News / Science & Technology

Ancient Papyrus Reed Could Hold Key to Water Conservation

Restored Papyrus Swamps Can Help Fight Pollution, Conserve Wateri
X
Faiza Elmasry
July 10, 2014 5:18 PM
Papyrus is a light but strong reed that grows well in shallow, fresh water. The plant stood at the center of the ancient Egyptian civilization. It was used as paper and the reed's shape inspired the fluted columns of ancient Greece. Most of the papyrus swamps gradually disappeared from Egypt and other parts of Africa. As VOA's Faiza Elmasry discovered, though, restoring the papyrus swamps could hold the key to solve many of today’s problems, from pollution to water wars. Faith Lapidus narrates.
Faiza Elmasry

Ancient Egyptians turned papyrus into paper and provided the world with it for thousands of years. Hundreds of thousands of books in the Royal Library in Alexandria and Rome's 58 public libraries were made of papyrus, almost all of the Western world’s literature and sacred texts at the time. 

But the value of papyrus is not limited to paper. Writer and ecologist John Gaudet says ancient scholars considered it the wonder of the age. Egyptian civilization, he adds, might not have developed without papyrus.   

“In the Nile Valley, to do things on a day-to-day basis, you also had to be able to get on the water so they used to use papyrus boats," he said. "And they used papyrus boats the way people today use fiberglass. People still make them in Ethiopia so we know what they’re like.

"Then they found they could also use the boats to build the houses on. They didn’t have to build their houses on land; they could build them on water. Then they found that they could do all kinds of things with papyrus; as you can imagine, you can make baskets out of it, you can make sandals, you can make rope. They made incredible amounts of rope, they exported the rope. So even before paper came to existence, papyrus helped the ancient Egyptians get along on a day-to-day basis.”

John Gaudet walks through a papyrus swamp in Israel in 2011. (Courtesy John Gaudet)
John Gaudet walks through a papyrus swamp in Israel in 2011. (Courtesy John Gaudet)

Over the centuries, though, many papyrus swamps were drained.  Gaudet says people saw them as “wasted” spaces that could be better used for farmland or housing.  In the process, he says, an incredible natural resource was lost. In addition to the variety of items that can be manufactured from the plant, the swamps provide habitat for birds and fish, and help control pollution.

“Papyrus actually filtered sewage and runoff and silt all those years," he said. "And papyrus happens to be a very, very efficient plant in a filter swamp.”

Gaudet says papyrus - one of the fastest growing plant species on Earth - has recently started to make a comeback. He points to several projects in Egypt to restore the swamps to filter sewage.

“A lot of the scientists there, the engineers, are beginning to see the value of a filter swamp because it’s cheap. It can be put in place at all different levels," he said. "You can either have a simple swamp, you don’t touch it, you just leave the swamp and it works. Or you can have a managed system where you take a swamp, you take some concrete liners, you divert the polluted water into the swamp and you clean it up that way. So the managed system is what they’re working on now. This is the same filter swamp concept we have used in the United States." 

A man propels a papyrus boat across Lake Tana in Ethiopia, 1980. (Courtesy John Gaudet)A man propels a papyrus boat across Lake Tana in Ethiopia, 1980. (Courtesy John Gaudet)
x
A man propels a papyrus boat across Lake Tana in Ethiopia, 1980. (Courtesy John Gaudet)
A man propels a papyrus boat across Lake Tana in Ethiopia, 1980. (Courtesy John Gaudet)

In his book, Papyrus, the Plant that Changed the World, Gaudet writes that papyrus swamps may hold the key to stability in some of the most unstable regions in the world. As fresh water becomes scarcer, he says papyrus can help preserve the resource.

“People always think of the wetlands or swamps as places where water goes in and never comes out," he said. "What I’m saying here is that the water seeps into the soil and therefore recharges the system underground that you don’t see. And also the papyrus, because the heads close over and form this canopy, it creates this very humid barrier underneath. It’s great because it actually prevents water from being lost. So it’s better to have papyrus than to have an open surface like a reservoir; if you have a reservoir in an arid zone, you tend to lose a lot of water by evaporation.”

Gaudet has traveled to Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda and other places where papyrus grows. He works with water experts there, and encourages officials to preserve papyrus swamps or restore them. He says that can benefit local economies. 

