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

French Refugee Drama Wins Cannes Top Prize

Dheepan is about a group of Sri Lankan refugees who pretend to be a family in order to flee their war-torn country for a housing project in France More

Photogallery Crisis in Macedonia Requires Meaningful and Swift Measures

The international community has called on Macedonian leadership to take concrete measures in support of democracy in order to exit the crisis More

Activists: IS Executes 217 Civilians, Soldiers Near Palmyra

British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights on Sunday said the victims include nurses, women, children and Syrian government fighters 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.
Female American Soldiers: Healing Through Filmmakingi
X
Bernard Shusman
May 24, 2015 2:55 PM
According to the United States Defense Department, there are more than 200-thousand women serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.  Like their male counterparts, females have experiences that can be very traumatic.  VOA's Bernard Shusman tells us about a program that is helping some American women in the military heal through filmmaking.
Video

Video Female American Soldiers: Healing Through Filmmaking

According to the United States Defense Department, there are more than 200-thousand women serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.  Like their male counterparts, females have experiences that can be very traumatic.  VOA's Bernard Shusman tells us about a program that is helping some American women in the military heal through filmmaking.
Video

Video Rolling Thunder Run Reveals Changed Attitudes Towards Vietnam War

For many US war veterans, the Memorial Day holiday is an opportunity to look back at a divisive conflict in the nation’s history and to remember those who did not make it home.
Video

Video Millions Flock to Ethiopia Polls

Millions of Ethiopians cast their votes Sunday in the first national election since the 2012 death of longtime leader Meles Zenawi. Mr. Meles' party, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, is almost certain of victory again. VOA's Anita Powell reports from Addis Ababa.
Video

Video Scientists Testing Space Propulsion by Light

Can the sun - the heart of our solar system - power a spacecraft to the edge of our solar system? The answer may come from a just-launched small satellite designed to test the efficiency of solar sail propulsion. Once deployed, its large sail will catch the so-called solar wind and slowly reach what scientists hope to be substantial speed. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video FIFA Trains Somali Referees

As stability returns to the once lawless nation of Somalia, the world football governing body, FIFA, is helping to rebuild the country’s sport sector by training referees as well as its young footballers. Abdulaziz Billow has more from Mogadishu.
Video

Video With US Child Obesity Rates on the Rise, Program Promotes Health Eating

In its fifth year, FoodCorps puts more than 180 young Americans into 500 schools across the United States, where they focus on teaching students about nutrition, engaging them with hands-on activities, and improving their access to healthy foods whether in the cafeteria or the greater community. Aru Pande has more.
Video

Video Virginia Neighborhood Draws People to Nostalgic Main Street

In the U.S., people used to grow up in small towns with a main street lined by family-owned shops and restaurants. Today, however, many main streets are worn down and empty because shoppers have been lured away by shopping malls. But in the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria, Virginia, main street is thriving. VOA’s Deborah Block reports it has a nostalgic feel with its small restaurants and unique stores.
Video

Video Effort Underway to Limit Damage from California Oil Spill

Cleanup crews are working around the clock to remove oil from the waters off the coastal city of Santa Barbara, in California. About 380,000 liters of oil may have leaked out before a rupture in an onshore, underground pipeline was discovered Tuesday. The environmental disaster hit the popular West Coast resort area before the Memorial Day weekend. VOA's Zlatica Hoke reports investigators have yet to determine what caused the incident.

VOA Blogs