts being filled this summer.
Years of tensions between Cairo, Khartoum and Addis Ababa have even seen Washington jump in to mediate rounds of crisis diplomacy.
For Ethiopia, one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies, the dam is a prestige project and source of national pride.
In a country of 110 million where even the capital is plagued by blackouts, it promises to provide electricity by 2025 to the more than half of the population who now live without it.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has insisted the project will not be stopped, warning that if necessary “we can deploy many millions.”
In less belligerent but equally dramatic language, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi told the United Nations last year that “the Nile is a question of life, a matter of existence to Egypt.”
For some farmers in Sudan, the dam promises to tame floods that inundate farms with silt and destroy crops and houses in the rainy season.
One Blue Nile farmer whom a reporter visited in November, Osman Idris, said, “It’s a renegade river, it rises so fast.”
If its flow is regulated, “we can plant crops through the year,” explained the 60-year-old. “It will be better for the environment and for marketing our products, which means more income for us.”
For Egypt, the crucial question now is at what rate Ethiopia plans to fill the 74-billion-cubic-meter reservoir — Cairo demands Ethiopia at least triple its proposed period of three to four years.
But experts also warn that Egypt must change its own water management practices.
“Egypt needs to invest in non-Nile sources of water,” said Jeannie Sowers, a political science professor at University of New Hampshire who authored a book on Egypt’s environmental policies. “This means prioritizing desalination plants on the coasts … and improving irrigation and drainage networks.”
While steps have gotten underway on this, progress has been hampered by bureaucratic problems and economic woes linked to the Arab Spring protests of 2011.
Justin Mankin, a Dartmouth University geographer who wrote a study on climate change affecting the Nile, said, “Water stress will become widespread in the region, irrespective of rainfall increases.”
He emphasized that the “region’s governments must take steps to create water sharing schemes and practices that can ensure a sufficient and equitable distribution of water over the coming decades.”
Meanwhile, the Egyptian volunteers push on in their kayaks and rowboats doing what they can to reduce the garbage piled up on the Nile’s banks.
“We have a treasure, and we really haven’t taken care of it,” said Nour Serry, a Cairo graphic designer and avid volunteer.
“As Egyptians, we should be more attuned to cleaning up our Nile and the surrounding environment. This is our source of life.”