The Nile River is the stuff of superlatives — it has been woven into mythology and embedded into the texts of many of the world’s major religions. As a geopolitical body, the Nile has been dissected, manipulated, divided, and traded over thousands of years. Many of these acts have been carried out through drawing – the ways in which we have represented and read the river have dictated its relationship to us on a predetermined cartographic ground. By unpacking these assertions, can we graphically construct an alternative ground for imagining the Nile’s possible futures?
This project sought to examine the Nile from the vantage point of the Aswan High Dam (completed in 1970). The dam put a stop to millennia of annual inundations, which flooded the Nile Delta above the first cataract at Aswan, and created years of plenty, enough, and scarcity. At the outset of our investigation, it was immediately clear that lenses through which to approach the river were as numerous as the layers of silt brought down the river – such is the reality of a veritable lifeline of wetness. Furthermore, the damming of the river was decisive in fragmenting these layers into a sort of Frankensteinian monster which has been stitched back together in multiple ways – anthropogenically and otherwise – but which might never be quite as whole again.
Three perspectives were chosen to represent this splintered fabric of one of the world’s great rivers, seemingly disparate in their content but illustrative of the pervasiveness of the river in the life of the land through which it flows.
1. Nilometers: Rises and Falls
Ancient Egyptians constructed several structures along the Nile to measure the rises and falls of the water level, the Nilometers. There were three main types of Nilometers, consisting in either walls or columns with depth markings. Inscriptions on these devices, extracted from religious texts, reveal the sacredness granted to the annual flooding by the people whose abundance or necessity depended on it every year.
These gauges, used since Pharaonic times, have remained obsolete since the construction of the Aswan High Dam. The construction of the Low Dam by the end of the XIX century did not prevent flood from happening; however, its heightening during the 1960s represented a total control over the flow, fixing the water level from that location to the Mediterranean Sea.
Three sections along the Nile, from Aswan to the delta, represent the change in the way the annual floods have been approached over time. What are the consequences of shifting from working with the flow to working against it? How is the disappearance of the multiplicity of water levels constructing potential risk for the river and the life in the region?
Three longitudinal sections along the Nile and the shift in approach to its floods over time: from Nilometers to dams
2. The Making of a Dam.
After approaching Dr. Peter Der Manuelian, an Egyptologist at the Harvard Archaeology Department, regarding ancient representations of the Nile, we were directed towards a collection of approximately 700 high-resolution photographs taken from a U-2 reconnaissance mission in early 1958, in the aftermath of the Suez Crisis.
In reviewing the photos, we realised they were taken strategically – of parts of the Nile River below the Aswan Dam, which was then still under construction, which were of importance to U.S. intelligence at the time. By lifting and stitching the images of the river itself, we could reconstruct a geopolitical body – landing sites from World War II; planned invasion points from the Suez Crisis; the Suez Canal itself; military bases; Cairo; Lake Nasser, and so on.
Eventually, we removed even the lines of the river itself and relied on the placement of the photographs to represent this political entity. How does a river have a political voice, and are there rights and responsibilities associated? What is strategic about it and why? Was the dam as much a political project as an economic one?
Imagined flight path of the U-2 reconnaissance flight, with political cartoons representing the strategic relevance of the photographs taken at the time of the flight in 1958 (U-2 photo credit to Prof. Jason Ur, Department of Anthropology, Harvard University)
3. Fisheries Ebb and Flow.
Subsequent to the construction of the Aswan High Dam, an almost total fishery collapse occurred below the dam extending into the Nile Delta. Thirty years later, the Nile Delta and sub-dam river have seen an unexpected rise in fish production. The resurgence has been partially attributed to increased fertilizer use along the dammed river, fueled by an escalating national push for agricultural production.
Egypt’s wheat supply, in the larger geopolitical sphere, represents an extension of a decades-long national battle for self-sufficiency. As the world’s largest importer of wheat, the country developed a self-sufficiency plan in 2014 which subsequently led to intensified wheat farming along the Nile. In the post-dam era, a lack of once plentiful soil nutrients coupled with aggressive planting has led to increased fertilizer consumption which has, in turn, led to a fertilizer-fuelled reconstitution of hitherto extinct fisheries and enabled the construction of many new fisheries. Efforts to reenergize previously fertile land have created a human-abetted fish and wheat ecosystem to take the place of an ancient life cycle.
What are the implications of this synthetic system? As it continues to be affected by politically motivated economic interests, what will be the future of this anthropogenically reconstructed productive body?
(L) Productive Regions Scaled to Their Wheat Productivity (thousand tonnes) + Fertilizer Usage, (R) Fish Production By Governate, Scaled to Production + Fertilizer Usage