“Wetlands in years to come are going to worth an awful lot of money for people in southern Sudan, throughout Sudan and central Africa and southern Africa, because it’s going to be a tourist resource, it's going to be a natural resource that they use for virtually everything, from local farming, small scale farming," he said. "They all use water from that system.”

Ecologist John Gaudet says he’s optimistic. As people rediscover the benefits of papyrus, he hopes the plant will once again flourish in the land it once ruled.

You May Like

Karzai's Legacy: Missed Opportunities?

Afghanistan's president leaves behind a much different nation than the one he inherited, yet his legacy from 13 years in power is getting mixed reviews More

Secret Service Chief Under Fire for White House Security Breach

Julia Pierson faces tough questions from lawmakers after recent intrusion at White House, says: 'It is clear that our security plan was not executed properly' More

Frustrated, Liberian Students Want Ebola Fight Role

Thousands have volunteered to go to counties, rural villages to talk to people in their language about deadly virus More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Malaysia Struggles to Stop People Joining Jihadi
X
Mahi Ramakrishnan
September 30, 2014 2:16 PM
Malaysian authorities say militant groups like the so-called "Islamic State" have used social media to entice at least three dozen Malaysian Muslims to fight in what they call "jihad" in Syria and Iraq. As Mahi Ramkrishnan reports from Kuala Lumpur, counterterrorism police are deeply worried about what could happen when these militants return home.
Video

Video Malaysia Struggles to Stop People Joining Jihad

Malaysian authorities say militant groups like the so-called "Islamic State" have used social media to entice at least three dozen Malaysian Muslims to fight in what they call "jihad" in Syria and Iraq. As Mahi Ramkrishnan reports from Kuala Lumpur, counterterrorism police are deeply worried about what could happen when these militants return home.
Video

Video Could US Have Done More to Stop Rise of Islamic State?

President Obama says airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Syria will likely continue for some time because, in his words, "there is a cancer that has grown for too long." So what if President Obama had acted sooner in Syria to arm more-moderate opponents of both the Islamic State and the Syrian government? VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports from the United Nations.
Video

Video Treasure Hunters Seek 'Hidden Treasure' in Central Kenya

Could a cave in a small village in central Kenya be the site of buried treasure? A rumor of riches, left behind by colonialists, has some residents dreaming of wealth, while others see it as a dangerous hoax. VOA's Gabe Joselow has the story.
Video

Video Iran's Rouhani Skeptical on Syria Strikes

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani expressed skepticism Friday that U.S.-led airstrikes in Iraq and Syria could crush Islamic State militants. From New York, VOA’s Margaret Besheer reports the president was also hopeful that questions about Iran’s nuclear program could be resolved soon.
Video

Video US House Speaker: Congress Should Debate Authorization Against IS

As wave after wave of U.S. airstrikes target Islamic State militants, the speaker of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives says he would be willing to call Congress back into session to debate a formal, broad authorization for the use of military force. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports from Washington, where legislators left town 10 days ago for a seven-week recess.
Video

Video Ebola Patients Find No Treatment at Sierra Leone Holding Center

At a holding facility in Makeni, central Sierra Leone, dozens of sick people sit on the floor in an empty university building. They wait in filthy conditions. It's a 16-hour drive by ambulance to Kailahun Ebola treatment center. Adam Bailes was there and reports on what he says are some of the worst situations he has seen since the beginning of this Ebola outbreak. And he says it appears case numbers may already be far worse than authorities acknowledge.
Video

Video Identifying Bodies Found in Texas Border Region

Thousands of immigrants have died after crossing the border from Mexico into remote areas of the southwestern United States in recent years. Local officials in south Texas alone have found hundreds of unidentified bodies and buried them in mass graves in local cemeteries. Now an anthropologist and her students at Baylor University have been exhuming bodies and looking for clues to identify them. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from Waco, Texas.
Video

Video Ebola Robs Liberians of Chance to Say Good-Bye to Loved Ones

In Liberia, where Ebola has killed more than 1,500 people, authorities have worked hard to convince people to allow specialized burial teams to take away dead bodies. But these safety measures, while necessary, make it hard for people to say good bye to their loved ones. VOA's Anne Look reports on the tragedy from Liberia.
Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.

AppleAndroid