Humans are not the only ones who use the force of the Nile. A few decades ago, the Anopheles mosquito entered Egypt from the South. The blood-borne parasites took advantage of the new irrigation works that helped them bridge long distance flights. They came with the dams, canals and stagnant waters. In 1942 they brought malaria down the Nile valley, killing thousands of farmers in the sugar estates. (1) If we see past human-centric visions, we have to acknowledge that indeed humans have used to force of the Nile, but so have lazy fish, suspended pollutants, ammonium nitrate, cement factories, insects, and wheat crops. The Nile has to be thought of as a hybrid interactive system that has always been at once organic, technological and social.
With the insertion of the High Dam in the watercourse, the ecology of the Nile has inevitably changed. Fish migration, formerly circulating from Ethiopia through the Mediterranean into the Atlantic and back, is interrupted by the monumental architectures. High quality species favorable to fast running waters have disappeared, instead the large lazy Tilapia is thriving. The hydraulic regime of the Nile has been altered much earlier with a series of barrages built a hundred years ago. Barrages hold back part of the water, thus raising the water line on the upper side. The energetic pressure produced by the water decline feeds irrigation canals and replaces pumping. Admittedly an ingenious invention. Yet raising the Nile depth on one side by several meters considerably reduces the velocity of flow. The occasional rapid high flows, which used to flush the Nile bed, cleaning it from all kinds of pollutants, now tend to accumulate, year after year, in all these settling tanks created by dams and watergates. Organic suspended pollutants deposit, gradually build up and change the water chemistry. As ecologist Imad explains “A river is capable of naturally purifying itself. It may be able to handle a certain amount of organic pollutants that can be degraded biologically by bacteria. But hydraulic regimes also affect the exchange of water with the atmosphere”. Due to diminished supply of oxygen that used to speed up the anaerobic decay of organic pollutants, they now turn into bio-chemical combat units infecting pools and reaching land through the millions of irrigation canals. All these changes reconfigure Egypt on a molecular level. While environmental engineers were able to have a great impact on the hydraulics of the Nile by regulating its velocity, gauge, volume and seasonal flows, the actual water quality – meaning its salinity, acidity, oxygen content, mineral composition, nutrient systems, organic pollutants, suspended particles and the silt it carries – all these vital physical properties seem to escape human control. They can only be monitored. The hydraulic regime of the Nile could be deliberately changed, not so the biological, organic and chemical composition of the water.
The entanglements described in all these narratives imply forces generated by a combination of natural, technological and social processes that brings about new realities. Altered water chemistry transforms soil quality and entire agro-ecologies, interacting with land management, peasants’ desires, urbanization processes and food supply chains. It infiltrates the human sphere through multiple venues and illicit channels. All these components neither line up in a causal chain of reactions, nor are they subject solely to an economic paradigm. They synthesize into dynamic interactive clusters, into hybrid ecologies equipped with agency, in which global organizations, desert developers and tiny pollutants unfold equally effective actions. Agency here is cut loose from its traditional humanist orbit. The project is not only critical epistemology, it is also to be understood as elementary analysis of how Egypt’s reality constitutes itself.
(1) Timothy Mitchel, Rule of Expert - Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity, University of California Press, 2002, 19-21. Chapter 3 – Can the Mosquito Speak? gives an exquisite account of the intense entanglement of the Nile river, the Anopheles mosquitos, sugar peasants, war casualties oft WW2, the provision of quinine and the salpeter mines in the Atacama Desert in Northern Chile
(2) Hydraulics Research Institute (HRI) Delta Barrage, Al Qanatr